“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. What is soft is strong.” -Lao-Tzu
Across Wyoming’s sea of sagebrush, two cargo vans full of students approach the Wind River Range or also called, The Winds and will soon embark on a ten-day learning experience through the backcountry. This trip is a part of UN-L’s Campus Rec and Outdoor Adventures program Outdoor Leadership Seminar (OLS). Every year, students sign up for this course providing experiential leadership training in the backcountry. Upon completing this training, most of the students will lead outdoor recreation trips throughout the Platte Basin and beyond.
“We took the students to the headwaters of the Platte. Really I think of that as the beginning, and that’s the beginning of their journey,” Brooke Talbot, a Graduate Assistant of the Outdoor Adventures program, said.
When Talbot was an undergrad, she was a participant in OLS, and it was a transformative experience for her.
“I remember on my OLS when it was my leadership day; I got us hopelessly lost… I went to the debrief that night and Jordan crossed his arm, and he said, ‘You failed today, Brooke, you failed.’ That just struck me, because I had never truly failed in that capacity.” Talbot said. “That was something that made me accept failure as a part of life and that that’s the greatest thing you can learn from.”
Three individuals are part of the leadership team, and Brooke is one of them. Their job is to mentor the participants and to provide support if something goes wrong. For the first three days, the students adjust to the 60 pounds of weight on their back and sleeping on the ground as the leadership team guides them through the wilderness. After day three, two individuals accept the task of leading the group to the next campsite each day. Navigating mostly off-trail, the student leaders only use a map and compass and receive minimal help from the leadership team. Some of the participants have never been camping before, let alone backpacking. The failure rate is high, and mistakes are inevitable.
“I think that is the most powerful thing of this outdoor leadership seminar is that students are given an opportunity to fail in a pretty safe space,” Talbot said.
It’s day five, the mountain air is crisp, wet, and the mosquitos’ thirst for blood never seems to quit. The student leaders of the day start a morning yoga session to warm stiff joints. Everyone eats their oatmeal and Clif Bars, preparing for the trek ahead. The mountain they will summit looms in the distance. As the sun peeks over the ridge, packs are packed. One of the leaders reads a passage of inspiration from The Toa, and the group sets off. Everything is according to plan until navigation goes awry.
With the leaders’ minds focused on the group’s big climb, they did not consider the potential hazards of the approach. After a series of wrong turns, the leadership team steps in to provide guidance. Eventually, they were at the base of the steep scramble. They are now crawling on all fours as the rock crumbles from beneath them, but with steady feet and determination, everyone made it. At the top, they linger to take in the views and celebrate their achievement. But, the day is not over, and the leaders still have to get the group off the ridgeline to the next campsite safely.
“It’s not going to get any harder than that: having eight people’s lives in your hands in the backcountry with no one to hold your hand. After that, things seem easy,” Madi Neukirch, an OLS participant, said.
Three and a half miles and hours later, the group reaches the lake where they camp that night. Once socks are dried, and tents are up, the leadership team debriefs with the two leaders to discuss the decisions they made that day. The debrief allows students to acknowledge their mistakes and discuss solutions for next time.
“What makes a good leader is a leader who isn’t afraid to admit that they’re wrong,” Talbot said.
Throughout the next five days, the problems continue. Unexpected hail storms surprise them in the afternoon. The rain and cool air keep their feet perpetually wet. Fields of talus slow their movement as they cautiously climb from boulder to boulder. Reading the map wrong and hiking in the wrong direction sets them back. Aches and pains course through their bodies, as they carry close to half of their body weight on their backs. This entire trip is an emotional rollercoaster, but it provides the opportunity to learn and grow.
“I was so worried about being a good leader, and I was so focused on what I wanted to be right and not worried about how and could be wrong, “OLS participant Jack Mensinger said. …”Always be willing to be wrong. ”
On the last day, the leadership team lets the group know that for the last part of the journey they are going to hike it solo. For roughly one mile, they will be alone for the first time in ten days.
“The solo hike is essential in the whole process because this whole time, you’ve been built up within this group and it’s easy for students, to attach to a group identity, whereas really we need to have them be individuals because later they’ll be making a lot of decisions by themselves,” Talbot said.
“The challenge with the OLS experience is it doesn’t’ stop and just like any of your experiences, if they’re powerful enough, they’re going to impact you and that’s the design of OLS is that that’s a powerful experience that you will keep learning from throughout your life. I’ve hung on to what I learned in my OLS for a long time, and it hasn’t really stopped for me…The river doesn’t really stop as long as we don’t let it stop, right? We can shut off an experience, or we can eliminate all the resources. But if we let it flow, it’s gonna keep going, and it’s gonna keep giving us life after the experience. So, closing the experience, you really can’t close that experience. If it closes for people, then it does, but my hope is that it doesn’t.”