Rob Greene, Heather Ekstrom & Caroline L
Just three months after our National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip to Alaska, I’ve already been in school for a month and played countless hours of tennis, but I am also still reliving the most fulfilling and insightful trip I’ve ever been on. Writing this feels a bit like capping off a journey I am not ready to complete.
Months before I knew the Alaska trip existed, I had fostered a bit of a fascination for climbing and backpacking. I had been obsessively watching The North Face documentaries on Youtube, enamored with the chops of elite outdoor athletes such as Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Conrad Anker, Alex Honnold, and Emily Harrington.
When the possibility of a trip to Alaska was introduced at Westridge, I realized that my obsession was not so much with the athletes themselves, but with the places they explored and their nomadic lifestyles. Backpacking in Alaska seemed like the perfect way to introduce myself to the outdoors in a more rugged, push-your-body-to-the-limit way than I had ever experienced.
So after several weeks of begging, some summer rescheduling, and the most understanding attitude ever from my Mom and Dad, I was all set to hop on a plane in June and land in Anchorage 10 hours later.
Having never backpacked before, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew it would be hard, but not in the incredibly mentally grueling way that it was. As a competitive athlete, I am familiar with the concept of pushing my body to and past its limits and a large part of me enjoys the pain I feel when I do so. Having aching, sore muscles makes me feel like I have accomplished something so large that even my machine of a body is affected.
However, I have struggled with the mental aspects of tennis for a long time. The focus and concentration that come with each point have always been the hardest things for me to control. I thought that going to Alaska and having to give so much energy to the physical aspects of the trip would somehow wipe away the problems I was having mentally.
What I found on my trip was that the mental obstacles I had to overcome were much more significant than the physical pain I was in, but being in the wilderness and having no choice but to trek on helped me take control of my mind.
As we arrived at NOLS Alaska headquarters in Palmer on June 17, excitement overtook me. The prospect of pushing myself as hard as ever over the next ten days was overwhelming in a fantastical, dream-come-true type of way.
The bush plane ride into the backcountry was the calm before the storm - literally. We flew over impressive geologic formations, drainages carved out by centuries of snowmelt, and herds of Dahl sheep until we landed at our campsite for the night. However, as more pressing issues arose, the nervous excitement I felt during the plane ride started to drift away.
As it started to drizzle, we realized that we had forgotten tent stakes, and immediately, the heavy-lifting of the expedition began. The sky started dumping rain on us as we gathered rocks to secure our tents. The previous eagerness I felt evaded me as we sat frozen in our tents, beyond frustrated that this was how our trip was commencing.
The next day we awoke to the same wet, grey skies, but keeping our end goal of reaching the road-head in mind, we trudged alongside a river, hoping the rain would cease so we could make a respectable amount of progress that day. We were a little too optimistic.
We made about 500 feet of progress that day, and camped next to the same river we had the night before. At that point, I was wondering why I had even come on the trip. If I was not going to push myself physically every day, then what was the point? I could think about nothing but leaving the backcountry, and could not help but wonder if the backpacking life was just not for me.
As a group, we had a conversation about how to overcome this hump and recognize the possibility that we might make far less progress than we had anticipated. The prospect of hiking only a few miles over the next couple of days was daunting because at that point, we all thought that this is what the rest of the trip would look like. After a very candid talk about our plan going forward, I accepted the fact that we were stuck in the wilderness for the next week, and knew I had to change my attitude if I wanted to get the most out of my experience.
I focused on my surroundings, taking in the midnight sun and being thankful for the people around me. By day four, things were looking up, and my attitude had shifted. My doubts about why I chose to go on the expedition were gone.
After a seven mile hike mostly uphill one day, we spent the night at our highest altitude of the trip. We sat down on a hill above our camp to cook dinner, and I reflected on the day. I had a new mindset, and despite the arduous journey we took to get to our campsite that day, I could barely feel physical pain.
The sense of community and grit grew between our group as the trip progressed. I loved the sense of accomplishment I felt after a long day of hiking, talking and cooking, and the nature around me became more prominent. I could not believe how big the mountains were or how straight they rose from low valleys. Whether it was jumping into an alpine lake, making backcountry pizza, even stepping into wet boots, or staying up late during the summer solstice, it all just seemed as close to perfect as I could imagine.
Being in Alaska helped me grow a love for the outdoors that I had never experienced before. I felt a different sense of accomplishment from backpacking and being in the wilderness. I loved always having something to do, whether it was studying a map, making bear calls, or scouting the best place to cross a river. I discovered that I truly love waking up early each morning to boil water in thick fog, walking all day, and falling asleep while the sun is still out.
The immensity of the space around me became so much bigger than any other problem I could have. I realized that I am most myself when I am moving. My own determination, the vastness of the outdoors, and the people around me taught me this, and I learned to love the intimacy of a landscape on my own two feet.
The lessons I have internalized from my trip are much different from what I expected to learn. While I did learn technical skills that I will make great use of on future trips, I cherish my personal development the most. I know that this growth will take different forms as I move along in life, but am secure in the idea that the things I learned about myself and others will always stay with me.
I recognize a stronger will in myself now, and reflect on the expedition every day, knowing that if I was able to persist as much as I did in the Alaskan backcountry, I do not have any excuses for something that is hard for me in the frontcountry. I am now held accountable by the people, memories, and land itself to always push myself past seemingly untouchable limits. These are the teachings of the wilderness, and they helped me find my grit.