This January I came back to home sweet Sweet Briar a few days early to participate in the Winter training trip for Outdoor Program instructors and apprentices. This would be my first trip as an apprentice, and would consist of three days backpacking in the mountains of George Washington National Forest in freezing weather.
The three day journey was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life, however it was also one of the most challenging, mentally and physically. The first night we got to camp very late due to a last minute change in route. By then we were all exhausted, it was 12-15°F, snow blanketed the ground, and it was pitch-black in every direction. The first thing we had to do was strip in order to change into dry clothes. This is an important outdoor concept that helps ensure that you stay dry and warm by trading in the moist clothes you’ve been sweating in all day for fresh layers. But the idea of getting into my birthday suit for even a few seconds in the bone chilling weather was almost as painful as actually doing it. Almost. But Tasha encouraged us with expressions of how much better we would feel, so we all made the plunge. And we did in fact feel a little better. But there were tents to be setup, food to be cooked, and a fire to be built so we weren’t off the hook yet.
That night I lay bundled up in my sleeping bag, terrified of doing it all over again the next day, but my fear was short lived. I was far too exhausted from the day’s events to lie awake worrying for long, and quickly succumbed to sleep among the quiet forest sounds.
The next morning was like a fresh start. Having successfully survived the preceding day, I woke up feeling energized and excited despite the previous night’s chilly chaos. We ate breakfast, purified water for the day, and cleaned up camp, then set out on our way with new optimistic attitudes. Our group pace was impressive throughout some intense up-hills and by the time we reached the top of three ridges everyone seemed uplifted and empowered by the amazing view we had worked so hard to reach. I think its safe to say that this was a favorite moment for everyone, as we relaxed while snacking on GORP (trail mix), chatting with each other, posing for pictures and just taking it all in.
When we got to camp that night we knew exactly what to do and transitioned smoothly into our designated roles. We ended the evening with holla hollas around the campfire and dove chocolate before heading to our tents and drifting off to the sound of the nearby stream. That night, my body ached all over, but it felt invigorated and alive. All the images of the days hike flashed through my mind in sharper detail than I knew my brain had the power to register and retain.
For me, this trip was such a memorable and important experience in my life primarily because it was so challenging. The pride of persevering through the rough patches made the beautiful and happy moments that much more incredible. I had been personally having a difficult time with some emotions in the days leading up to the our adventure, but I truly believe getting out there and freezing my toes and fingers off was the best thing for me. The distraction of keeping my peers and myself in good health was restorative, while the quiet non-judgment of nature was therapeutic. A quote by John Muir really embodies all that I learned on this three day hike and that is: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”