When we last left off it was the halfway point of our NOLS expedition. The group was camped just a few miles outside Yellowstone proper, enjoying a layover day before heading off again. Soon we would be travelling independent of our instructors & were excited to prove ourselves.
Our packs were heavy again with new food & it was time to head out for our first 12 mile day. The theme of constant evolution was going strong, as we we students were taking on more responsibility & the instructors less guidance. They began hanging back during hikes, encouraging us to make all of the necessary decisions about our route & the day's group. If we missed an important turnoff on the trail we would continue oblivious in the wrong direction until we figured it out. Soon we'd be travelling independently during the day, so more diligence was to be done the night before each hike. The Designated Leaders for each day were also tasked with writing out detailed route plans by phases including general direction, elevation gain/loss, maps used, alternate routes and the objective/subjective hazards we may face.
In addition to our new hiking homework, we were each teaching two classes; one a general WFR subject not yet covered & the second a passion class of our own choosing. It remember feeling so overwhelmed with the physicality of what we were doing + the coursework that it felt like college in the woods. My overarching goal for the second half of this expedition was to take care of myself & to do really the damn thing.
Feedback is a gift
Building on our foundations of expedition behavior, self care, etc, our next biggest skill to work on was the art of feedback. Whether getting or giving, NOLS highly values feeback & views this as a gift to further enhance the growth mindset you are hopefully already radiating. We were asked for feedback throughout the entire course & afterwards too. We discussed some principles of how to better give or receive information across the interpersongal gap that we as humans usually have between us. I found these extremely valuable for daily life.
When giving feedback
- Be timely about it (ideally)
- Be specific
- Focus on the behavior that affected you
- The impact it had
- A suggestion for the future
When receiving feedback
- Listen actively & feel for the honorable intent
- Ask clarifying questions
- Say "thank you"
- Avoid justifying or explaining
- No arguing
- No sunglasses!
We were giving and receiving feedback on a regular basis now & though it wasn't always graceful, it was integral that we try to remember the humanity in each other. We were living together 24/7 & starting to wear on each other, yet there were also some really amazing qualities that came out in people when times got tough. And soon we would be experiencing these moments firsthand.
A Complicated Relationship with the Subalpine
Finally it was time for our travelling village to ascend to some higher elevations, between the 9-11,000 ft range. The more we climbed, the more I loved the weather and the flora around us. The terrain was wide open & there were less trees, so our group could be a little less on-edge about bears. We layered up as we went to bed and woke up to frost in the mornings & then layered back down for the intense UV rays during the day's travel. The trees were smaller & the lichen was brighter, sometimes just living unattached to anything. Oh and the snow! My coursemates from the PNW were used to these things, but I was incredulous at how a snow patch was surviving in the mid 70's weather, slowly melting & providing sustenance for the surrounding wildflowers & montane forests below. It was gorgeous!
One day towards the end of a long session of up+down+up+down over mountains, we spotted two large grizzly bears foraging near a lake about 300yds away. They were so huge I had thought they were trees until they moved & Kallye got out her binoculars. Despite all of the scat we had been seeing, we had not been making our bear calls since the landscape was so open. We watched the unaware bears forage around for a few moments & booked it quietly in the opposite direction towards our camp. That was exactly how I had hoped to see them, far away & doing their own thing.
Despite all of this raw beauty around us the altitude was basically kicking my butt. The air was so dry that we would develop cracks on our hands & would need to sleep with antibiotic ointment + gloves to keep them from getting worse. Uphill travel with a 40-50lb pack was already slow & now I was having to take more breaks to just breathe. Soon I would begin to wake up at night feeling out of breath & really had to focus on doing box breathing. Inhale 1..2..3..4. Hold 1..2...ugh i cant anymore. Exhale 1..2..3..4. Hold 1..2..3...oh god I need air. It was difficult, but thankfully I wasn't the only sea-level dweller struggling with this.
Cresent Peak Day
Soon we were spending full days on our own as hiking groups & meeting up at night with the larger team for camp. All navigation was being done with compasses, maps & a basic GPS unit to confirm our UTM's as needed. A big thing to consider during travel was if someone got hurt or we weren't going to make it to the day's X before dark, we would need to decide if camping elsewhere was appropriate. Though this did not happen, we were faced with a few brief moments (at least my hiking groups did) of this thought process. The days really were getting harder as we went on & the day we summited Mount Crescent would prove to be one of the hardest.
We awoke at 4am to the most brilliant inky black sky full of stars. It was summit day & we needed an alpine start in order to reach the peak well before any afternoon thunderstorms could brew. There was a buzz in the dark that morning as everyone quickly packed & made breakfast, feeling confident about our 8mi route.
The hike began following a ridge, with Crescent peeking at us in the distance. We were energetic, singing & chatting about our home lives per usual. Then came a crumbly scree climb & it really shook us. One member of my group was immediatly freaked out by the class 3 terrain, and another had a panic attack that required immediate attention. As a larger team we had recently discussed what the different grades of climbs were, but not much on how to safely traverse them. Once that tricky climb was finished, we continued on, working together to watch out for one another. We could see the instructor team already way up on the peak, probably playing yhatzee & baking brownies. We slowly climbed the back side of the mountain, a tower of talus rock interspersed with neon yellow lichen & pikas chirping around us. By this point every other team was at the peak, patiently waiting for us. We eventually reached the top of this 11,200ft mammoth, feeling spent. What began as an exciting morning had over 4 hours reduced into a feeling of requirement, as in I just had to smile & congratulate my coursemates with a few high fives + group pics.
Looking back on summiting that peak felt a lot like an average day experiencing depression; you just have to put on your happy face and go through the motions, hoping that the feelings will eventually follow. You worked hard for this & now you could not care less. We ate snacks for a quick ten minutes & took in the panoramic view around us. The distant Tetons & the massive gorges skirted by snowy ridges. It should have felt so special, but it didnt. I sat by myself & cried, wondering what my problem was. The other teams began to descend as nearing storms moved towards our mountain. My team gathered back up & discussed our route. It should be simple, we would follow the ridgeline to a certain point, descend to a lower elevation, skirt around the south side of the mountain, traverse yet another ridgeline & then follow a drainage down 1k ft back into the forest to our day's X. Easy, right?
We scouted out our path down giant scree field after moderately giant scree field, trying not to slide & trigger a rock fall. The realization of just how far we were from "help" was pretty undeniable. Our group was getting tired & moving even slower and taking more breaks. A few hours later we discovered that we were in a less than ideal location. On the map it looked doable, yet in person the terrain was not going to work for human feet. In order to get to the side of this mountain we needed to be on, we'd have to climb back up the steep ridge we basically just descended & continue in our intended direction. To do this we would need to traverse another steep scree covered mountainside. It would be tricky on tired legs.
Imagine being a few hundred feet above a small cliffside lake that drains off into a forest 1,000ft below. Above you is a tower of rock, featuring more chirping pikas & a marmot watching suspiciously. I am not typically freaked out by heights, but this spot was unnerving. I started climbing cautiously, with my friends following, staying low & going slow. It was working pretty well until the more stable rocks gave way to fine gravel. This was the first & would thankfully be the only time I felt unsafe on this expedition. My perception of risk just elevated & it became overwhelming. I paused & thought of my partner as I stared down the steep slope into the lake & out off the cliff to the tiny trees way below. What if we dont make this? What if I slip and start to roll? My knees can't support this giant pack in a squat for much longer. Well, at least I'd fall into the lake way before the cliff. Should we just camp down there for the night? Is the storm coming any closer to us?
All of these thoughts shot through my mind simultaneously & I called back to my friends that I couldn't confidently go any farther on this route. They listened & we began to slowly descend down towards the lake. Scooting down on my butt at this point, I tried to regain my calm & suddenly saw a pattern in the rocks. IT WAS A TRAIL. We cheered at this magic trail & trusted that it would take us off & away from Mount Cresent & it actually did. We began eating our candy stash in desperation for the energy to continue on. We still had a good 3 miles to go, but at least the storm was keeping away. At this point I was so tired & defeated. I couldn't help make decisions & wasn't being positive anymore. This would come to be my biggest regret of that day, as I wasn't contributing to the morale of our group in hard times. We eventually found our drainage & descended 1k ft back into the forest & towards camp, wandering in just before dark. Totally debased. We felt embarassed when we reached the rest of the team & wanted to pretend that the day was just fine. That we were also just fine. I couldn't face our team yet, so settled near the kitchen with my back to everyone, crying & excavating the food from my pack.
People from the other groups immediately took our tent & sleep stuff off to set up, donated easy to cook food, and helped make us hot drinks. It was SO nice being told "sit down, we'll take care of it", so I did. Chris made us ramen, despite sustaining a fall up on the mountain & was posted up with his own injuries, still cooking us dinner. I inhaled that ramen, happy to feel the hot liquid distract from the pain in my knees. We debriefed the day with an instructor, discussing what happened & how we dealt with it. Honestly, there were no "bad" decisions made. As a group we chose a viable route on paper that turned out to really test our physical and emotional strength as a group. We could have stopped at any point & camped separately from the main camp, but we pushed on & accepted the risk of travelling while exhausted. That night I had a dream about being on the scree above the cliffside lake & woke in my tent the next morning slightly shocked that I was actually away from Mt Crescent.
Rest + Reration + Repeat
Thankfully we had a layover day after this & were ready to do another reration. We met up with the horsepackers & did the usual tasks; collect trash & mail to be packed out, unpack & organize new food, etc. We got extra sleep & enjoyed the simplicity of doing laundry in the sun as our bodies rested. The next day was was my turn to be Designated Leader, so I got to work on my route plan. It should have been simple. Three miles down to Bliss Creek Meadows, find Clark creek & follow the trail up this drainage another three miles. A full day of on-trail travel. What a relief after Mt Crescent! That day turned out to be another trek full of hellish off-trail travel through waist high marshes, beaver dams, a very gnarly burnt forest, fallen trees, and then finally a trail but no energy left. That marsh was not on our maps & that burned out forest was only a footnote someone scribbled in.
This was another big test on straying strong in the face of unertainty & it broke me. I found myself really questioning what I was doing here. If I could not handle simply being part of a team in this challenge & keep my own energy in check, how could I successfully lead people as a professional?!
Yet thanks to the collective tenacity of my hiking group we made it out at dusk again. The end of that day felt like such a fail as the Designated Leader, but all I had to do was ask for help from my fam. They were there for me & the feeling of failure was only in my head.
WFR Exam Day
The day before our Independent Group Expedition was to begin we had to do our WFR field exams, and we were all nervous to get it over with. This consisted of doing our Patient Assessment System's as proficiently as possible in order to become certified. We split up into groups of 4 and practied different scenarios on each other, protecting spines & remembering as much as we could from those distant ranch days. Our instructors had already been testing us on-trail leading up to this day. You'd be hiking per usual & suddenly one of them would start screaming in pain, grabbing their knee. We'd pop into action, performing different roles of the process to expose & immobilize an injury, get patient information, record vitals, etc. We'd "treat" whatever issues there were & prepare our SOAP Notes, the basic information needed to relay information on a patiet to local emergency responders. You never knew when someone was going to bust into a scenario, so I kept my personal notes in the notebook I had handy at all times on the trip.
At the end of our practicing we were informed that we didn't have to do the final exam, because we already had. The instructors tricked us. We were WFR's! That was an awesome feeling after experiencing such intense lows in recent days. I love this photo because we had been nervously waiting for this exam for weeks. It perfectly encapsulated our goofiness, mental exhaustion, constant snacking, & our trusty tent village in the background.
Wrapping things up
The time had come for us to graduate to Independent Group Expedition and we were excited to break off into new groups for a solid 3 day period on our own. We spent the evening after our WFR exam writing out our detailed route descriptions & splitting up group gear. We reviewed our emergency protocol & how to use the Personal Locator Beacons in the event of life/limb emergencies. We marked the X's for each night's camp along with each other team's for reference.
The next morning when we woke up the Instructor team was long gone. Our 3 teams packed up & depared at different times, setting off for the 3 day journey at our own paces. Suddenly we felt like we were teenagers & our parents were out of town. We didn't do things much differently, yet we could relax a little more. My group consisted of Kallye, Maddie & Bristol- each of whom I love & meshed really well with. I can honestly say that this was the only time this trip ever felt relaxed. Our classes & WFR+LNT training were finished, so we could use the extra time to make a big breakfast & warm up while night's layer of frost melted with the morning sun. We could finally sunbathe next to a river, just take a few minutes wash our feet, or even go to bed at 7pm. As long as the four of us were together & our essential camp tasks were finished, we could finally take some time to chill out.
So much had happened on this trip & we couldn't believe that it was almost over. At the same time we were excited for it to be finished & to have a shower again. At noon on the last day, each team met up again & debriefed our independent trips. The whole team seemed tired & ready to get back to sociey or at least a place that served some solid food. We combined what little bits of food we had left for dinner & had our final feedback sessions with mentors. This was the point where we reviewed our individual skills & were graded according to the NOLS teaching style of leadership, expedition behavior, comptetency, navigation, etc. I was so glad when this part was over!
Return to Lander & debrief
120 miles + 21 days after we were dropped off within sight of the Grand Tetons, we were emerging from the woods at dawn in a campground called Double Creek. The sun was just starting to peek over a nearby mountain as the familiar school bus pulled up with a cooler full of breakfast food. I enjoyed a quick bowl of lucky charms & some grapes, shocked by the vibrant taste of fresh fruit. We loaded our gear up & rode back around the Wind River Range towards Lander. Once back at the Rocky Mountain branch it felt weird to walk on pavement, to smell the soap people used in the front country, to use a bathroom...alone. Our team split up & cleaned our NOLS provided gear, returned our rented gear, took our first showers in weeks, then got our personal belongings back. I immediately called my partner & cried when I heard his voice. We actually did it!
My team & the others also returning from their own expeditions all converged to eat an amazing meal of bbq in the courtyard. We were advised to take it slow since our stomaches were not used to this food & I definitely felt that after enjoying a burger & many pieces of watermelon. We soon returned to the Noble hotel with our dirty gear & proceeded to debrief the whole trip with an administrator. Again NOLS is really into feedback so we were asked about the process, the instructors, how we meshed as a group & what we would change. Though my brain was over giving feedback at this point, I do really appreciate that we did this & hope ours was helplful to the instructor's growth as well as our own.
My takeaways from this month-long experience were many & even now as I write this a few are still beginning to take shape.
- Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. I am so grateful for the discussions we had around DEI when working closely with groups & also within the outdoor industry. I also really appreciated that we made space to talk about pronouns, how toxic masculinity affects us, as well as acknowleging different perspectives on the gender binary. Whether coursemates had strong opinions or had never even heard of some of these concepts, it was a really valuable experience in the power of discussion.
- Hard Skills. Not only did I now have my Wilderness First Responder & Leave No Trace master educator certifications, I also felt damn good about my navigation & logistics/trip planning skills. Of course each of these subjects are simply a starting point & I will need to continue learning in order to truly put them to use professionally.
- Leadership. My own style of this was reserved & calm, a little different than what our culture usually views as a "strong leader". Funny how a job or a social situation can give you a peek at something like this & then a trip into the backcountry will bring it right out into the open. I will continue to work on my confidence as a leader & use my strengths in a way that set me apart, because they are still very valueable.
- Stay vulnerable & keep a growth mindset. These were things I tried to bring to the expedition from the start & must continue to bring into my own daily life on a regular basis. Talk about a life skill!
Overall, was I glad I did it? Absolutely. It took hard work to get there & hard work to stay there. It broke me into bits at times, but then immediatly built me back up better than before. My peers played a huge part in this, calling me out when I was being self critial or sensing when I needed some good vibes. The people I met & learned to work with by far were the best part of this. I look forward to keeping up with them, especially considering no one at home is going to understand what we dealt with together. There is a sense of unity in that shared struggle of always being in a group of 4 people & helping each other keep it together.
Doing this NOLS course was an immense privilege & I have to put that out there. It is not typical to take this much time off & go wander around in the woods for a month, or a week, or even a few days for some folks. Add in the financial burden of that & I can see how it would seem totally unrealistic. Many people helped make this happen & I am so grateful for them! Most of all I am immensely grateful to my coursemates & instructors for making this experience what it was. We all had bad days, bad attitudes, or said stupid things when we were tired & feeling crazy. That's okay. We still made it & I respect each of these lovely people for the woods-loving-goofy-weirdos they are.