Learning Leadership in the High Sierras

Connor Varney

A Leadership Enriching Experience

For approximately one month this summer, I embarked on an expedition to backpack through the High Sierra Mountains. With 13 other incredible people, half of whom were strangers to me before we left, I set out on a life changing experience. On our expedition we pushed our mental and physical limits. We did this by pushing over mountain passes in thin air at 12,000′ above sea level, and by pushing the comfort zones of ourselves and those we traveled with. For 189 miles we pushed.

I learned many things during this trip. About myself I learned how strong a positive and confident mental attitude can be, and the seemingly mountain-sized challenges one can overcome if they put their fullest efforts toward it. One of the most important lessons i took away from my trip was to make sure to enjoy every second, and every step that I can. Of the countless people our large group from Ohio passed along the way, they all were wonderfully happy to be alive. I tried to reflect that attitude as much as I could on the trail. No matter how sore my legs were, how heavy my pack felt that morning, or how many more miles it would be till I was able to take my boots off, I was happy to be alive and living out this incredible experience. At times I felt as if i was walking on another planet, past gargantuan granite mountains, and through fields flooded with seas of snow. So few people on earth will even get the opportunity to live the way my friends and I did, and see the sites we saw. Many times I entrusted my life to the decisions the other students on this trip made, but this is because this trip taught me how to trust people, and how much trust their decisions and actions will merit.

Backpacking is the perfect testament to how much one can go without. When you live off of whatever you can carry, and every pound matters, your life at home is put into perspective. This makes me think of how lucky and privileged I am to live in the comfortable manner I do in the front-country. Electricity, and the internet, and my warm bed are all things I love and take for granted most days. But I do know that I am more than capable of going without, and that can transfer over to many other things in life.

Out of the countless memories I made from this trip, one of the most memorable came early on. During an ascent of a pass, one of my good friends fell under an asthma attack. However, this asthma attack progresses into an altitude sickness. The two trip leaders and another great friend, who were all certified Wilderness First Responders, had to carry my sick friend down the mountain, to drastically reduce the elevation. Because they were only able to get so far down, and with not much success in reviving my friend out of the sickness, search and rescue was called in and an Evac-Helicopter was sent. During this time I was given the rest of the group to lead in the absence of the trip leaders. After watching my friend being carried down the mountain in order for her to stay alive, I had to keep my composure and help the rest of the rest of the group, of which there was little combined backpacking experience or traumatic experiences like the current one for that matter. I knew how important this trip was to my sick friend. Every day from then on I felt even luckier I was out there. At any time I caught myself in doubt of whether I could keep going I would think of my friend. After she was taken away by the helicopter. I inherited the bear-proof canister that she had in her back. This also taught me a valuable lesson, that no one wants to hear people complain about problems everyone has. At some point in any given day, everybody’s feet hurt, or their pack was heavy, sometimes because of a second bear canister, and there’s no use in complaining about it. That is the last thing that will help solve the issue.

Self preservation was very important on the trip. An everyday necessity was staying organized and on-top of what you needed and where you were. Once acclimated, I knew how to use everything we brought, where it was on my bag, were we were on an given day and how much further of a hike we had till the next camp. I think these priority and self-management skills were highly important and can be very beneficial is transferred to any daily life. Having a plan for the day and how to accomplish your goals is something I struggled with early on in my college career, and this trip did great things to help me improve these and how efficient I can be with my day. We had to be prepared for every eventuality. Whether that meant climbing up and traversing a snow-capped ridge line, knowing exactly where your rain gear was whenever nasty gray clouds would present themselves emerging over peaks ready to rain down on the trail, or even making sure you had enough water in order to make it to the next mountain lake or stream.

Completing the journey with other people was also transformational for me. Before this trip I was typically reserved in the amount of people I could actually trust, or even allow myself to get along with for that matter. Afterwards I know I gained many friends that I can trust, but I also learned how to open myself up when the situation calls for it, and how beneficial it can be. On top of taking care of yourself everyday, you had to look out for everyone else out there with you. Since we could only move as fast as the slowest hiker that day, it was very important to be open with everyone, and make sure that they were taking care of themselves. Or being aware when someone was having a tough time and offering them help. This can go far in building relationships, and can be a great key to forming new ones.

This trip will be and already has been a benefit to me in regard to my professional career here at Ohio State. I am currently employed at the Outdoor Adventure Center, and work as a climbing instructor and a trip leader. The backpacking trip was a great opportunity to get leadership skills and grow as a leader myself. Because of this trip and my performance, I had the privilege to take a group of incoming freshman along with another trip leader, on a Wilderness Welcome trip to backpack and rock climb in Colorado. I hope for all this leadership experience to positively reflect when it comes time to search for a career post graduation. The ability to lead and be a flexible leader, whether it be in the Backcountry or a research lab, can be a great foundation and stepping stone in a professional career. Hopefully this trip can reflect positively, along with a materials science degree, in my search for a career in outdoor gear development. I hope for this trip experience to give me greater knowledge on how to go on successful trips into the wilderness, and get a greater insight into the gear I use whether it’s backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing, and inspire me to make improvements to save lives and help adventurers to enjoy themselves even more. I have future goals to travel the world and see as much as I am able to, and this expedition greatly fortified my knowledge and confidence to set off into the unknown.