The granite peaks of Sequoia National park seemed to float in the distance. The mountains can play with many illusions and at that moment it seemed the blue bird sky was just above our heads. Canyons and valleys were visible for miles, and tiny remnants of snow fields clung to the side of the mountains across from us. It seemed we could see everything. But we hadn’t even reached the summit yet. It was day 10 of 22 in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park and I was co-leading a group of ten adults on an Outward Bound alpine backpacking course.
We were hiking towards Copper Mine Peak, elevation 12,345 feet. We were climbing the peak with full packs, and the other side would lead us to our campsite for the night, deep off trail. A narrow use-trail lead up the ridge to the summit. About forty feet away, my co-leader stopped the group. “I invite you to walk the rest of the way up in silence,” he said. “Along the way, you can pick up a rock and think about who you would like to dedicate this climb and peak to. When everyone is at the top, you can step forward if you want and share your dedication.”
The air was heavy with the silence of thought and beauty, as our footsteps continued. The space on the summit was small, but enough for the 12 of us to find a safe place to position ourselves. For a long time, we gazed out, still in silence, looked out at the great expanse of the Sierra Nevada mountains all around us. “I think one of us needs to go first,” my co-leader whispered to me. I nodded, and stepped forward with my rock. “I dedicate this to my father, who died four years ago, and would be very proud to see me top this mountain and leading you all.” One by one, students placed their rocks out before them. They spoke their dedications, many of their voices breaking with tears. They spoke of grandmothers, parents, girlfriends, and others.
Time seemed to suspend as we sat in undefined minutes of silence and thought. The high Sierra sun shone down. It seemed for a brief moment that we were, somehow, the only ones experiencing its heat, the only ones anywhere, for miles. The mountain dropped off steeply on either side, and far in the distance, the haze of California’s central valley pollution was visible. In that silence, much was said.
Fast forward twelve days later, and on our last night, we sat by the river, a few hundred yards away from our campground in Kings Canyon. In our closing circle, I read an entry called Briefing for Entry into a More Harsh Environment. It was about the “truly important things we should take with us for quite some time.” Among some of them: to take care of yourself, stay in touch with basics, keep taking risks with people, to continue to learn to use new tools, techniques and ideas, that things always seem harder, or even impossible from a distance.
It is difficult to put into words how 22 days in the backcountry with experiences such as hiking up a 12,000 foot peak changes someone’s life. These words are a glimpse into our 22 days, and words explaining them cannot truly do them justice. Our Copper Mine Peak experience, combined with many others, defined our Outward Bound course, and the students’ experiences. It is 22 days intertwined with experiences that are not isolated but connect together to weave a fabric of change. They are the challenges: the peak, 14 roundtrip miles to gather our resupply food, 18 miles hiking until 1:30am, laughter, wilderness, beauty that is beyond words, navigation, interpersonal lessons, cooking, conflicts, sickness, blisters, pristine alpine lakes, navigating off trail, steep talus descents, conflict resolution, 48 hours of solo by the river, and many others that build this change.
I wonder, what will they take from this? They have told me in closing circles and in a last check in. But, sometimes that answer still remains elusive.
Partway through the trip, one of my students handed me a note she had written to me during her solo experience: Thanks for not letting me go home on the first resupply. This trip hasn’t been easy (and I know it’s not going to ever be easy) but I know I’ll take a lot from it once it’s over…
I hold faith that they take a wealth of things from the experience. I am entrusted with the mission to change lives through challenge and discovery. Quite a hefty task. I assure you, it is done. The last line of the reading I shared on our last night is “And if they are truly perceptive, they might respond, you do not need the mountains to do that. But, in our complex world, you just may.” I’d like to add, you just may need summits like Copper Mine and Outward Bound to do that as well.