Brian Higgins: Utah, it’s OK to go outside without winning

Maybe for summer 2024 we can all take a little break from the Big Cottonwood big timing and Grandeur Peak grandstanding.

My girlfriend and I recently went on a hike to Lower Bells Falls in Bells Canyon. I’m clarifying that it was Lower Bells Falls, because it’s apparently a very important distinction. We’re both in OK shape, aspiring to good shape. (Catch up with us in the fall.) On the steep final climb towards the falls, we were feeling particularly t̶i̶r̶e̶d̶ generous, stopping to let nearly every down-hiker pass, even though I’m pretty sure the opposite way is correct. We’re just that nice.

As we stopped to let a pair of hiker bros through, we caught our breath and downed some water. They did the same.

“Tough one,” I said. “Ya,” one hiker bro replied, giving us a look that said he agreed. That’s the kind of moment you love to have on the trail. There’s just nothing like bonding with an aching stranger in the woods who was also foolish enough to do this on purpose. And in Utah, where everyone is more chiseled than a D.I. Jesus painting, it was refreshing to admit that I was tired to someone who understood.

Thankfully, the Great Spirit of Competitive Utah Outdoorsiness quickly swooped in to save us from almost certain human connection.

“Ya, we just got down from the Upper Falls,” he quickly added. “Super snowy up there. Like, 10 miles total? Really earning it today.” Phew, that was close. For a minute, I thought he was tired on a silly little 5-mile, 1,500-foot elevation gain hike, like some kind of beta. But rest assured, it was a 10-mile, 4,200-foot elevation gain hike. That’s the kind of hike it’s OK to be tired from. But just barely, and only for a little bit.

I moved to Utah eight years ago to ski and be in the mountains. And as I drove across the country, dreaming of snow-capped peaks and powder runs, John Denver blaring in my 2005 Buick LaCrosse (a certified mountain car), I never considered that just “being” in the mountains wouldn’t be enough.

You have to win at mountains.

Since then, I’ve watched friends scramble to justify why they spent a long weekend in their apartment instead of a tent. I’ve seen people turn down their noses at those of us who indulge in the hedonistic luxury of chairlifts (#EarnYourTurnsBro). More times than I can count, I’ve seen skiers, mountain bikers and climbers size each other up like mating peacocks with Gore-Tex feathers.

The tendency to outdo each other in the Wasatch is real, and it’s a real bummer, because we forget that it’s a privilege to just be in the mountains. However you choose to move (or lounge) in the outdoors, you do what you love simply because you love it.

But wait a minute — other people might love it more than you! You love to climb? Well, they’re climbing harder routes, using equipment you’ve never even heard of. Meanwhile, you’re bouldering, mostly in the gym and only outside on the weekends. You love to climb? Well, it doesn’t look that way from where they’re standing. Which is higher than you, by the way.

It’s easy to understand where all this is coming from. With the best of nearly every sport available at our doorsteps, it’s tempting to feel self conscious about not doing enough of it. And with the physical embodiment of what we could be doing on every Instagram and Strava feed, our activity level can seem “less than,” even if it’s pretty dang high.

Take hiking, for example. Some of the most incredible treks in the West are within a few hours of downtown SLC. You could be having your breath taken away by the views atop Mount Timpanogos right now. You could be in a freaking national park.

But you could also walk around Liberty Park. Or read a book on your front porch. Believe it or not, both of those things are outside, too. You’ll just have to accept that your neighbor will suddenly become a speed walker, or pop by to tell you why your interpretation of that book is misguided.

I’m tired of this attitude, and not just because I’m usually the one getting one-upped. Deep down, I think the self-conscious one-uppers are tired of it, too. Meanwhile, Utah women on dating apps are probably all in physical therapy from the excessive amounts of polite nodding they’re doing.

Maybe for summer 2024 we can all take a little break from the Big Cottonwood big timing and Grandeur Peak grandstanding. Let’s just do whatever we actually want to do outside — nothing more, nothing less.

If you want to go backpacking, giddy yap. But if you want to go car camping instead, that’s fine, too. Because the person who tells you that’s not real camping probably needs a dose of wilderness therapy.

(Photo courtesy of Brian Higgins) Brian Higgins

Brian Higgins is a writer and comedian in Salt Lake City.

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