Summer Series: An Experience in the Backcountry


It was roughly 5:30 in the morning when the alarm rang on the watch strapped around my water bottle, planted next to my face inside of our tarp (not to be confused with a tent) that stood about 3-4 feet high. Our two counselors had selected me the previous evening to be leader of the day, leaving me in charge of getting everyone up in the morning, assigning jobs so we could move out of camp, holding onto maps, deciding when we take breaks, etc.

To my surprise, as I walked between the two tarps waking up everyone else, there were only 5 other people in our camp sight, as opposed to seven. The two counselors had left a note to me in our kitchen area, explaining that today was “group solo” and that I was in charge of leading the group, without our counselors. I felt honored and proud to have been selected, assuming it was a reflection of my merits and previous success with leading the group. But I also felt scared and stressed. The counselors were gone, they’d left me in charge, there was no room for error with maps and routes, and we had one of our hardest days ahead of us.

Our agenda included a 1000-foot elevation gain going up a field of rocks and snow, and then a 5000-foot elevation loss over the course of maybe 7 miles. It wound up taking 17 hours, and from the start, I had to bottle up my fear to keep group morale up. I was on the verge of a breakdown.

For the past five years, I’ve been a returning camper at Colvig Silver Camps in Durango, Colorado, a sleep away camp dedicated to things like hiking and the great outdoors. In that time, I’d only been able to dream about being a Pathfinder. Pathfinders spend 26 days hiking in the woods rather than spending any of the term in camp, and are always honored when they return at the end of the summer with a glorious walk-in ceremony, celebrating their burly accomplishments. Everyone from camp gathers by the trail at the camp lake, with all former-pathfinder staff members standing in front with their unique navy blue Pathfinding t-shirts, holding a gigantic homemade banner that reads “Welcome home Pathfinders.” Over the course of 5 summers, as I witnessed pathfinders come crashing through the banner to the tune of “Chariots of Fire,” and give high fives to younger campers like myself, I could only fantasize about being one of them. This summer I finally got to be one.

Our group included myself and six other campers my age that I’ve known for 3-5 years each, as well as two counselors old enough to be our siblings. Our trip was divided into four legs of about 6-7 days, each culminated with a drop where the assistant director at camp would drive out and meet us with all of our new food and necessary gear for the next leg. One of the campers wasn’t present for our third leg due to medical issues, leaving just six of us to fend for ourselves on group solo.

What I assumed would be the most difficult part of the day was our 1000-foot ascent in the morning, which wound up being my high for the day. We’d done the same climb the previous morning to get to the saddle of Leviathan Peak, a mountain that we proceeded to climb with the assistance of three guides. Climbing Leviathan was just about one of the greatest experiences, and greatest peaks, of my life. I’d never actually used climbing gear to go up a mountain, and was used to just taking standard routes, so it was really enjoyable, and I repeatedly compared myself in my head to a wildling ascending The Wall from the beloved TV show Game of Thrones.

This time was different however, because we had to get to the saddle with our backpacks, which always ranged from thirty to fifty pounds. And to make things worse, when we departed from our campsite at about 7:20 AM, it started to drizzle, and there wasn’t a patch of blue in the sky in sight.

As the grass turned into rocks and the terrain got more and more steep, I started to get scarred for the safety of the group. The clouds weren’t parting, and I didn’t want to have to deal with an injured person. Granted, we had a bright orange whistle if anyone ever got hurt, and we knew from the letter I’d read that morning that the counselors would always be no more than a mile or two away and within earshot. I didn’t want to have to use the whistle though, because that would mean failure. Failure as a group to complete our group solo, and failure as a leader.

So, in a moment of concealed fear, I started to pray. To be more specific, I started chanting the words “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” something I repeat quite regularly in my Buddhist practice (I’m not one of those Christians or anything like that). I chanted for blue skies, for strength as a leader, and for safety as we went up the rocks. Normally if I chanted on the trail it would be under my breath, but today it was loud and clear.

As we continued to push up the rocks, I gained more and more confidence, and started chanting vigorously as I saw a little bit of blue start to open up in the light gray sky. I encouraged my camper counterparts to keep going, and showered them with compliments and praise. As we neared the top, I knew from the previous day that there was one particular push that was steeper than anything else we’d done all morning coming.

When we reached that point, I instructed everyone to pair up with a buddy, and for each pair to climb about 20-30 feet behind the pair in front of them. However, as I nervously moved up and down, back and forth between climbing where my buddy was and checking on other pairs, I realized that the plan wasn’t working, because the rocks weren’t stable enough and there was too much risk of rocks being kicked down and hitting other people in the face. From moving up and down so quickly with my pack on, I was starting to lose energy, and it became clear we needed an alternative plan. People started suggesting things and before I knew it we’d gotten ourselves into a little argument, all standing still on an unstable rock field. Additionally, our saving grace patch of blue sky was starting to shrink.

Finally, I made an executive decision for everyone to climb in a horizontal line. I knew that towards the top, we’d have to cross a large patch of snow to our right that was very steep, but having everyone on the same level as we climbed would make it easier to find a safe enough area to cross the snow. Together as a group, we climbed up, taking our time, and everything started to feel in rhythm. I was right in the middle, and was able to calm down a little bit. Eventually, we were able to cross over the snow, safely, and then reach the saddle.

Getting to the top was just great and really felt amazing. It took us 3 hours in total (I predicted 4) and we exchanged high fives and hugs and munched on cliff bars as we took a victorious 15-minute pack break. The rest of the day was safer, but had not gone quite as smoothly as I originally imagined it would, resulting in the 17-hour duration of the day. However, on that early-morning climb, I was able to prove myself as a leader, and I felt that somewhere, the counselors were watching from afar, grinning like I was that morning, knowing that they’d made the right choice putting me in charge for group solo.

Seven days later, I stood at the front of our group and lead us to victory, as I came charging through the banner at the walk-in ceremony, concluding our 26-day, 160+ mile journey.


Did you have an interesting experience over the summer that you want to share with the larger MCDS community? Contact Mrs. Gallup or Francess Dunbar to contribute to our Summer Series.