Alli Harvey: Going up isn't easy, getting down is worse

Alli Harvey

Stories of great hikes often seem to stop on the mountaintop.

In the film version, the story ends as the camera pans out, "Sound of Music"-style, over some sweeping mountain vista to show the ant-sized trekker in the center, having finally reached her goal at the pinnacle of the mountain range above the clouds.

The story conveys the idea of accomplishment, of this journey somehow being over.

In reality, the trekker at the top turns to her companion and asks, "OK, where's the tram down?"

The uphill journey gets you only halfway.

Of course, this is something I forget every time I step outside my door to go for a hike. I'm willing to bet it's something half of Anchorage forgot over the sleepy winter, before the snow melted and revealed a bare Turnagain Arm playground. Over the past few weekends, cars have filled the lots along the Seward Highway, depositing hikers, runners, dog walkers and amblers at each of the trailheads -- people out solo with their trekking poles and hydration packs; tight pods of runners with their small water bottles jostling.

Yes, I forgot about the downhill when I parked my car first at Bird Ridge one sunny day, then at Rainbow on another and finally on the Turnagain Arm Trail for a running tour.

My legs haven't forgiven me, and that's why I've been stumbling around the office grunting every time I'm forced out of my chair or onto a staircase.

I used to wonder how anyone could ever prefer uphill to downhill. I associated going uphill with red-faced, wheezy, out-of-breath, painful, shaky, plodding misery. Downhill was gravity-assisted, floating, easy-breathing bliss, the part when all the birds came out to sing.

These days, though, my legs seem to agree more with the uphill. I find myself saying exactly the things my former self would hate hearing ("uphill over down, hands down").

I bring assists for the downhill, like trekking poles. Yes, Grandma's Little Hiking Helpers are a pair of height-adjustable sticks. For the uphill, I make them shorter so I can plant them out in front of me, and for the downhill I give myself several more centimeters to guide my lurching and falling-prone self along.

Someone told me once that trekking poles are the greatest because they make you into a four-legged animal. I can agree wholeheartedly with that for entire five minute stretches of downhill hiking, thinking "four-legged animal, four-legged animal" over and over as I plant one bionic leg in front of me at a time.

Do I give the impression I do any of the above activities with ease? No. Downhill is ruthless. As it turns out -- and let this be a public service announcement -- the glissade, "a skillful glide over snow or ice in descending a mountain" according to, is a concept that isn't as useful when you're trekking downhill over rocks.

On a particularly steep or rocky slope I often find myself pivoting sideways, taking one side step down at a time and kicking my feet in. Does this technique look beautiful? Absolutely not. Might it prevent an ugly constellation of bruises and cuts on my legs resulting from accidental scree-slope glissades? Yup.

When in doubt, "vitamin I" is also a downhill ally. I usually bring some along. Brand name, generic, old, new--ibuprofen is a best friend of mine. I don't want to give the impression that I'm crunching on the little pain-relieving pills along with my trail mix (though I do try to take it with food -- usually the old-fashioned way of eating a little and then swigging the pill back with water). I have it along in case of spills. My friends with knee issues will often pre-dose to make their downhill journey less awful.

In the end, the most helpful ally for going downhill is to have a selective memory. I need to tell myself it will be more pleasant than going uphill, because sometimes that's what pushes me onto the trail to begin with.

My memory of hikes always ends with me, that ant-sized trekker, on top of my own "Sound of Music" mountaintop. From the comfort of my couch after a hike -- with the ice packs on my bruises, the cut on my hand where I reached back to stop a fall and an increasingly loud warning from my thighs that I will pay for what I have done for the rest of the work week -- all I can think of is me with my panoramic view.

It's this kind of story that gets me outside again, plodding my way uphill to conquer a mountain, wondering why I bothered with trekking poles or that little rattling bottle of vitamin I in my backpack. It's only on the downhill that I remember they even exist and then, just as quickly, the downhill is over.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.


Daily News correspondent