“If you want to know what the deal is with stuffing all this gear into your backpacks, how we divide up the team gear, who should carry what, and were all this different stuff goes, then pay attention, because we’re only going to explain this once.”
This is the little speech we gave on pack day, and it never failed to go as expected. Brad and I gave out the team gear, and then stepped back and watched the stuffing brigade do their thing. Very few did pay attention to our message, and most focused on how much “extra” stuff, not on the list of approved items, they could jamb into their packs. Some youth programs at this point, routinely dump out everyone’s pack and lecture the kids again before repacking everything. Other programs sometimes placed a box in the middle of the floor in an attempt to leverage the group into placing all their extra stuff in the box, so it could be left behind. Brad and I did neither, we always thought it was a good idea to just roll with it, knowing the additional weight would become a life lesson sooner rather than later. Once the packing was done, we loaded up the van, got into trip mode, and headed for the mountains.
Trip mode was zero hour; the moment when everything got turned on its head, and the phrase “life and death” took on a new reality, as we all took on drastically different responsibilities. Brad had to count on me, I had to count on him, and our vanload of young guns had to start looking inward, knowing everything was about to change. As instructors, one of us drove, and the other riding shotgun dealt with the maps, kept order, and made sure we had everyone every time we stopped and started, by counting heads—except of course the one time we didn’t count, and left someone behind. We also never used the forbidden words “no” or “go” while in the van. They sounded too much alike and created the potential for disaster. Once when I said no, Brad thought I said go, pulled out into traffic, and a trip nearly ended on a very bad note.
The trailhead was ground zero, and the demarcation point for a new reality; no more school building, no more streets, lampposts, electricity, stores, guidance counselors, school nurse, or parents. No safety net, just us—the big us, and the wild.
Our first big decision once we arrived at the trailhead was to assess the weather, mountain conditions, and anything else we thought might affect the climb. Our overarching responsibility was to bring all the kids back alive and in one piece and understanding the weather conditions was the first step. We were good-to-go about 99% of the time, but not making the right call in that 1% moment had the potential to be tragic, and there was no room for tragedy in what we did. Danger yes, there’s always inherent danger in this kind of work but tragedy; no thank you.
Once out of the van we gave last minute instructions including; “tie your boots, keep everything inside your pack, zip all the pockets of your backpack up, secure any loose lines, adjust your hip-belt and check the balance of your pack, put your canteen away, and once you’ve done all that, put your packs on, and come stand over here.”
We knew they weren’t following all our instructions, how could they? Some still weren’t plugged in to what was happening, others, beginning to realize they were entering a new reality were having second thoughts, and one or two were getting ready to wet their pants. For us, though everything was as expected, we knew these guys didn’t comprehend much of what we were saying, and we didn’t care. This was experiential learning, learning by doing and the first step of a two-step process; a style of learning that governed most of what we did, both on a micro and macro level. Mountain climbing and living by your wits for four days was big picture and a reality altering moment for these boys. They were about to experience the raw, unvarnished, sweaty, bug infested, muscle cramping, falling down, wet, stinky and cold, bumbling and stumbling first part. Real learning—the second part, would come later, the learning always comes later.
Once packed up and assembled, we read them a poem by Wendell Berry;
“Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging dread--You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”
We didn’t expect them to understand what we’d read but hoped that by the end of the trip when they heard it again, there’d be a flickering of recognition.
And now it was the moment of truth, so we saddled up, pointed ourselves in the right direction and started hiking. One of us in front, the other in the rear, and all the newbies in the middle.
Thankfully most trails in New England start off fairly flat allowing a small break-in period, and we always needed that. We wanted to be far enough away from the rest of the world, before one of these guys decided to quit and…