Setting the right pace is easiest when I’m by myself. Initially when I leave the parking lot, my heart rate is at a slow resting rate. Then as I take my first few steps, the excitement of heading out into the backcountry elevates by heart rate as I breathe deeply.
Most every mountain trail starts with an uphill right off the bat. Seemingly only moments ago my heart rate was fine, but now is thundering in my ears. This is when the light bulb goes off in my head and I ask myself, “What is the right pace?”
At this point I pull back on the throttle to a point where I can walk and talk. Choosing a sustainable pace takes into account how long the climb is both vertically and in length. For instance let’s say the climb is two miles with 1000 feet of vertical gain. An athletic person can make this climb in one hour of steady hiking.
But what if your destination is way out there five miles, and 4000 vertical feet? Now even most athletic people can’t sustain 1000 feet per hour of climbing for four hours straight. Plus, are you breaking trail or route finding along the way? Do you need to stop for an energy-sustaining snack? These variables may force a climb to go slower still.
So the answer to setting the right pace is connected to how long do I need to sustain the pace? For the long 4000 foot climb, I’d set the pace at a rate that I could sustain in theory for five hours without stopping.
Like climbing over a long mountain pass in your car, it is most efficient to gear down and have the throttle at a moderate rate, and your overall speed slow but steady.
Now enter group dynamics into setting the right pace. Assuming that the goal is for everyone to have fun, and the group wants to stay together, the sustainable pace is based on the person with the least aerobic capacity. This difference can be evened out by stronger members carrying more weight in their packs, while keeping those with lesser abilities light.
Setting the right pace requires constant adjustments as terrain and conditions change. For instance, the air gets thinner as we reach higher elevations, or we may encounter deep snow or drifts.
If a pace seems too fast, I tell myself to dial the pace back by 10%. If it’s still too fast I drop the pace by another 10%. I do this until I can sustain that pace for as many hours as the climb takes.
Keep in mind that starting and stopping over and over is the most difficult way to climb. This is because with each stop the heart rate goes back to resting, and then upon re-starting the heart rate spikes again. Bring this counter-productive cycle to an end by setting a pace where everyone can walk and talk. Once this pace is mastered the speed can be increased from there.
Backcountry outings are the most fun and safe when all of the party members are happy, glowing and vibrant upon reaching the top of the climb. Setting a reasonable and comfortable pace enables everyone to enjoy the experience of the journey.