Monkey Feet

It all started on the hike to Grinnell Glacier in Montanna.  Pat and I were working our way up the mountain trail with me in my hiking boots that felt like giant led-filled balloons when we passed a couple on their way back down.  They looked impossibly fresh.  They weren’t limping.  They looked relaxed and comfortable.  As I looked down to find footing, I noticed their feet.  Low and behold, they were wearing fivefingers shoes.  I had heard of fivefingers before, but it hadn’t occurred to me people would wear them on the trail.

After limping our way back at the end of the hike with me barely able to put weight on my knees and hips, I found myself wanting to try fivefinger shoes.

When we got home, I bought a pair like the ones we saw on the trail–black neoprene.  Although I didn’t give them a true trail test for many months, they turned out to be a miracle on the treadmill.  My knees and hips felt better than they’d felt in years after the initial adjustment period.

There definitely is an adjustment period!  A whole bunch of tiny muscles in my feet and ankles had to be reborn and developed before I could walk as fast or as far as I had been walking.  But, once I’d adjusted my stride and footfall and developed weakened muscles, I was pretty sure I could walk forever without getting the shooting pains I’d become accustomed to.

Alas, the neoprene was hot.  It was hot indoors and hot in the fall and spring, but not warm enough for the colder temperatures I’d hoped to wear them in.  That led to the trekking pair.  They have a mesh weave that breathes.  Unfortunately, they weren’t made to be drug across the ground on their tops, which is exactly what happens when one is learning to hang glide, resulting in excess wear and tear.  My feet also do not like the tread on those shoes.  If I walk on hard surfaces in them, I get blisters on my big toes.

This led to the much softer and cushier black and gray pair, which I love.  However, they are a little too soft for the trail, which brings us to the orange pair.  They are supposed to have some extra support to protect against rocks.  I’m testing them tomorrow for the first time on the trail.

There are definitely tradeoffs.  Kicking a rock or stepping on something sharp feels a lot different (and not good!) in fivefinger shoes than in hiking boots.   They are also not good in cold and/or wet conditions.  My feet turned to blocks of ice on a short 2 mile walk that started off slogging through mud last November.  I was glad I’d brought my boots for the longer hike we did right after that.  For this reason, I bought a new pair of boots, too, much lighter than my previous pair.  I wish I didn’t need them.

The Long Walk Home

We decided we had to hike the Grinnell Glacier trail while we were in Glacier National Park in 2010.  However, given that we weren’t exactly in top hiking condition and the trail gains 1600 feet in about 3 miles, we thought we’d better take a short cut by taking the Glacier boat across Josephine Lake, cutting a little over a mile and a half off the total distance.  While the part we skipped was a flat, easy hike, I knew my knees would thank me by the time we descended the 1600 feet on our way back.

We made our way gradually up the trail.  Pat hiked in rubber boots he’d bought at the Indian Trading Post the day before.  He was wearing these boots because, for whatever reason, he hadn’t packed his hiking boots and the sudden fall of about 5 inches of snow made his running shoes impractical for hiking.  So, we’d taken a detour to the trading post and gotten him some socks and muck boots.  He said they were the most comfortable boots he’d ever hiked in.

My boots were not feeling so comfortable.  In fact, they were feeling a lot like lead weights designed for use when you need to drown someone and concrete isn’t readily available.  But, the scenery was so beautiful, it was easy to ignore my boots on the way up.

As we hiked, the sun came out, the temperature rose, the snow melted, and we worked up a sweat.  Pat stripped down to a cotton T-shirt (don’t get me started on cotton on the trail!) and shorts.  But as we made our way up higher, the temperature dropped, the wind became fierce, and the ground was once more snow covered.

People coming down the trail gave Pat looks as the passed us in fully zipped winter shells with hoods up.  I stopped to pull out my warm winter hat, put on mittens, and add a fleece under my rain jacket.  Pat kept putting off adding more layers.

When we reached the top of the trail, the wind was so strong, I had to brace myself against it to keep from losing my balance.  Pat finally pulled on a jacket.  We didn’t spend a lot of time at the top because of the bitter cold, but the entire hike was so spectacular, we didn’t feel cheated.

We had to make double-time on the way back down to catch the last boat back to the hotel.  This downhill trek was the first time I ever experienced sharp stabs of pain in my knees with every step.  By the time we got to the ferry, I could barely walk.  This was our 4th hike in 3 days (and, more problematically, also our 4th hike in about 3 months).  I would not have made it without my trekking poles.

In spite of the sore knees (which did heal for the most part), this was one of my all-time favorite hikes.