Leadership in the Backcountry

What?

This summer I participated in the Second-Year Outdoor Leadership Experience program through the Outdoor Adventure Center. The program was a fifteen-day backpacking trip through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California with a focus on leadership. Throughout the trip we summited mountains over 12,000 feet and backpacked a total of 120 miles. We carried everything we needed on our backs (tents, food, clothing, cooking/water purification supplies, etc.) The weather ranged from over 100F during the day to below 32F at night.

Each day we had a new leader of the day who was responsible for leading the group through all of the day’s activities and making the plan and decisions necessary for backcountry travel, such as mapping out water sources and scouting for the best campsite. Leaders of the day presented on a specific leadership theory and an outdoor specific skill during one of our daily group meetings. My lessons were on Authentic Leadership Development Theory and natural history/plant and animal identification of the High Sierras. Throughout the trip we saw nine black bears, two rattlesnakes, countless marmots (surprisingly aggressive for food), deer, mountain wildflowers, and of course, giant sequoia trees.

Some highlights of the trip included meeting OSU alumni out on the trail, hiking part of the John Muir Trail, washing in a refreshingly cold river, learning backcountry technical skills such as how to use bear vaults, sleeping in tents (my favorite place to sleep), being distanced from the distractions of modern society for fifteen days, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and spending hours staring up into the beautiful black sky full of diamonds.

So what?

Before heading to California, I had some experience as a leader, from student organization roles and other various positions, but the word leadership seemed far off to me. What makes a leader? Can we even pinpoint what makes a good leader? What type of leader do I want to be?  I expected the leadership lessons to be where I learned about leadership, kind of like how math lessons are how we learn math, and English lessons are how we learn English. But leadership is nothing like that. Leadership is all about application and experience. While the actual lessons on leadership certainly opened my eyes to the many different views and theories on leadership development, taking on the role of leader of the day taught me so much about what it means to be a leader, and what type of leader I am and what type of leader I can be. Through self-reflection and group feedback, I found that I like to lead according to the servant leadership and authentic leadership theories. I constantly made sure people were feeling alright on the trail, making sure that people had enough water and food. I also found that though raw openness as a leader can sometimes be uncomfortable at first, I found that I enjoy talking one on one with people, really digging deep to build those authentic relationships, and the trust that leadership is so dependent on.

I believe that leaders should be genuine, compassionate, and always willing to serve their followers, often before themselves. A good leader is comfortable with themselves and they know that substance comes before style. These lessons are the types of lessons that cannot be learned through anything but experience, and this trip truly allowed me to experience leadership.

During one of our ascents, a fellow participant told me as we were making our way up, ‘every step has a purpose’, and I’ll never forget that. No matter where we were, or what day it was, or what our end goal was for the day, every single step mattered on our journey. If we hadn’t taken the steps we did, we wouldn’t have had the same experiences or the same outcomes. The same goes in our everyday lives; we take deliberate actions, and no matter how small or large, those actions are chosen for some greater purpose. The choices that we make along our journeys are never useless, as we wouldn’t be exactly where we are today without those little actions.

One of the most powerful moments of the trip was when we summited Silliman Pass (elevation 10479 ft). For the first part of the trip, maintaining control of my breath above 8000 ft was insanely challenging, and I tended to sound exactly like Darth Vader when we were ascending mountains. Physical exhaustion and altitude sickness hit me hard, and for the first two big ascents, I needed leaders and participants pushing me (sometimes literally) and supporting me the whole way up. I needed coaching and talking and advil. But on our last day, we decided as a group to summit one more high pass. I knew it would be intense, but after all that I had been through, I also knew that I could make it. And I did. Without the advil, without the coaching, and without a leader vocally supporting me every step of the way. And when we made it to the top, I told the person who had been behind me and supported me for every previous summit that I finally could do it by myself…I needed him the first two times, and finally I didn’t need someone else supporting me the whole way. And he replied, ‘you never needed me at all’.

Whether I could have made the first two summits by myself or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone believed in me, and that allowed me to accomplish goals beyond any of my expectations. And I realized then how important it is to surround yourself with people that believe in you, or push you to be better, but also how important it is to believe in yourself first.

There’s something magical about the backcountry, and these types of trips allow you to experience that magic. Out there, where society is far off, and as John Muir wrote, ‘clocks strike without being heard’, our minds and souls are opened to so much that we cannot experience in our everyday lives. Without the limitations of walls and ceilings, and without the distractions of our modern world, we can dive deep into relationships and self-reflection, learn about ourselves and the people that we’re with, and fall in love with this beautiful world that we live in.

Now what?

If I could describe my experience in one word, I would describe it as transformational. This fall I will begin leading trips through the Outdoor Adventure Center, and because of my experience on the High Sierra Leadership Trip, I feel more confident leading people through challenges that test us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Through this experience I learned much more than I had ever expected to learn about myself and what I’m capable of doing. One of the most impactful lessons I took away from this trip is that being able to accomplish something starts with believing that you can accomplish it.

the group after summiting Alta Peak (11207 ft)

the group after summiting Alta Peak (11207 ft)

OHIO in front of General Sherman, the largest tree on earth!

OHIO in front of General Sherman, the largest tree on earth!

 

JMT marker

JMT marker

 

JMT suspension bridge

JMT suspension bridge

opening a bear vault

opening a bear vault

Jennie Lakes Wilderness

Jennie Lakes Wilderness

 

the group steps off the trail to let riders pass

the group steps off the trail to let riders pass

giving a friend a facial scrub

giving a friend a facial scrub

"The mountains are calling and I must go."  -John Muir

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
-John Muir

sky full of diamonds

sky full of diamonds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos courtesy of Alex Broadstock Photography