Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hiking the Gila

Backpacking in the Gila was incredible. I am definitely a canoer at heart (canoeing obviously being superior to backpacking), but I enjoyed backpacking a lot more than I expected. There is something very peaceful about the simplicity of it: walking all day, being mindful of each step and breath, and everything you need you carry on your back. Hiking gives you a lot of time to just look at the world around you and think.
      This section was 22 days long; the first half in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the second in the Gila Wilderness (both are within the Gila National Forest). We had three ration periods of 6-9 days each, stopping at a campground in between each loop to resupply our food. A typical day meant waking up around 7, leaving camp at 9 and hiking until mid-afternoon. We hiked anywhere from 2 to 9 miles per day (our first ration period included lots of short 2-3 mile days because we had to change our route to evacuate a sick group member). Evenings were spent in classes, cooking, and relaxation, and offered a surprising amount of free time. Each loop we had one rest day (which meant even more classes, cooking, and relaxation!)
The view from Reed's Peak in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness
      During the hiking day we traveled in small groups of about 5 students, at first with an instructor and later independently. (NOLS does a great job of teaching you a certain skill and then handing over the responsibility so you actually learn how to do it yourself, without someone breathing down your neck and babysitting you.) Likewise we were divided into 3-4 person “cook groups” with whom we cooked and tented. These groups rotated every ration period (and were the format in which we traded helpful feedback). (A side note: It turns out that sharing a tent and a kitchen with a few teenage boys who have ravenous appetites and are somewhat less than eager to wash dishes (i.e. NOLS) is very different than sharing them with a few girls who love cooking (i.e. Widji). [To clarify, I don't think this is a distinction between genders, but more the difference between those who are lucky enough to get to go to Widji and those who are not.] This is another challenge I'm learning to deal with.)
      In our first days of travel, we were in mostly your typical forested terrain. In our second loop, we suddenly entered an area that felt decidedly more desert-like. One day in particular stands out to me, in which we followed the Gila River for a short while and, in leaving the river to ascend a canyon, we suddenly entered the desert. It was hot and sunny and dry and dusty and sandy; it was ridden with cacti, gorgeous rocky cliffs, and canyon walls—the exact scene you think of when you picture the Southwest. We scrambled and bushwhacked when our route became steep and rocky or narrow and filled with nearly impassable undergrowth. When the canyon dead-ended at a 10-foot pour-off, we had to turn around and find a new way up. We scrambled over loose rocks and up a steep hillside, hiking and climbing and, finally, reaching the top of a mesa. It was a long and arduous day, but it was my favorite of the trip. Reaching the top of the mesa, we were able to see to the horizon in all directions and look back where we'd come from—it was incredible. I'd never before understood why a backpacker chooses the route that goes up a steep mountainside instead of one of the many easier alternatives (or even why a backpacker would be a backpacker at all when they could be a canoer!). But now I saw that sometimes it is worth the hours it takes to get there, just for a single view from the top. We slept outside on top of the mesa that night. There was no light pollution, no sounds, nor any sign of human presence for miles—just Cassiopeia and Vega and Deneb, and stars that stretched to the ends of the earth. This is when I started to love NOLS.

Hiking on the mesa (left), and visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings,
a site where the Mogollon people lived hundreds of years ago.


An example of the obstacles we encountered
in the canyons
One of the canyons we hiked in

The beautiful Gila Wilderness!
Our group at a reration

1 comment:

  1. Caroline,

    I just found your blog through the NOLS newsletter. I'm a graduate of the Semester in the Southwest in Fall '08. I too was taking the course at the beginning of a gap year after high school, and just out of working at a summer camp.

    The time I spent was very powerful in influencing my life, in similar ways as you are describing. Your "Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty" will aid you greatly when you travel to Europe. I ended up spending 3 months in India after my course, on recommendation from one of my instructors. I'm not sure I could have made it without the things I learned during NOLS. It really helps you realize what is essential, and what you can let go. If you're curious, check out my blog from that trip at

    How was the climbing section? I had never gone rock climbing before NOLS, but was immediately hooked. I spent a good bit of this summer in the mountains in California climbing in Yosemite and Tahoe. The skills I learned in anchor building and gear placement were a huge help when I began leading trad.

    You are going to LOVE the canoing section. I'd hardly canoed before, but found it such an amazing way to travel and explore. The contrasts you can draw between that and hiking should be interesting.

    Oh and have fun in the Galiuros haha. I assume that's where you'll go for the ISGT?