For nearly a month I backpacked with a group of other OSU students in the High Sierra Mountains of California. Covering over 130 miles, I learned how to survive in the backcountry trails and how to lead a group completely out of their comfort zone to achieve a common goal.
Despite having limitless information at our disposal in the forms of phones and computers, the amount you can learn by completely removing yourself from them is staggering. Backpacking for such a long time so removed from civilization causes every weakness you have to be laid bare. And every strength you possess is stretched to their max. I personally found out that I will break mentally before I break physically. I found out that I fixate over small details and can quickly become on edge. But I also discovered an unwavering perseverance, an intense desire to experience the outdoors, and previously unknown emotional levels. There are societies constructed by man and there is wild nature, and I won’t say one is more the “real world” than the other. What the wild nature part of the world shows you however, is that despite our reliance on our own artificial creations one is still able to survive and even thrive out in the backcountry.
A backcountry trip such as this requires organization and leadership. That leadership came from one of the students in the group each day. When appointed leader of the day that person decided when to get up, what to cook, when to get water, who was assigned what tasks, how many miles we went and nearly every other conceivable task that had to be completed that day. When I was leader of the day it rained. A lot. It rained, and briefly stormed, for the entire morning and part of the afternoon. We even had to do what is called a lightning drill, where you essentially near a tall tree ad wait for the storm to pass. Despite what the label says, nothing is completely waterproof. Eventually you will get wet, and we were soaked and cold. So wet to the point where we considered stopping and finding shelter off the trail. It was pretty miserable, especially since one would expect clear sunny skies in California. It had rained a number of days before this as well, and I was beginning to lose it. I was able to push through and get through that day but the next time storm clouds came rolling in I had a full on panic attack.
I had been fixating all day about the weather, how fast we were moving, setting up camp that I finally couldn’t take it anymore. But once it was over I learned that I was still there, I was still breathing. I found solace in my fellow backpackers as well as my own self-assurance I began developing. Leading the group was challenging and even when not leading some days dragged on. No matter how you adjust the straps on your backpack you will get sore, and the relief of taking your pack off in camp is incredible. Every time I made it to camp the problems of the day seemed almost trivial. Backpacking is a huge confidence builder, it just has to break you down first. But one you’re broken down you can build yourself back up.
One of my favorite days on the trip was our stay at a place called Granite Basin. As one would expect it a large basin. It is filled with shallow streams, a meadow, and many large rock outcroppings. This particular day we didn’t hike, we just relaxed in camp. I climbed halfway up a large rock face and sat on a ledge overlooking the entire basin. I hadn’t bathed in over a week, had been eating the same bland food on repeat, hadn’t changed clothes for a week and had no contact with civilization. It was the best feeling ever. I was looking at the most beautiful and grand sites I’d ever seen and felt pure, absolute joy. Everything you think you need becomes irrelevant. We met a park ranger named Rick. We talked for a while and he told us about how nature reflects what you feel inside and that this is the kind of place humans are made to be in. While I certainly enjoy bathing and indoor plumbing, lack thereof is by no means a boundary to incredible experiences.
What was perhaps the most incredible experience was getting to the top of Mt. Whitney. At 14,508 ft. in elevation Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States. The day started early as they usually did and we set out up a switchback for a few thousand feet of elevation change. Once at the top of that switchback, there is another two mile trail up to the actual summit. It is nothing but bare rock, mostly along an enormous mountain ridge and at times through narrow, precarious paths that drop completely off to the side. The elevation makes it hard to breathe as well. Throughout the trip I became more and more acclimated, but the air was as thin as it was going to get up there. Once you reach the top there are dozens of other hikers all celebrating and taking pictures. Some guy was playing music on a portable stereo, it was the first time I had heard music in nearly a month. Unfortunately it was Bon Jovi, and I hate Bon Jovi. But that couldn’t ruin being on the top of a mountain, knowing that right now in the US no one is higher than you are right now. It was the true culmination of weeks of purifying water, sore feet, digging catholes and everything else in between.
All of these emotional experiences were wrapped up in the daily tasks of leadership and team work. While they may seem opposing concepts, the personal mental and emotional state you had affected your interactions with the group. Overall the main task was to ensure the success of the group when you were in charge. To effectively lead a group one must be able to physically and mentally push themselves more than the group since they look to you. You learn how to mentally connect with and help your group members, as well as analyze what you yourself are doing. I find that I am far more comfortable interacting with people and asking for help, since that is what I was forced to do to survive essentially. The extreme setting of this trip will not be found in the average 21st century job, but the theories and practices of leadership will be. Being able to stay calm in stressful situations , and then being able to analyze yourself and the input of your teammates to find and implement a solution. After this trip tasks that seemed like mountains are now mole hills, especially after climbing actual mountains.