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Lessons I learned on the mountain

| Monday, February 19, 2018

No one thought I’d do it. Not even I thought I’d do it. As I sat in my friend’s backyard July 4, with the background of fireworks and watermelon and reality setting in that I was heading off in less than 12 hours, I had to wonder what compelled me to agree to spend 14 days backpacking with a dozen classmates in Cimarron, New Mexico at Philmont, a high adventure camp owned by the Boy Scouts of America.

I’ve always been active and I really like the kids who were going, but it was certainly out of my comfort zone, with my experience of camping more resembling “glamping.”

Our all-girls crew contributed to the 3 percent of women at the campsite, assuring we certainly stuck out like sore thumbs. It wasn’t uncommon to get confused looks from a posse of 13-year-old boys.

After one day at base camp, we set off to tackle 100 miles with 50 pounds of weight on our backs. The first couple days were full of challenges, from aching muscles, to hour-long battles about properly-hanging bear bags and even waking up at 4 a.m. to the sound of a skunk rustling right outside my tent, petrified about the next two weeks should it decide to spray me.

Needless to say, the physical struggles eventually did decrease with each mile as we became more acclimated to the conditions. However, like any trade off, other obstacles arose — particularly in terms of personality conflicts. Spend 14 days with any group of six people and you’re sure to see their true colors. As tensions arose, we were forced to learn various coping tactics and communicate with each other more. Despite having a seemingly infinite amount of space at my feet, there were times where I’ve never felt more suffocated. Although we didn’t always get along, we each understood the role of protector and supporter we had to play. On day seven, we awoke to thunderstorms and a sharp dip in the temperature. My clothes got soaked as we continued our trek, leaving several of us at risk for hypothermia. Even when I was convinced I’d never be warm again, I never doubted that I could rely on my fellow crew members. After the dust settled, I looked back on those two weeks as some of the fondest of my life, and I continue to do so.

Many of the lessons I learned on the mountain have been directly applicable to my first semester and a half at Notre Dame. The allocation of tasks, such as cooking and bear bag hanging, are not unlike taking out the trash and vacuuming my dorm room floor. The feelings of incredibly deep and immediate friendships creating a dichotomy with a need for space are present both on the mountain and throughout campus. Eating the same meals over and over prepared me for the dining hall experience.

I still wear Philmont gear around campus and often get comments from fellow backpackers sharing their own experiences, each of them reminded of their own growth throughout the trek.

Despite the numerous times I declared that all I wanted was a home-cooked meal and a shower, I would go back in a heartbeat. The disconnect from the outside world was a euphoria. Standing 12,000 feet in the air overlooking miles and miles of valleys and peaks, there is no other choice than to be humbled. That humbling feeling has repeated itself many times as of recently — such as the first time I failed a test or during the struggle to make instant lifelong friendships. I’m grateful to have had a literal mountaintop moment. Those feelings are no longer ones of insecurity or inadequacy, but rather opportunity and memories.

If ever given the opportunity to participate in any backpacking or extended outdoor activity — say yes. Don’t think twice. At moments, you might worry that you’re losing your sanity, only to be followed by a view that leaves you breathless.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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