Mountains of Humility

With our course at 12K ft on the Continental Divide, getting ready to ho down to Mile Long Lake

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

7 thoughts on “Mountains of Humility

  1. Awesome post. Mids need more of these trips…and so do the instructors. A village in Uganda or mountains in Wyoming – each place holds necessary lessons that Bancroft can’t provide on its own.


  2. Great response – and couldn’t agree more. One of the things the USNA actually does pretty well – better than they have in the past, and perhaps better than the other service academies (not sure) – is provide opportunities for a breadth of experience to complement the military training and education the mids receive. This makes for better officers and better citizens. They could do this even better. Thanks Bob


  3. Hi Bob, Thanks for linking to my “Briefing for Entry…” essay. It’s kind of amazing to realize I wrote that 21 years ago (and that it’s been 14 years since I last taught a NOLS course). On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like the essence of the wilderness experience has changed much. Which is good.

    It’s pleasing to discover that my essay is now posted in multiple places on the web! I’ve got a page for other stuff I wrote about wilderness (and other things) at


    • Morgan – I’m pleased and honored that you found this and responded. I’ve been a fan of your perspectives since I went thru my Instructor Course in 2005 – at the ripe old age of 53 – and we read your Briefing for Entry on the bus back to Lander from Split Rock where we did our climbing section. I subsequently have read several of your other essays and they continue to be a staple at NOLS – even though it appears that some of your essays betrayed a disillusionment with some of the NOLS organizational and bureaucratic culture. Seems to be an all-to-common occurrence as organizations grow and the practicalities of managing a large and diverse group of people can seem to adulterate the idealism that drives the organization forward. I just returned from the NOLS annual reunion and 45th Birthday party, and in spite of its flaws, the organization is healthy as is its idealism. I’m on the Advisory Council and continue to very much enjoy the association. I look forward to meeting you some day. thanks Bob


  4. Significant mountains in my experience were wet then dry, green and thick..I too became one with my pack, at times needing that familiarity to resolve a team threatening issue. We moleskined each other and hawked each other’s hydration. We marveled at the beauty of the jungle’s harshness and respected it’s vagaries as we did the determination and commitment of those with whom we danced a terrible tango. Jungles and mountains…glad to hear fundamentals remain important.


    • Thanks Jim – as I posted later in Nature Deficit Disorder, I found that when I was in a tactical mode as a SEAL, I was so focussed on tactical necessities that I failed to appreciate the beauty around me, though I do remember occasssionally, saying to myself ‘Wow!’ – when a shooting star would streak across the sky, or the full moon would peek out from behind the clouds while out patrolling. But for me, I need to be able to relax some, to let the aesthetic experience creep into my consciousness – the dark side of ‘focus’ is that we often miss things that aren’t within the cone of that focus. Sounds like you were able to pick up some of that beauty when you were out in the jungle. Thanks – Bob


      • It helped to be a naive kid from New Jersey whose only jungle was the willows that I had to push thru to get to the good fishing…only to find a cow muddying up the stream…my first PH came when I got popped while that thought was fogging my mind….we learn focus from such things…



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