By Bruce Hendricks, Director of Outdoor Education
Navigating the backcountry, much like ﬁnding our way through life, school and social interactions, can be full of challenge, discovery, and wonder. The wayﬁnding process can also be ﬁlled with anxiety, dread, and exhaustion. Sometimes a single day, or even a single hour, can elicit all of these emotions and states.
The new blanket of snow has obscured the ground underneath. It’s fall in the Canadian Rockies. It would be considered winter in many other places in the world. The steep hillside leading up through the forest, skirting around the rock outcrop, is slippery and requires good pacing and route ﬁnding to ensure group members don’t expend needless energy to reach the upper ridge of Elbow Hill. One participant is falling behind, struggling, slipping and sliding as his feet shear out of the fragile steps. The energy expenditure is taking its toll. Another participant has hung back to offer encouragement and give suggestions for ways to compact snow underfoot to create more stable footholds. The leader and their assistant are combining a compass bearing with route ﬁnding principles like “stick to the high ground” and “create a shallow angle of ascent” to make things as easy as possible. Those in the lead group are chatting and laughing. Never out of earshot from one another, those up front and the two participants downslope are on the same planet, but in different worlds.
Eventually, where the slope angle eases, the two groups reunite. The people in front check in with those who have just arrived to make sure all is as well as it can be. After a drink, some food, and a change of leadership everyone continues punching steps in the now level white ground. Within a few minutes they come upon an opening on the ridge. This marks the start of the descent. The view to the west is glorious. Clouds part periodically to reveal patches of blue-black sky etched by rocky, snowy summits as far as the eye can see. The view, the food and water, the promise of downhill travel all contribute to renewed energy and enthusiasm. The vibe is almost giddy.
The once struggling participant has been brought up front right behind the new leadership team. This way he won’t feel like he’s always having to ‘catch up’. Before everyone starts down he takes a moment to express his gratitude to the group for their patience, encouragement and compassion. He admits this is a new environment for him. Though he’s hiked before it hasn’t been off trail or in steep, snowy conditions like this. He is impressed by the level of skill demonstrated by those in the lead, all of them students. Given that he is the new Senior School Principal it’s been quite an education, he admits. But then, he knew it would likely be a challenge and he dove in anyhow. It’s been a bit of a role reversal that has been educative for everyone concerned. Leadership, followership, vulnerability, encouragement, suffering, joy, laughter, beauty all wrapped into one little / epic hike (the descriptor for the day depends on who you talk to).