“Bushwhacking is like my third favorite thing to do in the outdoors, behind crotch-deep postholing and getting hit in the head by falling rocks,” I said, shoulder-deep in desert foliage, hands raised like a man fending off a swarm of bees, walking forward in sloppy, almost-balanced steps.
I am not a fan of bushwhacking, but somehow practice it more often than things I like to do. Often by accident. It often begins with the utterance of the phrase, “The directions say ‘Find the faint climbers’ trail …’” Perhaps you have had a similar experience while hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, canyoneering: ducking, pushing branches aside with your hands, dead limbs tearing at your clothes and catching your backpack straps, thorns scratching exposed skin, pushing through thick vegetation in hopes of finding open terrain in a few feet. You know, fun.
Bushwhacking, although probably no one’s preferred method of backcountry travel, is a necessary skill, and not even so much a skill as a way of thinking. You are not doing it so much as you are withstanding it. Attitude is important. It is OK to hate it, and it is OK to love it — although if you say you love it, 100% of people will ask you what the hell is wrong with you, which is correct.
There are a couple things I like to remember about bushwhacking, which make it at least tolerable to do, and sometimes funny to reflect on weeks afterward, long after the scratches on your legs and arms have healed:
Bushwhacking is still exercise, and therefore at the end of the day, you can still drink as much beer and eat as much food as you want. Maybe you never made it to the climb you wanted to do, or alpine lake you wanted to sit next to and enjoy a pimiento sandwich with your toes in the cool water — who cares? You battled vegetation, pushing forward in a sometimes foolishly uphill direction, for minutes, even hours. You will have the bacon cheeseburger, fries, and two IPAs, both brought to the table now, thank you. I have spent entire days bushwhacking, completely unable to find a ridge on a peak or a rock formation in the forest. It was dumb, but it was still physical activity.
You are never “lost.” Just as your father, never lost on a family road trip, refusing to stop and ask for directions, you will find your way. Pick a direction and follow it. It will lead to something — a stream, a trail, a lake, a high point from which you can see the surrounding terrain, or sometimes, another hour of bushwhacking, which can be very Zen if you approach it with the right attitude. You will eventually find some feature you can identify on a map. Oh, do you not have a map? Sorry, you actually might be lost.
There is no style to bushwhacking. It’s like postholing, or shoveling dirt. No one will make a four-minute film about your bushwhack for the Banff Mountain Film Festival. No one will stand behind you and give you beta and cheer you on, “Yeah Bob, grab that branch, drop your right knee, step up …” Just get in that shit and start pushing.
When you put your helmet on, real bushwhacking begins. Pretty simple rule here. If you are bushwhacking through thick foliage and you have a climbing helmet in or on your backpack instead of on your head, you are half-assing it. With a helmet on, you gain a third more brute force. It’s like those old snowplows they used to put on train engines. A hard shell on your head beats that soft flesh on your arms any day. Put your head down and go for it.
Vegetation is not quite your friend, not quite your enemy. You will sometimes grab branches to pull yourself uphill, hold them to lower yourself down gullies, and hang on for balance. Sometimes they will hit you in the face. You will pull thorns out of your hands and thighs. You will accidentally break branches, and other branches will repeatedly untie your shoelaces. Do not show remorse or fear. Plants can smell weakness, and they will team up on you like an NFL defensive line until they bring you down. You are better than them. That is why we have a dish called “salad.”