Archive for the ‘Hiking’ Category.

Hiking and Software Development

I Like to Hike

I like to hike.  I hike whenever I can.  I prefer the trails and paths and wilderness, but I’ll hike on the roads and streets when I have no other option.  There is not much real wilderness around where I live anymore, but there are a lot of places that are remote enough that they seem wild.  Good enough for me.

I was out hiking today on the Coast to Crest Trail with my wife and our dog.  I’ll call him Rex, but that is not his real name (he’s asked me not to use his real name).  Rex is a great hiker, and at 9 years old he is still anxious to get out on the trail and can out-hike most.

We got about a mile up a pretty steep trail and Rex started favoring his left hind leg.  We’re not sure what happened, and he wouldn’t tell us.  We suspect he was bitten by a red ant since we couldn’t find a thorn or a cut or any other obvious issue – but we did notice a bunch of red ants on the trail.  Whatever it was, we decided to turn back and call off the hike while Rex was still in good enough shape to hike himself out of there.  Rex weighs about 45 pounds, and if he couldn’t make it under his own power I’d have to carry him.  I could probably handle it – but it would be very slow going.  Also, the whining and complaining is something neither my wife nor Rex would care to put up with.

As we headed back down the trail, I was thinking of other hiking I have done, and the risks and possible trouble you can get into out on a hike,  which eventually reminded me of a saying they have at the Grand Canyon:

Hiking the Grand Canyon: Getting to the Bottom – Optional. Getting Back to the Top – Mandatory

I’ve hiked in the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back out four times, including a “rim to rim” from the North Rim down to the Phantom Ranch and the River then up to the South Rim.  It is a lot of fun, and even though there are a lot of hikers out on those trails, it’s not hard to get a sense of wildenerss in that spectacular setting.  Some trails are lightly traveled and you can get very remote and lonely if you like.

These Grand Canyon hikes are “backwards” compared to most I’ve done – typically, we start at the bottom of some mountain and hike up – and once all the hard uphill work is done, we can come back in a relatively easier downhill mode.  At the Grand Canyon, we start at the top and hike down and take pride in our tremendous pace.  When it is time to return, it is all uphill and we start to remember how “pride cometh before a long trudge up”.  That is the way they built the place.

From the top of the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim you can see many of the fabled milestones and exotic destinations such as the Mile-and-a-half Rest House, the Three Mile Rest House, Indian Gardens, Plateau Point, and the Colorado River itself – you can even see the Phantom Ranch from some viewing areas.

All these interesting and enticing places don’t look all that far away. They seem very close, and they are if you are a crow.  But this is deceptive – the distance for the non-crow hiker is greatly extended due to the long grades and switchbacks necessary to make the trail possible to hike.  Things that look close are many trail miles away.

I’ve seen a lot of casual hikers sprightly scamper down the first two or three miles (or more) thinking it’s an easy hike, only to find it takes a great deal more time and effort to hike back out again once they turn around and head back to the rim.  Especailly if you are wearing flip-flops or other inappropriate footwear.  And worse things can happen.  On one trip I met a man near the river (met is a bit of a lie.  He was lying on his back in the middle of the trail almost unconscious.  It was more like “stumbled upon” than “met”).  He was suffering from euvolemic hyponatremia (look it up).  At least that is what I think he was suffering from.  Anyway – he was suffering.  He should not have been down there.  We helped him with some electrolytes and salty snacks and then helped him slowly make the couple of remaining miles to the Phantom Ranch. He recovered, but had a hard several days.  As a side note he was hiking with his ex-wife.  Now THAT is interesting.

Another trick of the Canyon is that as you hike down, the temperature increases.  At the rim where it might be 65 degrees on the very same day it can be 100+ degrees at the river.  (On one day I was there it was 120f at the river and 70f at the rim.  Dang! ).   What starts out as a pleasant, cool, and easy down-hill hike turns into a stressful, hot, dry, and very lengthy up-hill trudge.  Once you have used up your water, water starts to seem more important to you.  And don’t forget the electrolytes (remember the euvolemic hyponatremia?)

There are about 400 rescues per year in the Canyon (not all are hikers, but a lot are), and they only do rescues for the really critical cases such as heat stroke, serious injuries, and other medical emergencies – a lot of hikers get rescued by other hikers who share their water, food, gear, time , and electrolytes.

The “backwards” nature of the hike (Down then Up, Cool then Hot, Seemingly Short, Actually Long, Easy then Hard) lulls hikers into going too far down the trail.  It all seems so easy and fun at first.  By the time you discover how HARD hiking back out is, you’ve already used up all your food, water, energy, happiness, and other resources.  You’ve spent everything and now comes the real work – hiking up and out of the Canyon in the heat.  And oddly, the distances are even longer hiking up than hiking down.  Funny how that works.

The reason to hike in the Grand Canyon (or anywhere) is slightly different for each hiker: Recreation, fitness, adventure, or whatever – [Note: in the world I live in we rarely hike out of necessity anymore.]  In the Canyon, a lot of people also have a goal to get to one or more of the milestones or well known points of interest, or all the way to the river.  But the real goal for every hiker has to be to get out alive and in reasonably good condition (aches and pains are acceptable, I suppose, but dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and alarming leg swelling aren’t so nice) .  Getting out is Mandatory – All other goals are optional.  They have warning signs all over the place at the Canyon about the risk of misjuding your skill, ability, and the difficulty of the environment.  Still, many hikers end up in trouble.

What The Heck Does This Have To Do With Software Development???

You probably hoped I would forget to drag Software Development into this post, but…sorry.  Here goes.

I’ve seen this same basic scenario in Software Development.  The goal, the abilities of the organization, the apparent short distance to enticing and desirable “points of interest”, and the risks are all often misunderstood.  All the available money, time, and effort have often been expended by the time the real work of coding/testing/deploying begins and we realize how difficult everything is and how far we’ve gone down a winding, narrow trail we can no longer get back up.  And even worse, we have nothing useful to show for it except documents, diagrams, designs, and some code that can’t climb out of the test-and-fix cycle.  Whew.  Glad that is over.  Now – your assignment – go back over this post and equate all that stuff about hiking to some software development effort you have worked on.

I’ve seen and heard about a LOT of backwards, risky, hot, long, painful, death march trudges – Lucky for me I have worked on only a few of them.  Just remember – there is a way to work that isn’t backwards.  Let’s do that instead.

This turned into a long post. I think the corollaries are obvious.  Maybe they aren’t.  Maybe I am just full of it.

So, have a good night.  Tomorrow go do something fun – and stop wasting your time reading stuff on the Internet.  Go out hiking instead.  And by the way – hiking the Grand Canyon is FANTASTIC.  I recommend it to anyone still healthy enough to get out and hike – thousands of people hike the Canyon each year without problem.  Bring some electrolytes or at least some salty peanuts and cheese crackers or something.