The hiker's goal
Some time ago, on a reasonably challenging 5-day trail in the Pyrenees, my group encountered a dilemma.
During the first 3 days of walking, our GPS devices and maps had all been showing the same way to the day's destination.
However, on day 4, we had some divergence - we had maps showing two different routes. There was the "official" route, and a route from some AllTrails user who'd done this trail the year before.
Both routes arrived at the same destination: the last mountain shelter of the trail. However, the official route was a longer and more difficult path that wasn't, let's say, topographically efficient.
Instead of descending along a valley until a point where a single ascent would take us to the shelter, the route cut out of the valley early, ascending way beyond the shelter's altitude, and then following a rugged path of ups and downs until arrival. We estimated it would take around 3 more hours to complete than the alternative.
At this point in the hike, a lot of our clothes were wet, we had people with massive blisters, knee issues, and motivation issues too.
Yet the "dilemma" didn't last very long: we were going to follow the official route.
Despite agreeing with this decision wholeheartedly, I couldn't help but think about why we made it.
The stated purpose of this trail was to walk to all four of Andorra's staffed mountain shelters. It wasn't about the route, it was about the spirit, no?
Plus, for a hiker, deviating from an established route is, in some ways, as real as it gets. We did have a path from someone else, but this would require us to plan and analyze a route, rather than just blindly follow a path.
Not only that, it would have been a sensible decision, which is something hikers should be proud of. Stop, think, and determine how to best achieve a goal in a safe and efficient way.
And that was the crux of it: the goal. What was ours?
My vote for the "official" route had a clear reasoning: I wanted to maximize my time fully immersed in the wilderness. The alternative route would cross a few villages along the way, but the whole reason I took time off work was to get away from civilization!
For some others, the reasoning was a bit different. They appeared reluctant to deviate from this official route due to some sense of pride. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel some of this myself too.
And so, on we went. We opted for the difficult path, and arrived 12 hours later soaked and exhausted.
The next day, with no decisions to make, we followed the only available path and finished the trail happily together.
Except that's not what happened.
If this had been it, I might never have felt compelled to write about it.
What really happened is that, on day 5 - the final day - everyone else who was hiking with me quit. I walked the final 15 or so kilometers by myself, while the others hitchhiked their way out of the trail.
And still, it doesn't end there. The tourism office of Andorra gave us a little piece of paper to stamp at each of the mountain shelters. If we filled the paper up, we could get a little gift from them (this turned out to be an ugly buff).
Despite never walking the entire trail, my companions saw no issue declaring themselves to have completed it, receiving their ugly buff in celebration for their accomplishment.
And as small as this may seem, I couldn't shake it off.
The objective of the trail was to start essentially at the capital, walk to the four shelters in a loop, and come back to where we started.
And, while the group was very particular about what route we took to the shelters, completing the trail itself didn't seem that important for their sense of accomplishment. They got all the stamps after all.
More interestingly, on day 4, while we did catch rain all day, we had to walk a difficult path through a storm during the last 2 or 3 hours. Had we taken the easier route, we would have saved up our legs, missed the storm, and arrived in good time to relax and prepare for the next day.
It's entirely possible that the morale would have been significantly better and we would have finished the trail together.
There's no right or wrong here. Each person made the decision that made the most sense to them and one can only respect it.
It just really got me thinking, having done all this, what was my goal after all?