Trek offers lessons on survival, personal growth

Kyra Kliman, Editor

Every year ODAL students go on a 21-day extended field course through Outward Bound. This course is designed to teach and challenge students’ backcountry skills, and train them to be competent outdoor guides. The weather conditions may determine the location of the field course. For the past few years, the course was in Utah, focusing primarily on canyoneering and whitewater rafting. This year, Rosie Hackett, department chair of SNC’s Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program (ODAL), restructured the course to focus on mountaineering, ice climbing, snow navigation, snow camping, and traveling on snow. In late May the course took place in the John Muir Wilderness in the Southern Sierra Nevada.
The course is broken up into two parts during the semester. The first part of the class is taught by Hackett. During the class sessions students prepare for the trip. Topics discussed in class include; the pre-trip planning, team-building, group problem-solving skills, food planning, gear logistics, navigation, and mental preparation. The second part of the course is the 21-day extended field course. On the trip there are two Outward Bound guides, supporting and teaching students backcountry skills such as: navigation, risk management, group dynamic skills, leadership skills, teamwork skills, and technical skills. Every day two of the students assume the role of the trip leaders. Their responsibilities include the group plan for the day, the route, and rest points.
One challenging part about the extended field course is the length of the trip and weather conditions. In the wilderness weather can change rapidly which makes it hard for students to be fully prepared. Hackett does her best to prepare the students beforehand by covering trip logistics, pre-food planning, route logistics, and supplying a gear and clothing list. There comes a point where classroom teachings can only prepare the students to a certain extent. The actual learning takes place when students are faced with adversity and have to problem solve. Due to severe weather and snow levels, the location was moved from the John Muir Wilderness, to 20 miles southeastward in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness.
During the first part of the trip, students were fully immersed into the elements of the weather. On the first day the crew was supposed to drive to Courtright Reservoir but the road was closed because there was so much snow. The crew changed its itinerary. The group was supposed to start at Wishon Reservoir and hike to Courtright Reservoir in one day.
When the crew arrived at Wishon during sunset, there was no snow on the ground. They spent the night and planned to leave the next morning. In the morning the crew woke up to a foot of fresh snow on their tents. Their goal for the day was to make it to Courtright by dawn, which turned into five full days of postholing through deep snow.
“The most challenging part of the first 10 days was adjusting to life in the snow,” senior Tyler Rayman, said. “We were prepared for cold temps and a bit of weather, but we hiked, camped and slept on snow the entirety of the trip. The adjustment period to that was just as brutal mentally as it was physically.”
When the crew got to Courtright they got caught in a big snowstorm, and they set up basecamp for another five days. Despite, being stuck in the same place, the crew tried to summit a peak while keeping a basecamp but the risks of frostbite was too high. The crew went into survival mode and went into their mids – a tent that creates a coverage, but does not have a floor.
“After the 10 days it felt like a survival fest, we were just thrown into this experience and the worst conditions hit us and we were just focused on surviving, staying warm and not going crazy just sitting in these mids for two weeks,” sophomore Kayla Heidenreich said.
After the storm passed, the group was anxious, ready to move and get to its next location. They walked around Courtright Reservoir and set up camp alongside a river on dry ground. “This was a significant point on the trip because this was the first time the group was on dry ground, where they were able to take off their shoes and lay on the dirt,” Heidenreich said.
The next day, the group set off with an optimistic mindset as it headed into the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. A significant shift in the trip occurred when the group summited Dogtooth Peak on day 14. This was the first peak of the trip the group summited. “Everyone was stoked to conquer something, and the group dynamic was really strong,” Heidenreich said.
After, the two Outward Bound guides announced to the group the solo would be the next day. “The moment I felt closest to everyone in the group was right after our solo ended,” junior Nathan Moose said. “We had been on our own for two nights and three days, weathering storms, subsisting on limited food and sleeping the days away.”
After the solo, everyone gathered around in a circle while one of the guides read a quote to end the experience. While the group needed some space from each other before the solo, it had time to reflect and reset.
While this course pushed individuals almost to their breaking points, some discovered new things about themselves. Rayman called it a “perspective changer.”
“I’ll never look at the cold or the weather in the same way. It’s almost like when you hit your deepest low in life, and then rebound, everything thereafter seems easy,” Rayman said. “It’s cheesy, but they say you never know how tough you are, until being tough is your only option. I have built up so much confidence from that experience because of the extreme conditions, that everything else in life now seems simple and easy.”