Expect To Survive

By Jessica Leonard

A winter camping trip provided more confidence than the energy it took build a campsite, make dinner, complete avalanche training lessons, dig for buried beacons, and test snowpack conditions.

I committed to the Explore Program Winter Intro before really knowing the details. If I had known that it was a backpacking, snowshoeing, avalanche training, dig-a-campsite-out-of-a-snow-covered-mountain overnight adventure, I never would have signed up.

In Southern California, where I grew up, it’s only snowed once. And although I have vacationed in snow country, I never had camped in it. In addition, I had never backpacked, never worn snowshoes, and didn’t own any of the gear necessary for such endeavors. Much to my relief, a small army of girlfriends made sure I was prepared with the proper gear efficiently packed and had appropriate clothing.

As departure day neared, I was really nervous, and seriously doubted I could take on this challenge.

Getting Acquainted
The leader Abby prepped her team of Explore students to expect my company, and when we arrived, she encouraged us to take the adventure one step at a time. As we were sitting around the lodge waiting for more gear, Wesley matter-of-factly asked if I was going to throw up. I wasn't, but I certainly didn’t feel confident or excited. When the rest of the gear arrived, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to carry my bulging pack and the snowshoes, ski poles, shovels, and avalanche beacons. We loaded all of the equipment into the van and hit the road.

Our hike was to start more than an hour away at Lookout Pass. After pulling off the freeway, unloading the gear, loading up the packs, and strapping on snowshoes, we took off. I noticed there were no trail markers, only a road. I must have looked distressed because my fellow Green Team members kept asking me if I was OK. Eventually, I got into a rhythm and “de-layered” to avoid sweating. I knew sweating was not a good thing, but at the same time, I was apprehensive about removing too many layers. Because it was snowing, taking clothing off seemed counterintuitive.

At one point, Nathan—a fellow staff member and instructor paired with our team—wanted us to “break trail.” Just snowshoe through the fresh powder that goes up to one’s hips if not on snowshoes? Yikes!

For the most part, the “break trail” adventure wasn't too bad because I was able to follow in someone else’s footsteps. Eventually, we stopped, and Nathan pointed up the hill and said we were returning to the road. Up this nearly vertical hill? It wasn't nearly vertical, but for Miss Southern California, it might as well have been. I only got up the hill because Abby and Wesley—for all practical purposes—pulled me up. I couldn't grip the snow to create steps (a skill I learned later), and I had become too frustrated to do much by myself at that point. After everyone else ascended the steep incline, we kept hiking. One of my biggest fears was not being physically able to keep up with the group, and now my deep feeling of inadequacy was rearing its ugly head. Abby reminded me that she had barely made it up the hill herself and pointed out the purpose of a team was to help each other achieve what we couldn’t on our own.

Active Participation
I had never anticipated an activity like adventure camping. I consider myself a fairly active person, but camping of any kind, much less winter camping, was not even on my radar. I thought people who took that on were crazy, but then it was my turn to venture into crazy after survival of a different kind. In the year prior to this trip, my husband left me, I moved back in with my parents, I changed jobs, and then I lost a job, so my confidence was at a record low. In the midst of getting back on my feet, I signed up for this terrifying activity. The idea of surviving, let alone thriving, was not even a consideration.

While I have learned a great deal about myself in the last year and a half, I may have learned the most in the shortest amount of time while on the Winter Intro. I learned I’m stronger than I think. My comfort zone is still fairly small, but it is growing. With adventure programming, I stepped outside of myself and, as a result, opened myself to other areas as well.

During my group’s adventure on the mountain, we fashioned a campsite out of nothing, cooked and ate dinner, and, remarkably, slept. On the next day, we completed some lessons in avalanche training, dug for buried beacons, and tested snowpack conditions. Nearly 24 hours after arriving, we started to head back to the vans. I had tucked a Snickers bar in my jacket and was so excited to eat it as a reward for completing the challenge, and doing most of it with a smile on my face. The return walk was much easier on a downhill slope, and I knew the end was in sight. We didn’t have to break trail, although we chose to in order to get back more quickly. However, near the very end of the trail, with the road in sight, I took a wrong step and landed on my back in a frozen creek bed. My left leg was bent awkwardly under me and I couldn’t get up because the snowshoe was caught in the snow. Nathan untangled me, and he and Wesley, now chuckling at my predicament, pulled me up. I felt like a turtle on its shell as I lay there waiting for them to help me.

A Drive To Thrive
A few minutes later, I was sitting in the van, savoring that candy bar that had come to represent every trial, success, and reward of this outdoor odyssey. I was told that, when people return from the backcountry, everyday foods taste so much better. And this was no exception. The Snickers bar tasted great!

I never thought I would consider—let alone complete—a winter adventure camping trip, and when I started the Winter Intro, I really had my doubts. But the best team in the world held me up and encouraged me on every step of the journey. After completing the adventure programming, I knew little “Miss born-and-raised in Southern California” could handle just about anything life put in my path. My confidence was starting to return, and I felt even stronger. What’s next? I don’t know, but I don’t fear whatever it is, for I know I’m not alone; I’m surrounded by people who love me and are personally invested in seeing me survive and, yes, thrive.

Jessica Leonard is the registrar for Camp Bighorn in Plains, Mont. Reach her at jessical@campbighorn.com .