Rolling out of my warm sleeping bag nook after another short night of sleep, I woke up to the reality of putting on a pair of cold and wet hiking boots for the third consecutive morning. I would spend the rest of my day in these boots, trudging through steep terrain, mud, and possibly snow in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The three pairs of socks I packed were soaked as well, emitting a nauseating fume by today, day five of our trip.
“When the mountain ahead looms over us with a dark shadow of self doubt, we look deeply within ourselves and dig out long embedded personal characteristics.”
I reached into my bag and tried to focus on the necessity of the cold, slimy, and stinky cloth that was sliding over my foot. I knew I had no chance of finishing the last few miles of our journey without socks to protect my developing blisters. My socks on my feet, I prepared for the equally cold, wet, and uninviting boots, which would stay that way until I got home. The temporary sting of cold and the general absence of comfort however were mightily overshadowed by the most important lesson of wilderness adventure: Accepting a mentality of dealing with your circumstances.
[Backpacking for Beginners: Choosing the Best Cheap Backpacking Gear]
Outdoor adventure provides enormous personal growth via experiential learning. In the span of a few short days, we learn a great deal about ourselves by experiencing the experience. Adventuring outdoors is like taking our first job out of college. After toiling away at years of school, we enter the real world only to discover what we never learned from our textbooks. We start dealing with the day-to-day by relying on the foundation of school as well as everyday interactions. Similarly, we should prepare for our first trip by studying maps and guidebooks, reading backpacking literature, and consulting with experts. Once we are in the backcountry, however, we must be ready to learn from a wildly different and unpredictable experience.
A backpacking trip serves as a venue of overcoming intense physical, mental, and emotional situations. My wet socks are hardly a speck in the foothills of the mountain of challenges on our trip. While ascending steep trails and climbing more than hiking at times, with 35 to 50 pounds on our backs and rain pouring down on us, we are tested. As we hike for ten straight hours for days on end, becoming fatigued and blistered, we are tested. The physical demands of backpacking are extraordinary, but staying mentally awake and active is just as important. At all times during our journey, we are expending energy physically and mentally. We may reach exhaustion, but we haul on until the end.
As we climb mountains, we are constantly observing, analyzing and planning our present and our near future. We always have to consider our primary resource: do we have enough water and how available is it on our hike, and when we cross a brook, should we fill up or wait? We always have to watch our pace: Are we going slower or faster than expected, and will we reach our goal or have to cut the day short and find camp in the backcountry? We always have to be wary of danger: Are there signs of a thunder or lightning storm coming on as we near summit? We always have to be planning: Who will cook what dinner and set up tents once at camp? Lastly, we always have to stay keen on group dynamics and respect individual experience levels. Observing social patterns is important in identifying potential problems. A normally vociferous individual that turns purple and quiet is probably nearing hypothermia. At all times, we are thinking on our feet.
The combination of the physical and mental strain of rigorous backpacking affects us emotionally. Naturally, we produce emotion when faced with stressors. At the beginning of any trip, I tend to channel my anxiety into intrinsic motivation; as the days go on and get longer and my mind and body starts to tire and as the challenge of overcoming the challenge seems to become unthinkable, it takes more energy and determination to keep a positive attitude. When the mountain ahead looms over us with a dark shadow of self doubt, we look deeply within ourselves and dig out long embedded personal characteristics. We identify our mental, physical, and emotional strengths and weaknesses and we build on them. We discover we are able to push past our breaking point.
The backcountry offers little opportunity to quit. Once we are miles away from civilization, we have made a pact to persevere until the end. We cannot leave the group; we are dependent upon the group and the group is dependent upon us. We have to find ways to utilize our strengths and learn from our weaknesses. We must overcome the physical, mental, and emotional challenges and keep a clear mind, despite exhausting days and potentially horrid conditions. When making decisions, we have to look past our egos and value what is best for the group. We do not have time for inefficiency and we must proceed with clear purpose and direction.
Whether we are leading or participating in the trip, we must be sensitive to group dynamics. As a leader, we are a guide, a motivator, and a resource for any questions or concerns. We must know the ins and outs of the day ahead, from managing resources to managing time. We also have to keep a keen sense of appropriate leadership styles – directing, selling, consulting, or engaging – in different situations. Once we use a directive style we divulge a personal goal but must be ready to address personal failure if we do not succeed. If we use a consulting style we encourage a facilitated group goal which serves as a facilitated risk if we do not succeed. Most importantly, as leaders we must actively encourage group bonding and keep our group happy, productive and efficient.
As participants, we form the group dynamic. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and varying levels of experience to offer, and it is up to us to develop ways to travel together productively; from carrying group gear to setting up camp. A group is only as fast as their slowest hiker, so we should never feel uncomfortable about disclosing our weaknesses. Ten pounds too many in one pack can be redistributed to only a few extra pounds among the group.
As I descended the last few hundred feet to the endpoint of this long, epic, and intense journey, the lack of sleep finally caught up to me. The adrenaline rush of the trail was gone and I found myself completely exhausted, spent, and beat, both mentally and physically. As we packed up our stuff for the drive back to Boston, I could barely function. We had just undergone something incredibly intense, individually and as a group. We persevered in times of adversity. We became more self reliant and introspective. Together, we fine-tuned our strengths and worked through our weaknesses, and left the woods as one unit instead of six individuals. To see the amount of personal and group development we underwent in just a few short days is absolutely incredible – it can only be found in the wilderness.
Thank you to the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Youth Opportunities Program, and the instructors of the Outdoor Leadership Training for providing us with this wonderful opportunity.