Saturday, November 27, 2010

Giving Thanks in the Galiuros

A long journal entry I wrote on trail about a memorable day during our last section at NOLS...

Thanksgiving usually calls to mind images of turkey and pumpkin pie, the whole family crowded into our toasty house: a warm and festive holiday of tradition. This was the first year I haven’t been with my family for Thanksgiving, and I was sad to miss my favorite holiday with my favorite people. Nevertheless this year’s Thanksgiving stands apart as one I will remember.
We entered the Galiuro Mountains on Wednesday, and for the first time we finally saw the beauty of changing leaves. We hiked through trees ablaze with the colors of autumn, every moment more gorgeous. It made me nostalgic to smell the scent of a Minnesota fall in the air, to hear the crunch of crisp scarlet leaves underfoot, but it’s hard to not feel wonderfully happy when you are outside in a wild place and the season’s colors hang like ornaments from the maples and sycamores all around you. I was captivated. It was glorious.
      We awoke Thanksgiving morning to a beautifully autumnal day, cool and fresh with a clear blue sky. We hiked a few miles upstream through the dry riverbed of Rattlesnake Canyon. After about four miles we came to a point where the canyon narrowed and the walls grew steeper, and we were faced with a pool of water several yards across and of indeterminate depth. It was possible to go up and around to avoid this particular pool, but we didn’t know if farther up the canyon we would meet a deeper or steeper or somehow impassable obstacle. Our maps offered us some information, where someone had written “chest deep pools of H2O” and indicated the two-mile stretch of canyon from here to our destination. We now faced the decision of continuing up the canyon, where we would likely find more pools of water, potentially that we could not cross (though we were skeptical that they would actually be chest deep, as up to this point there had been no water in the canyon), or turning around to circumnavigate the stretch of canyon by climbing up onto a mesa, gaining 1000 feet in half a mile and hiking an additional four miles. After a very labored process we put it to a vote and finally decided to try our luck with the canyon. The other hiking group chose to ascend the mesa. I voted for the canyon option because I figured it would be somewhat like the cool canyons we saw in the Gila, and less commonplace than hiking a trail: an adventure. (The fact that the mesa trail involved a nine-mile day with nearly 2000 feet in elevation gain may have influenced my decision, but I was excited about the canyon. I’m glad I was a proponent of our chosen route, otherwise I might have been silently cursing the others all day...)
      We were able to scramble across the side of the canyon and avoid the first pool. Next was a smaller pool of knee-deep water—cold, but not so bad. We hiked slowly but without any major difficulty, encountering a few more pools: only knee deep, starting to get uncomfortable at waist-deep, and then coming to a pool that was bordering dangerously on the verge of chest-deep. Holding our packs above our heads, we braved the sterilizing water as one by one we made it to the dry safety of the other shore.
It is in moments like these when you see a glimpse of a person’s true character. Who would dive to your rescue if you fell, and who would stand on shore and laugh? You either cry or laugh upon full submergence. You drag yourself across or you stand up to the challenge with a smile. Either way you’ve made it across, sure, but there’s a difference between reaching the shore still gallantly holding your pack in the air and turning up forlorn and frowning. Or, as fate may have it, turning up with your hair dripping.
      True to form, my clumsiness won out over my best attempts at coordination, and my hopeless gracelessness was revealed to all. When I was within feet of the promised land, I tripped on a rock hidden underwater and plunged face-first into the pool, dropping my pack—my glorious stockpile of the multitude of dry layers essential for staving off hypothermia. Luckily, a particularly selfless member of the group raced to save my pack, and by some great miracle all of my belongings managed to stay wondrously dry.
      At this point in the day, there was some sunlight still in the canyon, so my little swim was simply a matter of comic relief and not a cause for concern. So we tromped on up the canyon, our spirits still high as ever.
      Yet we had miserably miscalculated how long it would take us to traverse the canyon. By five o’clock we still hadn’t reached our destination, though we weren’t quite starting to panic. But the sun (and group morale) were quickly sinking. As the sun was setting we thought we were within reach of our camp so we pushed on despite the growing darkness. We came to another waist-deep pool after a long and deceptively reassuring stretch of dry canyon. Only a few more paces past what I was somehow certain had to be the final pool, we arrived upon yet another pool, and though we couldn’t be sure how deep it was, it looked deeper than any we’d passed thus far. Beyond the pool was a pour-off, another pool and pour-off beyond that, and—wait—another pour-off above that. It was at this point we faced reality. We set up camp on a small gravel bar that might comfortably have fit a twin-sized mattress, or, say, a hot tub, but was not exactly prime camping for our two tents. We quickly went to work boiling water for dinner and put hot water bottles inside our clothes to warm ourselves. When we all had dry clothes on (have you ever appreciated how truly wonderful dry clothes are??) we enjoyed a rehydrated Thanksgiving feast of mashed potato flakes, gravy powder, stuffing, and dried cranberries. It was warm and caloric and an immensely wonderful, if somewhat untraditional, Thanksgiving meal. We all said what we were grateful for, told stories, and enjoyed the company of a few kindred wandering spirits who are still searching.
      The next morning we rose early and frigidly. Overnight, not only did our wet clothes and boots freeze solid (to the extent that I had to pour boiling water into my boots just to make them malleable enough to fit my feet inside) but the edges of the pool developed a pretty layer of wintry ice. It seemed as if the season had changed again overnight, and winter was finally debuting its cruel and frosty face.  We packed up, and at last, reluctantly, stripped down to our skivvies to pass our ultimate obstacle. Our instructor went first, and finally it was revealed to us that the pool would be neck deep—on him. We plunged across, packs held with outstretched arms over our heads. To avoid the pour-off, we crossed a second, shallower pool that was covered with a brittle layer of ice. Another group mate carried both his and my packs across, which I was hopelessly grateful for, as the water was shockingly, arrestingly, bitingly, breathtakingly, and literally freezing (in addition to being over my head). Once across we put on dry clothes, but it was impossible to calm the screaming pain in our freezing and sodden feet. Frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot all seemed within the realm of possibility.
      But the worst was behind us and as soon as we started hiking, warmth and hope flooded back into my body. We hiked the last quarter mile up the canyon high up on the slippery, scree-covered slopes to avoid further pools of water. Finally we emerged from that miserable stretch of Rattlesnake Canyon. I have never been more grateful just to see sunlight as I was in that moment. I was giddy, ridiculously happy, relieved. I was riding a wave of endorphins and delirium that ensues only after you have overcome a monumental obstacle, and when you have reason to believe that at some point in the foreseeable future you will again be warm and dry and regain feeling in your extremities.
      We soon rejoined (and rejoiced) with the other group, who had made it to our planned campsite and were waiting for us. We shared stories, made hot drinks, dried our feet, and rewarmed our poor pallid bodies. It was sunny and warm, we were safe and grateful, and it was a beautiful moment.
      At NOLS we call events like these “type 2 fun.” At first, it may seem miserable. But when you look back on it you can’t help but smile. It makes for a good story. Who would want to listen to a rambling narrative of the perfect day when the blue sky was cloudless and the clearly marked trail was all downhill? That’s not what you remember, and not what you would write altogether too much about in a blog entry; it is the type 2 fun. And when it comes down to it, this, Thanksgiving, is why I love the wilderness. This is what I came for. Moments like these, when you are tested and you work harder than you thought was possible. You catch a glimpse of your true self and learn what you are capable of.
      Throughout our (mis)adventures in Rattlesnake Canyon, I thought a lot about Thanksgiving and the many, many things I am thankful for. I am thankful for dry clothes, sleeping bags, hot drinks and high spirits, for being with people who can smile at adversity. I am grateful for my family, most of all my parents, because of whom I was able to go to NOLS and embrace the opportunity to explore in one of the too few wild places that are left. I am grateful for people who remain good in the face of hardship, when you see who you really are; that there are still people in the world who care about others more than they care about themselves, who are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the group; for the opportunity to sleep out under the stars, to be in nature and in doing so truly live. And I am grateful beyond measure that experiences like these are the only real hardships in my life.  The only time I experience real discomfort or uncertainty is in the wilderness, and only in situations that I willingly subject myself too. I am so privileged. I know this, and I don’t deserve it. But nevertheless I am thankful for all of it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Learning again for the first time (or, What the S stands for)

Paddling the Rio Grande was wonderful and nothing like I expected. We were on the river for 15 days, starting in Big Bend National Park in Texas and taking out 120 miles downstream. I was surprised at how small the river is- I had imagined a roaring, majestic Rio muy Grande, but in reality (at least with the current water level, and in the area that we traveled) it's a pretty shallow and tame river. There was a lot of small, easy, and very fun whitewater, and a few more technical rapids. The Rio itself is gorgeous, unlike any place I've ever been before, and every day I was in awe of the stunning canyons, azure skies and reasonable 90-degree weather.
      Canoeing with NOLS is not like the canoeing I've done in the past at Widji. (For one, “portaging,” which is commonplace at Widji, becomes “portahhhhging” at NOLS, and on our expedition did not occur even once. It just seems wrong to go on a canoe trip and NOT portage. All the fun and none of the hard work—it feels like cheating. This is just one example of how NOLS and Widji are like different species of the same genus.) This discrepancy shouldn't have surprised me, because NOLS has its own systems and methods and jargon for everything (as does Widji) and even though the two places are both the same general type of organization/activity, my experiences from them overlap in surprisingly few ways. It was more difficult to adjust to this section than any other; because I had little in the way of experience in backpacking or climbing, I had no expectations or anything to compare to. But canoeing is my thing, and it was a challenge to change from the ways I'd learned or done things before. This actually made the section more satisfying in a way. It was awesome to learn from our climbing instructors, having never climbed before, but it was really interesting to re-learn things I've known for years from veteran instructors who have more experience that I can probably ever hope to have. It could have been just an easy and maybe disappointing trip if I didn't make an effort to absorb as much knowledge from the instructors as possible. They were an outstanding group of teachers (and people) and more than any instructors we've had in the past, they really took it into their hands to teach us, to help us improve and get as much out of the section as we could. It was not only enjoyable just to have their company, but they were a huge source of knowledge. Most of the other students had no prior experience and it was pretty impressive how much the group learned and improved in the course of 15 days. I didn't necessarily learn many new things, but I learned new ways (I don't necessarily like good/bad comparisons, but I might even say better ways) of doing strokes and maneuvers and things I already knew. I basically realized right away that these instructors were way more competent and skilled at the craft than I am, and proceeded to ask as many questions and hear as many answers as possible. Canoeing is always fun, but this trip was especially rewarding—to develop and refine my knowledge and ability under their tutelage and become a better canoist. This is the ultimate way in which NOLS differs from other trip-leading organizations: it is fundamentally a school, and so your time in the field is an expedition, but it is also a class (and not just on hard skills, but on interpersonal skills and communication and development as an individual). For that reason, and not just because I am hopelessly in love with canoeing, this was my favorite section so far.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Five Stars and Three-Letter Acronyms

Returning to the branch after a month and a half in the field was an entirely different experience from arriving here in September. It was odd to return to a place where in total I'd spent less than twenty four hours, yet feel like I was coming “home.” Stranger still was that, since our arrival to NOLS, the branch has not changed but my perception of it has transformed completely. It's funny to look back on my first day here—I was so startled by what I considered to be a primitive kind of camp. I can no longer understand why I was so shocked that we sleep in tents, that there are only a few buildings, that most of the students' time is spent outside or in the open ramada. I feel silly now for the disappointment I felt on our initial tour of the branch, because just the fact that we don't have to cook every meal for ourselves over a camp stove seems such a huge luxury. Now I realize that it's not rudimentary in the least. Compared to the cars and mattresses and machines that we believe are “necessities,” maybe it seems basic, but this is truly a life of extravagant comfort.
      While at the branch we not only have shower facilities, a washing machine, running water and flushing toilets at our disposal, but there is electricity, which means we don't have to go to bed when the sun sets! In the shady ramada, we can feel the warm desert breeze while enjoying TV, computers and wireless internet for our nonstop entertainment and sensory overload. The swimming pool boasts a stunning view of the desert mountains, and a generous buffet is offered at nearly every meal. I didn't realize what I was signing up for—yes, the NOLS Southwest Ramada Inn is a veritable all-inclusive resort!
      We were in town for a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course, a 10-day class on back country first aid. It's a somewhat intensive course, involving several hours everyday of classroom and practical learning. Our days consisted of arriving for breakfast at 7 am, starting class at 8, and getting done anywhere from 9 to 13+ hours (and nearly as many cups of coffee) later, taking a break for lunch (and dinner, if class extended into the evening). We took the course from Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), which is somehow partnered or affiliated with NOLS. They taught us about patient assessment and care, and we did many scenarios to practice using this knowledge as well as learn lots of TLAs (three-letter acronyms: it seems that NOLS and WMI like to come up with an acronym/abbreviation/mnemonic device whenever possible).The course culminated in a final exam, which included written and practical components. Even though the long classes were somewhat tedious, pretending to be a patient with all manner of obscure maladies was fun and it was rewarding to earn the WFR certification. (And I felt lucky that my current reality doesn't include lectures or essays, and that “studying for finals” means sitting on a couch in the ramada, sipping coffee and doing pull-ups in between reviewing snake bite care and the symptoms of hyponatremia.) When the course ended, we had an end-of-school pool party at the branch to celebrate. I couldn't help thinking that there must be frost in Minnesota by now, yet we still get to enjoy some poolside sunbathing. I will reiterate: Life is good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Climbing Rocks!

We climbed at Cochise Stronghold in Arizona for 16 days, starting on the East side of Cochise and then hiking over to the West side about halfway through. We had four instructors who were easy going, energetic and in love with climbing. A typical day meant meeting at 9, having a few classes on the basics of climbing technique, risk management, and how to use different types of gear. In the late morning we would meander over to a crag (either hike or drive, depending on how far away it was), where we would climb through the afternoon and return to camp usually around 4 or 5 (although sometimes we would find ourselves hiking home long after the sun had gone down). Evenings were occupied with dinner, sometimes an evening meeting or class, and using those small pieces of free time left over to write letters or read or relax.
At the crag on the first day of climbing camp
      Climbing camp was different from backpacking in virtually every way: first of all, we were living at a base camp, so we didn't have to be stingy with how much stuff we brought and we didn't have to pack up and move camp every day. Our daily schedule was much more laid back and less structurally rigid, but we also had significantly less free time because we had so much going on.
      Similar to how in the hiking section our instructors taught us all the necessary skills and then set us loose to travel independently, our climbing instructors taught us the technical side of climbing so that we could do everything ourselves. At the beginning of the section, our instructors created anchors and set up the ropes for us, and all the students did was climb and belay with coaching from them. On our last day of climbing, we set up all the rope systems, climbed, and at the end of the day took everything down while the instructors sat and watched. (NOLS likes to teach a man to fish rather than give him the proverbial fish that will feed him for just a day.)  Before this trip I'd never rock climbed before, so every day I noticed myself picking up new skills & improving upon previous ones. Not many people get to start climbing under the tutelage of four experienced climbers--it's a pretty cool experience. I'm not a great climber by anyone's standards, but even so I can appreciate what a great opportunity this section was.

Leaving an East Cochise crag at sunset
View of West Cochise from the top of a multipitch climb

Setting up top ropes on our last day