“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. The 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 which provides experiential leadership training in the backcountry. Upon completing the 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 were part of the leadership team, and Brooke was one of them. Their job was to mentor the participants and to provide support if something went wrong. For the first three days, the students adjusted to the 60 pounds of weight on their back and sleeping on the ground as the leadership team guided them through the wilderness. After day three, two students accepted the task of leading the group to the next campsite each day. Navigating mostly off-trail, the student leaders only used map and compass and received minimal help from the leadership team. Some of the participants had never been camping before, let alone backpacking. The failure rate was high, and mistakes were 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.
On the fifth day, the mountain air was crisp, wet, and the mosquitos’ thirst for blood never seemed to quit. The student leaders of the day lead a morning yoga session to warm stiff joints. Everyone ate their oatmeal and Clif Bars, and prepared for the trek ahead. The mountain they will summit loomed in the distance. As the sun peaked over the ridge, packs are packed. One of the leaders read a passage of inspiration from The Toa, and the group set off. Everything was going according to plan until the navigation went 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 stepped in to provide guidance. Eventually, they were at the base of the steep scramble. To get up the mountain they had to crawl on all fours as the rock crumbled from beneath them, but with steady feet and determination, everyone made it. At the top, they lingered to take in the views and celebrate their achievement. But, the day was not over, and the leaders still had 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 eight hours later, the group reached the lake where they camp that night. Once socks were dried, and tents were up, the leadership team debriefed with the two leaders and discussed the decisions they made that day. The debrief allowed for 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 continued. Unexpected hail storms surprised them in the afternoon. The rain and cool air kept their feet perpetually wet. Fields of talus slowed their movement as they cautiously climbed from boulder to boulder. Reading the map wrong and hiking in the wrong direction set them back. Aches and pains coursed through their bodies, as they carried close to half of their body weight on their backs. The entire trip was an emotional rollercoaster, but it provided 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 let the group know that for the last part of the journey they were to hike it solo. For roughly one mile, they were going to 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.”
Co-produced by Grant Reiner