Backed up in the backcountry

High camper exhausted from the first day of hiking, photo credit: Malia Kellerman

High camper exhausted from the first day of hiking, photo credit: Malia Kellerman

Malia Kellerman, Reporter

High camper exhausted from the first day of hiking, photo credit: Malia Kellerman

It’s night four of four on the 2019 SNO High Camp Orientation and my group and I are huddled around in our sleeping bags, talking and laughing as we bet on Adam Ellis’s situation.

“I will legit give you $50 if you take a shit right now, Adam,” high camper Devon Dyer said. Adam was experiencing some backcountry… anxiety, the type of anxiety that’s not exactly helped by freeze-dried food.

“Nah dude, I’ll raise it to $70. Just take a dump. You must be in pain,” another high camper, Sierra Beck, chimed in.

Getting personal

Yes, that is exactly how the conversation went. This is the last night of high camp, and one of my students has not used the restroom the entire time we have been out – and actually since three days BEFORE we left. It has now been eight days since Adam took a load off, and it’s just one situation we have had to deal with on the Desolation orientation backpacking trip.

SNC High Camp was one adventurous option for incoming students to get to know their new environment and community. Returning SNC students, trained in their fields, each led a group of incoming students on the five-day excursion, eight ODAL students in all, including myself. Students arrived on campus, threw all their stuff into their dorm rooms and immediately ventured out that night to begin orientation. We camped out on campus the first night to test gear, and the next morning we left for Desolation Wilderness.

On Sept. 2, new students started arriving on campus. As students checked into the dorms and said goodbye to their parents, the leader team made a Raley’s trip for our food buy, packed the bear-cans, and tied up loose ends. Later that day, we were assigned our groups. Drake and I instantly had a tough time because he had two jobs: course instructor and high camp leader. He had to help Rosie with check-ins and other logistics, so I took the reins the first day. We did introductions, played games, and eventually split into our groups where we began packing and going through gear.

I think this was by far the most stressful day. It’s awkward; no one is comfortable with each other, there’s a lot of people managing and a lot of work for us leaders trying to get everyone squared away before leaving the next morning.

As we get into Desolation, we’re slowly settling in. Hiking along the trail, I start to realize it’s just Drake and me. We are responsible for every one of these people, and half of them are older than me. The first couple days hiking, we’re figuring out how the group moves. My group had three experienced hikers and the other six weren’t so into this backpacking thing. After around six miles, the group is exhausted. Along the trail, group conversations consisted of famous movie actors, various video games, and details from people’s hometowns. It was interesting because it was apparent that our group wasn’t stoked on this experience. I hoped that would change by the end of the trip.

The first night we were graced by a thunderstorm. Drake and I set up the mids (tents without bottoms) as quickly as we could and waited it out. I couldn’t tell how the group was feeling. We were still figuring each other out. But over the next few days we started to become more comfortable with each other, laughs were had, and people loosened up. I quickly realized how rewarding this experience was, not just for the students, but for the leaders too.

“Out there we only had each other so it forced us to become each other’s family, at least for a week.” Beck said.

As the days passed, group dynamics started to form. Real friendships were being made and genuine connections developed. Living in the backcountry for a few days is incredible for a number of reasons, but maybe one of the most important is the environment and space created. No one can hide behind their phone, or simply leave. We are forced to interact and become friends, and that space isn’t usually provided in the front country.

“Small groups in an expedition setting in particular provide space for people to be themselves, but there also isn’t so much space that we can just let people walk all over us,” Daryl Teittinen, ODAL professor, said. “It’s a small enough setting which means we can get pushed beyond surface relationships. We try to create settings where those deeper bonds can happen.”

This is one of the lessons that SNC wants to instill in its students. As students enroll at SNC, it’s important to connect to the people and community. That’s one of the reasons why this orientation has become mandatory for incoming students.

“We noticed that the students who participated in Wilderness Orientation and had those experiences for four to five days had higher retention rates than students who didn’t participate,” Hoida, said.

This is because of the small group dynamic, and it’s proven over the past 10 years to be true. High Camp was not only life-changing for the students who participated, but also for the leaders. I grew so much as a leader and as an outdoor adventurer. This experience provided me with an opportunity to test my leadership skills within the field and in preparation of the course, so it’s greatly beneficial to students and leaders as well.

It’s incredibly rewarding watching the group adjust to their new environment with their peers, and it’s so powerful being a part of that because we are the ones who led them through this incredible environment. I learned so much about myself and how I preform under pressure, like dealing with Adam’s poop situation, blister care, dehydration, and other situations that happen along the trip.


It’s the last morning of the course and the pinky glow of the sunrise crept up over the horizon and illuminated everything it touched. Birds chirped softly, and in the distance the faintest sounds of leaves rustling could be detected as little critters began their day. And that is all that could be heard. Absolute peace. I sat up, slowly, and looked around as my eyes adjusted. My co-leader, Drake Fiske, and my nine high campers slept peacefully as the Sierras did their good morning stretch.

My mind rewinds through the past five days, I take deep breaths and thank the day for the experiences that were had, and, even though Adam never took a shit and scared us leaders a lot, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.