Things scree slopes can teach

By Natalie Beittel


It is a strange thing to be submerged in the wilderness for four months with nine people who were previously strangers to you. Quickly you understand more about these people than you knew about your closest friends. Living together in the outdoors, you share everything; close sleeping quarters in tents, food, the discovery of new places, to name a few. You watch each other learn, live, and, in the most revealing of times, struggle.  

Nine other students and I spent 30 days sea kayaking and canoeing on the south island of New Zealand during my semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) during the spring of my junior year in college. For the most part, there was beautiful weather during these two expeditions, and the morale of the group stayed high. We worked hard during the traveling part of the day, and then swam in the warm ocean water, napped on the beach or explored the nearby hills and mountains in the afternoons. Both boating sections were relatively easy. Travel days were six hours or less, leaving lots of time to relax and rejuvenate.

Now immersed in the final expedition of the semester – backpacking – the physical demands of travel became greater and the weather grew harsher as we moved into New Zealand’s fall and climbed higher into the mountains.

As the backpacking section progressed and we learned necessary skills -such as navigating with our maps and compass, predicting weather and traversing the high peaks and scree rock walls – students were assigned to lead each day’s travel. The second time around, while each leading a group, our instructors would remain silent unless an emergency arose.

As Leader of the Day (LOD), you were responsible for planning the group’s route – all off-trail – navigating, and monitoring the other students. Nasty weather made for less enthusiastic travel, as putting on frozen boots each morning is not particularly pleasant. Carrying 80-plus pound backpacks all day was the most difficult thing some people had ever done. One or two students in particular really struggled on a daily basis; we were all hungry and there never seemed to be enough food.

My second day as LOD I had three other students in my group. Tim, Aaron, and Cheryl were with me along with Jorn, our “silent instructor.” Cheryl had it especially bad; a sore ankle and a slow pace resulted in little confidence in her steps. As I prepared for a slow moving day up on the high peaks, I asked Tim and Aaron to be patient and encourage Cheryl, who would need all the support she could get. The day began at a snail’s crawl, and as we moved onto the sliding, rocky ridge sides, Cheryl’s movements slowed even further as her nerves rose. I tried to balance navigating, keeping the group intact, and taking turns with others coaching Cheryl. Luckily, the weather held clear and calm. When the peaks become submerged in clouds, navigating becomes scary as you move blindly.

The day progressed, and by mid-afternoon we were all instructing Cheryl through the climb. The wind had been increasing, and as we moved onto a new ridge, it became severe. Walking upright on the slanted slope was incredibly difficult, and you had to shout to be heard. Despite all of this, the mountains were absolutely beautiful. Bare of any vegetation, covered in layers of gray rocks that acted like sand when you walked, with occasional large sculpture-like slabs jutting up out of the surface, the peaks were amazing. Reaching the tops and looking out at endless scenery with the wind often pounding at your face is one of the best feelings I have ever experienced.  

Cheryl was mentally drained at this point and lost all self-sufficiency. She started to fall over every few steps and, after picking her up off the ground several times, I made the decision to end the day, descend and find a tent spot. Because she was having such difficulty, we unloaded Cheryl’s backpack on the ridge and stuffed our bags with her gear. Aaron put Cheryl’s arm over his shoulder and with his arm around her waist he carried her down the mountain to the grass, where we would camp. Camp was not ideal; we were far above the trees on a mix of rocks and grass with the wind howling in every direction. We wrestled with the tent trying not to let the wind whip it away, and it had to be secured with every large rock we could find in order to stay put through the night. By the time all five of us squeezed into the three-person tent – the other group of five had the other tent – I was exhausted, frustrated and disappointed to be in such close proximity to Cheryl, who had tested my patience to its limit.

Looking back, that day as LOD with Cheryl was one of the most difficult days I have ever experienced. Leading a group in the backcountry with a group member requiring constant and full support from the others was incredibly challenging. However, balancing self-exploration with the needs of a team is the goal of NOLS. On that day, I learned the most beautiful and exhilarating trips can be bad despite your best efforts; sometimes, the best you can do is maintain.

Later, our instructor reminded me of the day’s significance: We had survived a hike in severe weather despite unsure footing and an injured teammate. I also learned there are limits to my patience – I’m still very angry with Cheryl when I think of her lackluster efforts. But I know if I choose to pursue similar leadership roles after graduation, I will encounter similarly frustrating situations. I hope with this experience under my belt, I will be able to appreciate the fruits of my efforts with less frustration.

Natalie Beittel is a Collegian contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]