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Wilderness: The Hard Way

Thirty Days in the Wind River Mountains

by Daisy Hougan

One moment I was standing on a perfectly dry rock, planning my route across the creek. The next moment my foot slipped and I hit my forehead on another rock. As I knelt in the water, I felt someone take my pack off and help me onto the opposite shore. I thanked Stu and sat down. Jeff said I was bleeding and offered me his bandanna. Barb, our head instructor, looked at the cut and asked me if I wanted to walk out to a hospital to get stitches. I think I surprised us both when I said no.

I had spent nearly the entire month before that moment wishing I were home, and now I wanted to stay in the wilderness. If this had happened at almost any other time, I would have rushed to the doctor to get the cut sewn up. But this was different. I had come this far, and there was no way I was going to back out now.

The circumstances that led me to make this decision began in early 1992, when my mother had asked what I thought of hiking and camping in the Rockies with a program called the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I replied that it sounded like a nice idea, and who was planning on going?

I had no idea she meant to send me.

I arrived in Lander, Wyoming, a town of about 7,500 people, in late May. I wandered what seemed the town's only street, wondering why I was there and whether it was too late to go back home. Unwilling to back out before I began, I deposited myself in the lobby of the NOLS headquarters at the Noble Hotel. The place was crawling with outdoorsy types. They all seemed oppressively cheerful and hearty.

NOLS, a non-profit institute, was formed in 1965. It offers about 60 wilderness and outdoors courses, focusing on minimum-impact camping, safety, survival, technical skills and leadership. In the Wind River course, we would spend a month hiking and camping in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, covering a minimum of 50 miles and traversing 7,000- to 11 ,000-foot mountain passes.

There I was, a 19 year old in the yuppie equivalent of boot camp.

On the first of June, we began to get outfitted. We were told to snow proof our boots. Snow? In summer? We were also taught the fundamentals of safety, wilderness risk assessment and first aid. We would be carrying a radio, but terrain and atmospheric conditions would make contact uncertain. The only communication would be to radio an overflying airplane to request re-transmission of an emergency message. If one of us were to get hurt, we could be days away from rescue.

When the bus driver dropped our group of 15 off at the trail head and then drove off beeping and waving, I was left wondering exactly how I ended up in this situation. The 30 days until another bus would come to rescue me stretched out endlessly. I was sure I was never going to get home and as long as I was out here, I was determined not to have a good time.

After the preliminaries of folding up the maps and learning how to walk in heavy hiking boots, we began our hike into the wilderness. With a 60-pound pack, I felt I might just tip over backwards and stay there. Despite jogging and lifting weights before my arrival in Lander, I was tired and sweaty long before we came to the end of the two-mile hike. Everyone else seemed like a descendent of Grizzly Adams.

Many people imagine "camping" the way I used to think about it-sitting around the campfire eating s'mores. Not on our trip; the emphasis of the expedition was minimal environmental impact. There were to be no campfires, only campstoves, no matter how cold it got. At one point we came upon some rocks scarred with fire. We turned the rocks over and scattered the evidence of humans. The only things we left behind, anywhere, were footprints. We also received instructions on how to set up camp: "Make sure you're near water so you'll have something to cook with and drink," we were told. "But make sure that you're at least 200 yards away so you don't contaminate the water source. Make sure you pick up any food you drop. Always set up your tent on rocks."

"Rocks?" I asked.

"Yes, otherwise someone could see the impression of the tent on the earth."

I'm in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness, surrounded by 20 lunatics, anal you're worried about the impression of the tent in the earth?, I thought.

But it only got worse. In the wilderness, there would only he two methods of relieving oneself: one involved a trowel, and the other (the approved method above treeline) was called the arctic smear (use your imagination). No toilet paper was allowed either; leaves and pinecones were de rigueur. In my opinion, anyone who wanted to come on this trip should be put in a straitjacket until the feeling passed. I had to admit to myself, however, these people were rather interesting.

There was a mix of high school and college students, and a few graduates. Most were in their 20s. The youngest was Amy, a 15-year-old from Lander. I've never seen anyone so determined to keep up. She was amazing. Despite her age, or perhaps because of it, she surpassed most of us. She never complained, pushing herself harder long after I was ready to give up. Following her lead, I tried to keep from complaining and push myself to the end.

Barb, our leader, was a Princeton grad who decided that the rat race just wasn't for her. When someone asked her how she could stand to spend so much time away from the real world, she replied, "Some of us think this is the real world."

Craig, a fellow Virginian, was incredible. He had a wealth of information on anything in the wilderness and was always ready with a smile. Last was Dan "the Mountain Man," so named because of his impressive beard growth. Dan appeared carefree and happy-go-lucky. When I hiked with him, though, he forced me to make my own decisions and was only there to help me out when needed.

We divided into three groups, with an instructor for each group, and the hiking began. We didn't stop for lunch, but took breaks as often as needed to snack on trail mix, pretzels, dried fruit or cheese and crackers. As we learned, storms come up quickly in the mountains, usually in the mid-afternoon, so, we tried to have tents pitched by that time of day.

After 10 days or so we became more self-sufficient and began hiking without instructors. This required more preparation. We had to provide a description of our hike: where we planned to go, who was in what group and who had what equipment. This forced us to figure out the best way to go before we left. In case we got lost, our route was known so searchers could look for us. We made sure that if we did get lost, we had the right equipment and could survive on our own.

I often thought I was going to die, and I wasn't the only one. For fun, we would sit in our tent and write our wills. I fell asleep thinking either "One more day closer to going home," or "No, I think Dad should have the bulk of my books because he's interested in some of the same things." All teenagers think they're invincible; it comes with the territory. I learned during the trip, however, survival isn't something to take for granted; you have to work at it.

One night in particular made me realize how mortal we all are. We occasionally abandoned the cramped tents for nights under the stars, but that night I heard thunder in the distance and looked up to see a cloudy sky. Julie and I decided to play it safe and sleep inside, but our two other tent mates wanted to sleep outside. The night was bitterly cold, so I pulled on my long underwear, put my balaclava on and settled in for the night, letting my wet socks share my sleeping bag in a futile attempt to dry them.

It started to snow, covering our tent in a blanket of white. I realized this when Grace staggered into our tent hours later. In an attempt to find the tent in the dark snowstorm, Grace had stumbled down the hill and back up before finding the tent. I sat there feeling helpless, watching Julie help Grace warm up and get back to sleep. I lay awake a long time that night, thinking about how easily Grace might have wandered around for hours that night, not finding our tent or anyone else's. I wondered if we would have found her in the morning.

Grace did find us, and she did survive the experience, only a little bit worse for the wear. But the experience reinforced how hard life can be without the modern conveniences of heat, electricity, even a roof over one's head.

Another day, we took a particularly difficult hike in a cold rain. Shivering and tired, we rested on an exposed ridge to check our maps, when a violent thunderstorm hit. With lightning flashing and thunder echoing, there was only time to scramble slightly lower while Craig yelled through the thunder that we were to sit on our rubber mats. "That way you won't get burned as much if lightning strikes the rock."

The night before we crossed over the Continental Divide, we asked our instructors what exactly the Continental Divide was. I'd heard about it often and knew it was in the Rockies, but why should I care? Barb explained that all the water on the east side of the Divide eventually runs to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, while that on the west side runs down to the Pacific Ocean.

Which, of course, led to the question of what happened to the water directly on the Divide itself.

"I suppose half goes one way and half goes the other way," Barb shrugged.

Of course, we all had to pee on the top of the Continental Divide, so we could say that half of it ran to the Pacific Ocean and half ran the other way.

We stayed for quite some time at the crest of the Divide, watching the barren rocks and snow turn to forest below and, in the distance, into prairies.

More than the wilderness, more than the camping, more than anything else, it was my bump on the head that made all the difference. It taught me a lot about trust and teamwork, which is what NOLS was all about. Not to say that I didn't get cranky sometimes or that we didn't have some tough going. But I enjoyed the trip a lot more because I had finally made the decision to be there-NOLS was something I wanted to do for myself.

The most exciting part of the trip was the walk out. I joined up with Charles, Ellen, Julie and Kent. We wouldn't meet the rest of the group until we regrouped for the return to Lander; a total of four days to ourselves. By this time, l really liked the people I was with and admitted that I was having a good time. We were in good enough shape to handle the longer, more difficult hikes quickly with fewer breaks. We no longer stopped going up the steep slopes, and I didn't sweat the small stuff. Hail storms, plunging waist-deep into snow and being days from civilization were just parts of the hike.

On June 29th we reached the trail head, where the bus would meet us the next day. In the distance saw the yellow blob that was our instructor's tent. l felt like singing. After we passed two boys hiking into the wilderness, Ellen whispered, "Did you see how clean they looked?" We began to hallucinate about food, hot baths and music.

Despite my determined efforts not to enjoy the trip, I did. At first, I couldn't stand being stuck in the wilderness with people I didn't know and, therefore, didn't like. Because we were always on the move in the wilderness, there was never any time to be alone. The resulting bonding was intense. I ended up becoming close friends with people I never would have known were it not for the trip. In addition, the terrain was as stressful, threatening and as exhausting as it was beautiful. We saw other people or walked on marked trails only three times. The rest of the time, we walked through the woods on our own, using our maps and picking the best route we could. l learned that wilderness is not just a parkland; it is a part of the earth that makes its own rules. When you enter it, you need to respect those rules.

Now that I'm back in civilization, I can't stop thinking about the trip. I got the new NOLS catalog in the mail a while ago. l found my younger brother looking through it and when I entered the room, he said, "Look, there's a horsepacking trip in here. That'd be cool, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, Matt," I said. "I think it would be cool. Would you mind if I came along?"

Getting there
Travel to Lander, Wyoming involves (for most) flying to Denver, Colorado, and taking a small plane to Riverton, Wyoming. Arrangements for the trip to Riverton should be made as early as possible because flights fill up quickly. Land transportation from Riverton to Lander can be arranged by Great Divide Tours. (800) 458-1915.

NOLS offers wilderness and mountaineering courses in many locations, including Wyoming, Patagonia, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The duration of most trips is 30 days. Cost is approximately $2,500 for most wilderness courses. Because NOLS courses are physically demanding, applicants are screened to determine physical fitness. For more information, call NOLS (307) 332-5300 or write: National Outdoor Leadership School, 288 Main Street, Lander, WY 82520-3140.

Published in the May/June 1995 issue of Adventure West Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. For subscription information, call (800) 846-8575. Copyright © 1995 Adventure West

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