Switchbacks on the trail and in life

I like to have two or three discrete take-away points after any adventure – a short bulleted list of things I learned or what I got out of the adventure, or how I grew or changed.

When we did Kilimanjaro, the magnitude of the trek and the mountain itself made it really hard to leave with a short list of things I learned.  The mountain was just so big and intimidating that it was hard to keep everything in mind.


Since we have gotten back from Kilimanjaro, I have managed to come up with some take-away points, but I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what that adventure was all about.

Not so with Mount Saint Helens! Saint Helens is a much more manageable adventure – much easier to keep the whole thing in mind to process.  I knew from halfway through what I was taking away from this trek.

Miraculous recovery at Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980.  Four days later, President Jimmy Carter visited the disaster zone and made some lengthy comments to the press in Portland.   I don’t know that there’s—in recorded history in our Nation, that there’s ever been a more formidable explosion. What happened apparently was a natural […]

3 things you need for a successful Kilimanjaro climb

Washingtone, our head guide at Kilimanjaro told us that three things are needed for a successful Kili climb.  These are really good pointers for any guided trek, whether you are on Kilimanjaro Tanzania or Black Creek Mississippi or anywhere in-between. Cooperation – You have to trust your guides and cooperate with them.  Sometimes it is […]

For me, at least on that particular day, Mount Saint Helens was all about two things – rebirth and switchbacks.  I have already written a couple of times about the amazing rebirth and renewal after Saint Helens blew her top.




Anyone who has done any hiking in rough terrain is intimately familiar with switchbacks.

A switchback is a trail cut diagonally across the face of a hill or mountain.  By going diagonally the incline of the trail is reduced to something that is manageable without specialty mountain climbing gear and skills.

The down-side to switchbacks is that by making your climb less steep it makes your walk much longer because you end up zigzagging back and forth instead of taking a direct route to your destination.

When we started our hike of Harry’s Ridge at Mount Saint Helens, I was amused to find that the trail starts out headed almost directly away from the mountain.  For the first quarter mile or so, the mountain is mostly behind you over your right shoulder.

So the trek to Harry’s Ridge was very indirect – a quarter mile this way, a half mile that way, zigzagging back and forth as we slowly neared the destination.  This gave me plenty of time to think about switchbacks and life.

Life is like hiking – there will be switchbacks

Sometimes you think are making great progress when your path takes a sharp turn and all of a sudden you seem to be headed directly away from where you want to end up.

What initially looks like a setback (in hiking or in life) might just be a switchback. Don’t despair, because switchbacks can look like an onerous detour when actually they are just an easier way to get to the destination.

Life is like hiking – never cut a switchback

On actual mountain trails, hikers are advised to never cut switchbacks – that is, never try to take a shortcut even if you think it would be shorter and easier.


For instance, in the above photo, from the vantage point of the photographer, the trail meanders to the right before switching back on the other side of that small rise.  It looks like it would much more direct and easier to walk along the left side of the ridge instead of to the right.

The advantage to sticking with the established trail is that it concentrates wear and damage to the already existing trail corridor.  If we were to cut a new trail along the left side of that ridge, it could create erosion problems and distribute environmental damage over a wider area.

The same applies to life also! Sometimes you might think you see a better, shorter, newer, more exciting path, but cutting a new path involves unintended consequences.  Sometimes that might be okay, but often you would be better off sticking to the established path – doing things the way thousands or millions of people have done before.

Life is like hiking – the trail has meaning

If you cut a switchback or take a shortcut – on the mountain or in life, you’ll miss the meaning of the trail.

When you stay on the trail, you see the things that the trail designers intended for you to see and you visit the places they intended for you to see.  If you take a shortcut you might discover something new and exciting but you will definitely miss out of a bunch of what your predecessors wanted you to experience.

All photography and videography courtesy of

Elise D. and Patrick Parker – The Roaming Parkers