26 years ago this weekend, I got on a plane and flew to Denver and stayed by myself for the first time in a hotel. I was 20 years old and taking a semester off from Aquinas College to embark on an Outward Bound Wilderness Leadership Semester (SC-28B). I had made my pilgrimage to Bivouac in Ann Arbor to find appropriate hiking boots and had a duffel full of gear from the packing list. I was nervous as hell walking downstairs the next morning to find my ride in a van with a random group of people.
We drove up into the Gore range which is near Vail. The van stopped at the end of a gravel forest road in the middle of nowhere to meet our teachers for the next three months. We were divided into two pods and issued backpacks, stoves, tarps, tent poles, and food. We were taught how to load a pack and then we set off.
I think we barely hiked a mile that first day. It was brutal. The first night it snowed. I learned to welcome hot tea or cocoa every morning in precisely the cup pictured. That cup is a badge of survival.
As the days blended together, we got stronger. We learned how to cook. I had never eaten instant ramen before and used to despise spaghetti with sauce. Over the months, I learned to eat ANYTHING. To this day I still love Wasa crackers, Stoned Wheat Thins, red beans and rice, and spaghetti with cheddar cheese chunks.
About a week in, we were hit with our first blizzard of the season. We were grounded for 2 days bored even of snowball fights. Hiking through 24 inches of fresh snow, stepping into the person in front of us’ footprints, we finally met the logistics person over a cirque who resupplied us. A ham sandwich never tasted so marvelous. At the road, the first person also quit. It wasn’t me.
Through the following weeks, we almost killed ourselves exiting a small gorge when someone dislodged some boulders. Someone else got themselves sick through poor hygiene (she did make it through the whole course). We had more snow. I took a sponge bath under pelting hail. And we learned mountaineering skills. We even summited a 11,800 foot peak. I could now lug a pack for miles, read a topographic map, and live outside. It’s trite, but I felt so alive.
But the comfort was lost as we were shuttled to Prescott, AZ for rock camp with a whole new set of skills to be mastered. We learned about scorpions and tarantulas in the desert, how to rappel and set anchors, climbed everyday, and eventually conquered a multi-pitch climb named Magnolia Thunder Pussy on Granite Mountain. No lie — you can rightly guess there was a crack that morphed into a chimney that you had to squeeze through.
After weeks of this, we changed gears again. From Moab, we crammed everything into dry bags and headed down the Colorado River the last week of October to learn whitewater skills. We hit the big rapids on Halloween which we found perfect since we had survived Satan’s Gut. To celebrate, we dug a sauna on the beach and heated rocks in a fire. Naked, we would sweat, run out into the river to cool off, and then sweat again. It would be my last “bath” for 32 days! The following morning, we motored into the mouth of Dark Canyon, laced up our long-ignored hiking boots, swung on our packs, and began canyoneering.
We spent weeks navigating over the sandstone and slickrock, smelling the cottonwood trees and enjoying the last showiness of fall. We walked on 4 foot "sidewalks" that dropped 200 feet to our right and soaked up the sun like lizards before the cold desert nights cloaked us in their quiet. We sat close burning juniper in creek beds and marveled at the stars. By now we were a well oiled machine of efficiency and knew more about one another than likely any mother or lover ever did. I often wonder what become of my fellow teammates in the days before social media profiles.
After topping out of Woodenshoe Canyon, we stood on a mesa facing the setting sun to realize a squall line was barreling toward us. With the charge of electricity palpable in the air, we leapt off the ridge with our Ensolite pads and assumed the lightening position (stop in sometime, I can demonstrate). The weather changed immediately to snow. The following days, we trudged by the Bear’s Ears, and then were socked in by another blizzard. Mac, a lawyer from Atlanta, asked for a sign and took the pine tree dropping it’s laden branches onto him as his answer. Once the logistics team could get up the mountain with chains, he left.
The rest of us settled into a temporary camp at Comb Wash. It was there I received mail from my sister asking me to be her maid of honor the following year. I scribbled off a hearty “yes” before leaving for our end-of-course challenge. With a teacher trailing us by at least an hour, we navigated the canyon, setting up rappels that were checked at each jump. At an 80 foot jump however, a student misjudged what she was doing and let go of the rope. Both hands let go. She crashed to the canyon floor. Caught between jumps, we transitioned into an evacuation team — something we were actually trained to do and registered with the USFS and BLM. No one ever expected it would be for one of our own.
We hauled her out on a back board in roughly 72 hours. We were exhausted. Frustrated. Hungry. But we had lived up to the Outward Bound mantra: To serve, to strive, and not to yield. I had done it. Of course I wanted to quit many times. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was also the best. In sum, it was life changing. I even became a geography major.
The next time you are considering quitting though, reach deep inside. Then reach even deeper. Then take the next step. You’ve got it. Adventure often.