In part two, I continue to recount my trek through Wyoming’s Wind River Range. If you didn’t catch part one, I will briefly get you up to speed: This past August, while looking to recharge mental strength and energy, I connected with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and its Rocky Mountain Light and Fast Backpacking Course. Our team, eight students and two instructors, hiked 140 miles in 13 days through the remote Wind River Range as we learned lightweight techniques like cooking one-pot meals, staying warm and dry with minimal gear, and honing backpacking skills including navigation and wilderness first aid. And though our team of 10 presented incredible diversity coupled with individual goals and perspectives, we would strip back layers, leave superfluous possessions behind, and in an instant surface as one.
Clearly from the start, this union would be one of the most significant facets of our expedition. Paired with this tenacious bond was our essential understanding of “being in the present” and living simply. These key ingredients would determine the expedition’s success. Even with a fusion of dissimilar personas, we were able to turn obstacles in the wilderness into opportunities; circumstances that would ultimately transfer back to our everyday lives. The core curriculum at NOLS is made up of four parts: leadership, outdoor skills, environmental studies, and risk management. Each day, we were presented with chances to serve in a leadership role; to plan and organize; to communicate and problem-solve; and to function effectively under difficult circumstances. Each student acted as LOD (leader of day) twice during the course. LODs gathered daily information on goals, route, and weather. Our instructors taught us to be present, aware, and calm in crisis situations, and through calmness, we could communicate as effective leaders while identifying solutions to problems; instruction that would be utilized at home long after we left the backcountry. Feedback presented to leaders of the day could be caustic, but with tough criticism came encouragement.
A typical day in the Winds for our team included various fundamental tasks that would act as a stage for performing outdoor skills. Wilderness proficiencies included map reading/orientation and route-finding fundamentals; campsite choice and set-up; identification of major landmarks; camping and traveling in a variety of terrain and weather; operation of cook equipment; knots and gear repair; and punctuality (just to name a few!). Again, all ingredients for success.
Within our environmental studies section, we practiced “leave no trace” camping and becoming familiar with wilderness ethics. Under risk management, we demonstrated knowledge of subjective and objective mountain hazards and took responsibility for our own health and welfare in a mountain environment. Regrettably, our team was unable to meet the goal of remaining a self-contained expedition. Two of the eight students would be evacuated out six days into our course. Though difficult to see them go, the remaining members respected their personal decisions and, more, their contributions to our team. For me, their exit was especially arduous due to the fact that the evacuees were women -- the only other women in our group. Remember the “recharged strength” I was looking for? Well, it so nicely emerged from this instant on.
There were times over the 13 days that would define our personal goals and expectations in just one “aha” moment; circumstances that would force thoughts in our minds -- thoughts of success, thoughts of strength, thoughts of unbreakable bonds. My trek throught the Wind River Range would attest to be a difficult challenge, both physically and mentally. And it was during those times when I thought I would never get warm; or when our peak ascent to Raid Peak (12,500 feet) did not seem attainable; or when I thought my asthma would get the best of me, that I discovered that I would, and I could, and it wouldn’t. It was at these moments my journey was defined. Being faced with tough challenges; reaching farther than you ever thought you could go; and then knowing you could. And then doing this all with the barest of essentials. The lessons I learned in just 14 days will be with me for a lifetime.
So, as we made our way out of the Winds on our final day, we said goodbye to elevation, snow, bear bags, muesli and couscous, instant coffee and powdered milk, wet feet, sore muscles, and laughter amongst comrades. We looked like a group of pioneers from the pages of a history book as we walked down the streets of Lander, Wyo. No one could penetrate the high we felt nor could one truly appreciate what we had just accomplished. Only those who have taken a similar trek could really understand what we felt and with those I will always connect. That night, diplomas in hand, we smiled as we remembered our life-changing experience as we crushed through the Winds setting the rhythm of our team and finding our path of least resistance.