This article was written by Muley Freak team member Tyler Okamura who is now a 3 time survivor of the Death Hike.

Death Hike from Hell

The Death Hike.  It pretty much is what it sounds like.  It’s grueling, painful, exhausting, full of injuries and sometimes mental torture.

Two years ago I was invited on the Exo Mountain Gear Death Hike. The first year we flew into the Frank Church Wilderness, hiked 40 miles and gained 12,000 feet of elevation in 34 hours. The second year we did 40 miles and about 8,000 feet of elevation gain in 29 hours. As much as these hikes sound like hell they were a walk in the park compared to what we had planned for this year.  We wanted to take it to the next level, a real Death Hike from hell. The plan was a route through the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho. We planned 100 miles and around 20,000 feet in elevation gain over the route, and to do it under 72 hours.  We did reach our goal and ultimately ended up hiking 92 miles in 62 hours.

After taking on a challenge like this, it would be a mistake not to reflect and look at some of the lessons learned. Here are the 4 critical lessons learned after going through 3 death hikes; 1) not only is hydrating and eating a must but doing it right is critical, 2) take care of your body now and watch for signs of its limitations, 3) lightweight gear is a necessity and using it efficiently is important, 4) and lastly, the power of mental fortitude and strength.

  • Not only is hydrating and eating a must but doing it right is critical

When you’re demanding that much physical exertion from your body it’s imperative that you fuel it. It was very apparent when I had the proper nutrition and when I was lacking. In prior years, I focused on lightweight foods made up of mainly protein bars which by the end I couldn’t even choke down. This go round, I packed things like Little Debbie fudge rounds, double stuffed oreos, energy chews, cheez its, pretzels, dehydrated mangos, and ranch tuna wraps.  I supplemented this with a few bars like the Wilderness Athlete Re-fuel bar. It may have been a little heavier but whenever it was time to eat I was ready to dive in and I was able to sustain my energy to pack a slightly heavier pack. On a hike of this magnitude and length it’s important to want to eat so you get the fuel needed.  Not liking your food might mean not eating enough.

rebar

I would say it’s almost impossible to drink too much water on a death hike. Just don’t drink too much at one time that you get a gut ache and it’s sloshing around in your stomach. Endurolyte tablets helped.  I took them every 3-4 hours and made sure I was eating foods high in sodium. I also drank a “Superman” (Wilderness Athlete Energy Focus and Hydrate Recover mixed together) first thing every morning and one in the afternoon. Every night I took a double WA Hydrate Recover right before bed. Not sure a double was necessary but I wasn’t going to let hydration be the reason I had to bow out of the hike like others have had to do.

hydrate

A Wilderness Athlete Superman of Hydrate Recover and Energy Focus was money on the death hike.

  • Take care of your body now and watch for signs of its limitations

On these grueling hikes, one of the most important things I have learned are the weaknesses of my body. There are a few areas that seem to give me trouble when I start hiking that kind of distance. I wouldn’t have known about these areas if it weren’t for the death hike. For example, last year I had a lot of pain due to my hip flexors tightening up on me. The repetitive motion of stretching and flexing for that many miles made it so I was only able to take steps half as big as I normally would. Because this happened last year I made sure I focused on strengthening my hip flexors in my training. To my surprise, on this year’s hike, that was more than twice as far, I had zero issues with my hip flexors. Now I know what to focus on in my training to prepare myself for hunting season and avoid any setbacks on my hunts.

To go along with that, another lesson was to take care of any problems as soon as they came up in order to keep them from getting worse. The two that I dealt with on this years hike were blisters and the infamous “monkey butt”.  If your a backcountry hunter you know what this monkey butt is.  Take the time to prevent injury or discomfort so you can focus all of your attention on the hunt and they don’t turn into serious problems.

As gross as it may seem this was one of the less minor foot problems on the trip. Several toenails were lost, feet bloody, battered and blistered. As soon as a hot spot on your foot started you should absolutely take care of it now instead of later.

As gross as as this photo is, this was one of the minor foot problems on the trip. Several toenails were lost, feet bloody, battered and blistered. As soon as a hot spot on your foot started you should absolutely take care of it now instead of later.

  • Lightweight gear is a necessity and using it efficiently is important
ee-bivy

Quilt/bivy/sleeping pad combo was super light for the 92 mile trek.

I know it almost goes without saying but lightweight gear is invaluable. When hiking 100 miles you start to notice even the smallest weight change in your pack. A popular sleeping system on the death hike was the Enlightened Equipment quilt and bivy. This quilt paired up with a lightweight pad and you have a sleep system just over two pounds!

Another great way I’ve found to cut weight in my pack is to remove any items deemed as “just in case” items.  Very seldom do they get used. We were always trying to be on the move and spend as little time resting as possible. I learned to pack my pack with a purpose and be dialed with my gear so I could actually rest during our breaks instead of spending extra time filtering water or trying to find items in my pack.

With this many miles having lightweight footwear is a must. These Altra trail shoes are super light and great for trails.

With this many miles having lightweight footwear is a must. These Altra trail shoes are super light and great for trails.

  • The power of mental fortitude and strength

More important than any other lesson from the death hike was the power of mental aptitude and how our state of mind and physical abilities are intertwined. For some guys this hike wasn’t too big of deal, while for others it was a life changing experience. At one point or another I’m everyone struggled. Some of the guys definitely struggled more than others and I think for them this hike proved to be more valuable. When you hike that many miles in that short of time your body is going to suffer. The only question was, do you have the will power to keep pushing and keep putting one foot in front of the other? A number of guys lost toenails and had blisters encasing their feet, so bad that they could barely walk for the last 10 miles of the hike. Any normal person might think this is insane to put your body through this kind of pain but there really is a ton of value in pushing your body to its limits. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable (or even miserable) is some of the best advice I could give any hunter and this hike was a great opportunity to put that to the test.

acent

Finding comfort in misery, as strange as that sounds, can push you through any struggle and put you ahead of the pack.

On the morning of day three I was at my lowest point. Everything was tight, my knees hurt, both my achilles were tight, the blisters on the bottom of my feet had just popped and we were off trail on an ascent to 10,200 feet. Every step hurt and I was complaining the whole morning but after another 4-5 miles I was able to change my mindset and the pain seemed to lessen. By the last 10 miles of the day I felt better than I had the entire previous day and that whole morning. The route only ended up being 92 miles but that last 8 to get to 100 wouldn’t have made a difference in my mind. Everyone that finished was set on making it to the end and had the will power to hike another 20 plus miles if they had to.

Go Through Hell and Conquer the World

We all came off the mountain that day thinking we could take on anything and conquer any mountain. Nothing was, and is, out of reach for us now, whether it’s on or off the mountain.  That’s another thing this death hike did, it built mental fortitude, giving us the feeling we could take on the world. I know everyone there who conquered the death hike will go into the coming backcountry hunting season with more confidence physically and mentally to do whatever it takes to fill the freezer.

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