The Wind River Mountains consist of 2,800 square miles of rugged alpine terrain. During the decade or so that I worked as an instructor for NOLS, I traveled through and camped in nearly all of those square miles.
As a NOLS instructor, the objectives of a 30-day backpacking course are pretty simple: take 12 strangers into the wilderness and bring them out A) alive, B) connected to each other and the environment and C) better leaders. The daily “to-do” list consists of cooking meals, hiking through the mountains and deciding on a place to sleep each night.
Despite the simplicity, the challenging terrain and intimacy of the team highlight the real-time environment and consequences.
If you cook a bad meal, your peers have to eat it because it's the only food you have. If your small hiking group gets lost, you have to get yourselves “un-lost.” And then, of course, there are obstacles like frigid river crossings, summer-time snowstorms and extremely difficult travel through large boulder fields with a 40-pound backpack.
One of the most memorable courses I worked was taking a group of Midshipmen (also known as Mids) from the U.S. Naval Academy into the Wind River Mountains. The Naval Academy had developed a partnership with NOLS specifically to expose these young people to “non-fatal failure.” It turns out, Navy captains and admirals are not very good at allowing 20-something-year-olds to fail with million-dollar weapon systems. So they let NOLS give it a try.
Our instructor team received the briefing just prior to the course: "Give them as much independence as possible. Let them make mistakes and learn how to navigate failure.” By day five the students were hiking in small groups while the instructors hiked separately and met them at camp each night. The four-person small groups were responsible for their own navigation, risk management and group decision making. This was a normal progression for all NOLS students, but it usually began much later in the course to ensure they had the skills needed to travel on their own.
As it turned out, these Mids didn’t actually have the navigational skills they needed to be completely independent. They got lost...a lot. Yet, they always managed to recover from the wrong turn and make it to camp each night. As the more proficient (and far less exhausted) instructor team, we reasoned this was an excellent exercise in persevering through “non-fatal failure.”
Around the third week of the course, we were camped in a valley and positioned to enter the most difficult stretch of the route — a multi-day ascent of the steepest peaks in the range, followed by traveling the spine of the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. At this point we handed over all route planning duties to the students. To our surprise, they decided to take an additional rest day in our current location and double up on mileage the following day. In our well-practiced and unemotional instructor voices we said, “OK, sounds good.”
In reality, all three instructors were very nervous about the day of hiking they had proposed. Yes, our legs would be more rested and the packs would be three meals lighter from our rest day, but they were expecting us to travel 6 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain, entirely off trail. That's a big day for anyone.
On the designated rest day, my co-instructor and I scrambled up the Mids’ chosen ravine to see which route might be best. Despite not wearing backpacks on this scouting mission, the travel was slow and difficult. We came back and told the other instructor, “It’s going to be a long day.” (It’s worth noting the instructor I went scouting with was a former NFL player, which is to say we took his opinions on physical exertion fairly seriously.)
The next morning we awoke early and started hiking around dawn. The students were just rolling into their kitchens to make breakfast and we wished them all the best. The shiny optimism in their eyes suggested they had no idea what was coming.
The day was brutal. We spent the entire morning bushwhacking through thick trees and fallen logs, only to reach a mile-long boulder field with granite boulders the size of small cars. After that bouldering stretch it was more steep climbing over loose rock and snow fields. Our instructor team moved as steadily and efficiently as possible, stopping only long enough to consume food and water.
Even with our proficiency, it was still a 10-hour hiking day. We set up camp and ate our dinner at 11,500 feet without saying much. We were completely exhausted. As the sun went down around 9 p.m. we placed bets on the likelihood of the hiking groups making it to camp. None of us bet on any of the students arriving before noon the following day.
Instructors never sleep that well when students don’t make it to camp, and all three of us were doing just that in the tent several hours after going to bed. Sometime after 11 p.m. we heard the faint, yet joyful sound of singing in the distance. Knowing one of the students was a member of an acapella group at the Naval Academy, it left little doubt as to who was approaching.
We crawled out of the tent to discover all 10 headlamps marching up the final boulder field. I quickly did the math and concluded they had been hiking for at least 14 hours. A few minutes later the Mids marched into camp exhausted and tattered, but in remarkably good spirits.
As their epic stories of the day tumbled out, our evaluation of their proficiency was severely challenged. First, they had left camp as a large group instead of breaking into smaller groups. They explained, “Well, Danny is the only one who knows how to read a map. So, we decided to save the time of getting lost and travel together.” (smart, right?!). When they got to the giant field of boulders they set up a system to pass the heavy backpacks so no one had to climb while wearing a heavy pack (I wish my NFL co-instructor had thought of that!). This took some time, but saved an immeasurable amount of effort. Finally, when one student took a fall and sprained an ankle, they redistributed the entire weight of that backpack amongst the larger team.
After watching them prepare a moonlit dinner and set up camp, we asked the students what they wanted the plan to be for the next day. They responded, “We’ve got ground to cover, we’ll be ready by 8 a.m.”
As I crawled into the tent for a second time that night, I remember thinking this incredible group of Midshipmen had out-smarted our plan to teach them “non-fatal failure.” Despite the instructors not really giving them the necessary tools, they overcame every challenge placed in front of them. They used the resources at their disposal creatively and maintained a positive attitude the entire time.
To translate their approach into a leadership mantra, “You can get a lot done on naivety and enthusiasm.”
If anyone tells you they have the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the landscape of 2020, they are lying to you (or perhaps have really low self-awareness, which I would argue is even worse). No one has the training to read this map and face this challenging terrain without making a few wrong turns. From classrooms to corporate offices and living rooms to medical laboratories, we all have far more responsibility than proficiency.
But take a cue from a few teenagers who are now Navy and Marine captains. Make big plans amid challenging circumstances. Take advantage of every resource at your disposal. When your feet are tired and your pack is heavy find a song to sing anyway. Lift each other up and dig deep in the well of resilience.
Not only are you capable of far more than you realize, you are likely more capable than the experts betting on you.
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