For my STEP leadership project, two budding outdoorsmen and myself toured the natural splendor of the Western United States for over a month. I took full responsibility of the trip itinerary and pre-departure research, maximizing time spent rock climbing and hiking in some of the most famous natural areas in the world. The purpose of this trip was to develop my ability to safely and enjoyably lead other adventure-based trips with organizations like Mountaineers at OSU and the OAC.
The months leading up to the trip were full of trepidation, as I had never done anything so ambitious. I was nervous about unforeseen delays, inclement weather, and emergency situations. At the same time, however, I understood that inherent in a trip of this magnitude is the acceptance of all that you cannot control. The inability to fully prepare for such challenges put our trio in positions where, dazed by unfortunate circumstances, we needed to come together as a team and decide how we might deal with these situations positively and effectively, as well as learn from them so similar situations might be avoided. While I may have been vaguely aware of the situation-specific decision making that would be required of me while on the trip, I now understand the critical thinking, emotional maturity, and self-confidence required of a leader when faced with the kinds of challenges that are inevitable in adventure-based excursions.
There were many moments over the 38 days in which we were called upon to think quickly and face challenges, but there are three that strike me as the most impactful in my development as a leader. The first occurred 3 days into the trip, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Following our arrival, we drove through a well-manicured residential neighborhood, parked the car in a nearly-full lot at the trailhead to the bouldering area, applied copious amounts of sunscreen, and shouldered our crash pads, all while runners, mountain bikers, and hikers came on and off the trailhead nearly every 5 minutes. We climbed for about 2.5 hours, returned to the car, and were met with two smashed car windows and nearly $1,000 of gear stolen. There were no window repair shops willing to replace the windows that evening, so we had to book a motel, unload all our gear into the room, load it back up the next morning, and get the windows replaced. The break-in was an immediate test of our mental fortitude, and despite the difficulty it presented, we maintained our optimism and looked forward to a brighter tomorrow.
The second difficulty we faced was an unfortunate injury suffered by one of our team members, Victor. We were bouldering in Leavenworth, Washington, helping Victor work on some of his first outdoor boulder problems. As he was working the moves on “Tree Crack V2”, his foot slipped and he took an uncontrolled fall that seemed innocuous, but in fact left him with a moderately sprained ankle. Immediately after it happened, I began evaluating what had gone wrong and if I could have done anything differently to prevent the situation. All three crash pads were in use, both Justus and I were spotting him attentively (I managed to catch his torso as he was falling), and he was not even 5 feet above the ground when it happened. The fall happened too quick, and his foot came down in just the right place as to cause an injury despite all our safety measures. After taking him to an urgent care where his injury was diagnosed, we began thinking about how we might continue the trip with one of us nearly unable to walk. We decided to only spend one more day in Leavenworth, and then drive to Montana to stay on Justus’ grandparents’ ranch where we would spend a few days enjoying some much-needed R&R. Due to Victor’s immobility, we had to get clever with how we passed the time. We spent our days playing Scrabble, bird watching and doing the recommended physical therapy for an ankle sprain, while our nights were spent building fires, stargazing, and dreaming about the last few sections of the trip. Dealing with the injury showed me how important the bonds of friendship are within a team, as that is what we relied on over those three days in Montana to maintain a positive atmosphere.
Lastly, there was the constant challenge of overuse injuries. This was particularly difficult for Justus and I, having struggled with climbing-related tendinitis and finger injuries. Before we left we talked about the importance of rest days due to the length of the trip and the concentration of climbing, but once we were on the road, climbing on real rock in some of the world’s toughest climbing areas, we realized how we had overestimated our ability to remain strong and healthy while on the trip. This was an important wake up call, and we adjusted our climbing schedule to fit our bodies’ needs. It also gave us more time to hike, enjoy natural attractions like hot springs, and explore cities and towns. I now feel more able to assess the skill level of the group and accurately know how much climbing to plan, and how many rest days to schedule for future climbing-based trips.
I have learned that despite the most meticulous trip planning, there will always be hiccups, difficulties, and unforeseen circumstances that force you to think critically about what decision is best for the team at that moment. I believe I have honed my ability to stay calm under this pressure and think clearly despite the risks involved in adventure-based excursions. The ability to address challenges with quick thinking and calm optimism is something that will prove invaluable when leading trips for organizations like Mountaineers at OSU and the OAC, and in the future when working as a wilderness therapy guide or wildland firefighter.