I just returned last week from my annual sojourn into the Wind River Mountains to spend 23 days with Naval Academy Midshipmen on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) backpacking expedition. NOLS and the Naval Academy collaborate to make an expedition into the wilderness and mountains a leadership lab for aspiring Naval Officers. This is the fourth summer I’ve joined them as an instructor, primarily to provide perspectives on how leadership in the outdoors relates to leadership in the military.
People often ask me how ‘backpacking in the mountains’ teaches leadership in the military. Or leadership in any environment, for that matter. That’s a fair question.
When I explain that when you have to spend every waking hour, every day, for several weeks with the same people, working together to confront and deal with new challenges in a new environment, with nowhere to hide from your mistakes, from words spoken in anger or frustration (by others or yourself ), the leadership piece becomes more apparent. Leadership is very much about people working together to achieve common goals. The tougher and more unfamiliar the context, the tougher the challenge. On this expedition, all of us – students and instructors - learned a lot about working together to succeed, thrive, and have fun, in some of the most spectacular and also challenging wilderness and mountains in North America.
While on the course, the midshipmen kept a daily journal. It is a description of much of what they experienced and is full of witty, borderline, and some probably-over-the-line humor; it is fun to read and is a reflection of their energy, exuberance and even irreverence.
At the end of the course, I too contributed to the journal. I put down some thoughts about what I hoped they had gotten out of their expedition. In retrospect, these thoughts reflected what I had gotten out of being with them on this expedition, away from civilization in the mountains and wilderness for 3 ½ weeks:
Humility – the mountains and the wilderness are awe inspiring. They were here well before I was born, and will be here long after I’m dead. My small place in the time/space continuum becomes readily apparent. Anyone who comes out of that environment and is not humbled by it, was not paying attention. Also, it is humbling at this point in my life to work with smart, strong, healthy, and exuberant young people. It is a cure for the smugness that can come with age and experience.
We need each other – Living well in the back-country, just like living well in the ‘front-country’ requires that we work and get along well with others. One cannot live well in either environment alone. We do truly need each other to survive and to thrive….
We need to protect the Wilderness - it is fragile. In our course, we taught and practiced what is called ‘Leave No Trace’ camping, and we were scrupulous about not leaving bits of food or trash, and carrying out everything we brought in; other campers however aren’t so scrupulous. We regularly came across trash and other debris left by other campers -even in the most remote areas.
You can live well with very little. If you have the ability to observe and appreciate the world around you, and you have the love and support of friends and family, everything else you really need fits into a back pack. A good book and a harmonica help.
Every one of us is precious. Two students who started with us did not finish the course with us. One was evacuated nearly halfway through with painful tendonitis in his ankles; another was seriously injured in a fall and had to be evacuated by helicopter (she will fully recover after a few months of rehabilitation and physical therapy.) The loss of each of these truly great people from our course hurt them and us. We were not the same – we were clearly less – without them.
Our group of 14 included 3 instructors (of whom I was the junior) and 11 midshipmen. We ‘improvised, adapted, and overcame’ steep, spectacular terrain, gale force winds, lightening/thunderstorms, mosquitoes, snow covered passes, long hikes with heavy rucksacks. We bathed in ice-cold lakes, we cooked ‘creative’ meals on our camp stoves, caught and ate fresh trout, slept on the hard ground, three and four in a tent whipped by 40+ knot winds. We also learned to live well together, which was not always easy. For all of us, spending 3 ½ weeks away from civilization, was therapy for our ‘nature deficit disorder’ that can come from our sometimes over-civilized life-styles. We brought many lessons back to our noisy, busy, and very full lives in the front country – what Admiral Stockdale referred to as ‘the big easy world of yakety-yak.’
But the mountains are still there for us, in their no-excuses-and-no-apologies Stoic silence. When things get too crazy, or too busy, or too noisy, or too frustrating, or too whatever – in our minds, we can return to the campsites we left ‘without a trace’ in the Wind River Mountains, places where change is very slow, and the wind in the trees, and the occasional rock breaking loose and falling from the cliffs, are the only sounds we hear….
For another NOLS instructor’s perspective, I commend to you Morgan Hite’s very short essay, Briefing for entry into a harsher environment