Lessons from the Wild: 21-day field course


The Crew

Malia Kellerman, Editor


I’m fighting back tears as we post-hole upwards, forever upwards. My 70-pound pack cuts into my skin with every step, and I’m blinded by snow that seems to be never-ending. I can’t feel my feet. Backpacking boots are great and all, but when walking in at least a foot of snow every minute of every day they really aren’t ideal. I’m the coldest, wettest, hungriest, and most tired I’ve been, and its only mile two of five today. I try to keep my mind off how uncomfortable I am, and instead focus on putting one foot in front of another. I’m just hoping we reach our destination before sundown. This is mountaineering in the Sierras during the spring of 2019, one of the wettest winters recorded.

The crew consisted of nine of my best friends – Kayla Heidenreich, Cory Skaggs, Luke Moran-Petersen, Emily McCusker, Kelly Sharp, Tyler Rayman, Kyle Sperzel, Victoria Boldi, Nathan Moose – and two incredible Outward Bound instructors – Jeff Podmayer and Rachel Drattler. We embarked on a three-week mountaineering/backpacking course out in the John Muir Wilderness on May 18thand returned June 7th. We were all under the impression that there might have been a bit of snow on the ground here and there, but nothing more; NOTHING MORE. Jokes on us… The first morning we awoke to ten inches of fresh powder – with absolutely no snow gear.

Setting up camp, day 3

Dealing with frost-nip, extreme cold, extreme wet, thunder, lightning, fasting, post-holing, tears, smiles, magical moments, growth, and adventure led to some of the most important lessons I’ve learned. During this journey, I kept a journal with which I recorded everything about this trip. I decided to reflect on specific moments and focus on the lessons I learned. Welcome to snapshots of the 21-day pilgrimage.

Emily (middle), Kelly (right), and I (left) having a moment.


12 people. 24 frozen boots. 17 days of snow. 14 lightning bolts. 12 days to summit a peak. 11 bottles of hot sauce. 10 heavy-ass bear cans. 6 frost-nipped toes. 3 mids shared. 2 days of solo. 1 unforgettable experience. This might not make much sense, but honestly, this sums up the trip. Before the course, we had prepared for a spring backpacking trip in the high sierras – so basically temperatures around 50-60 degrees during the day and maybe 30-40 degrees at night. Naturally, our packing list fit that genre.  Buttttt it turns out we should have prepared for a winter camping trip because that’s what we did – for the 21 days straight. Literally, I’ve never been that f*cking cold, uncomfortable, hungry, and tired. It took us 5 days to post-hole in the snow to get to our original STARTING destination, Courtright Reservoir, CA. Hah, jokes on us.

Let me outline the trip for you – every day we winter camped. We were sleeping on snow, wearing every layer had (which still wasn’t enough), putting on frozen boots in the morning, wearing clothes that never dried out, using snow to make an insulating wall around our tents, a kitchen, and other handy things. Every day we would hike in at least a foot of snow while wearing packs that ranged from 50-70 pounds in weight. We made every meal together, rotated through 4 different dinners during the trip, ate the same breakfast every day and the same lunch every day. I’ve since vowed to never eat another bowl of granola with dehydrated milk and dried fruits again. During the days it didn’t snow (so like 4 total) we did some mountaineering! We learned how to use fixed lines when ascending a mountain, dome, or peak. We learned how to glacade and self-arrest using ice axes, did some technical rock climbing, and eventually bagged a few peaks! Yeow!

Emily (left) and I (right) bagging a peak

The entire trip was a big old test – how were we to deal with adversity and uncertainty? How do we deal with freezing temperatures while wearing improper gear? How do we accept that constant ache from not consuming enough food? How do we adjust to weaning levels of comfortability we’ve never faced? How do we deal with fear?

I believe that more than what we did, the lessons we learned were far more important. I cannot stress how much this trip pushed all of us out of our comfort zones; in fact, it tossed us, straight up threw us out of a nice warm bubble, and into the complete unknown.

The first few days absolutely sucked, but that’s pretty common for any backpacking trip. It’s that transition period from comfortable warm beds, clean clothes, normal food, and showers to a constant chill, weird food, no beds, wet clothes, and aching muscles. This was by far the toughest transition I’ve ever had. My legs and back ached from the heavy pack. The straps dug into my shoulders creating raw areas of vulnerable skin that stung every time I moved. Falling asleep was even more difficult because of how bloody cold it was, and our bellies were never truly full. The stresses we put our bodies through physically and our minds through mentally was constant – and that right there is what I am most thankful for.

We are adaptable creatures. It might not be a pleasant transition – but it is possible. After we made it through the transition period, a deep peacefulness resided inside me. I was okay with the cold, tired, achenes of my physical state. I was okay with the fear of the unknown and facing adversity and uncertainty. Each day was an opportunity. Long story short, I grew more than I ever have. I developed the deepest appreciation for the little things, and I was forced to stay in the present moment for 21 days.

A rare sunny day at camp

When the uncomfortable becomes bearable, it allows for other emotions to seep through. I started to treasure the littlest wins. I started to appreciate all that I DID have with me, and ignored what I didn’t have. I learned that I couldn’t control anything, and with that I found peace and acceptance for anything that was thrown my way. Towards the end of the trip we did a two day solo period. We each split ways from the group and found our own area to set up camp where we would stay there by ourselves for two days – with no food, no way to tell time, no books, and no distractions. What we didn’t expect was the two-day thunder and lightning storm that started as soon as we left the group.

The first indication that something was coming was the energy in the air. I could just tell something was off – it was weirdly warm and a little bit too silent. Then dark, heavy clouds came rolling over the Three Sisters, a mountain range that sat just to the north of us. It looked intense. Shortly after, the thunder started. Followed by a mix of rain, hail, and snow, the storm was upon us. The air was literally buzzing with energy. From that moment on, we were stuck in the middle of a lightning storm for the remainder of the solo. Lightning struck directly over my head. It felt like it was just a few feet from my orange tarp – the only thing protecting me from Mother Nature.

The craziest part? I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t upset. I thought it was beautiful, in fact, and immensely powerful. Why? Because I let go – I let it happen. I was so in the moment, so present in what I was doing each moment that I had no fear. Because there was nothing TO fear, it just was. With this mentality the beautiful things were even more powerful – the sun came out after 14 days of snow and I cried happy tears. Now, I probably sound crazy after all of that, but I want to tie this lesson into our present-day situation.

We are currently in a pandemic – something that nobody has experienced during their lifetime. We have truly no control over what is going to happen… We have ideas from studying our history, but history doesn’t usually happen the exact same over again. I can most definitely say with confidence this is a stressful situation, one that is filled with adversity and uncertainty. I asked my friend Kayla (K-dawg) who was on the field course with me how she felt about these uncertain times. I really liked her response because she highlighted one of the lessons we learned through our trip.

“This is one of the scariest times because we really don’t know what’s going to happen. We have no control over what the outcome of Covid-19 will be. We just have to ride it out, and focus on what we do have, while staying as present as we can.” – K-dawg.

My friends and I have been staying in touch via zoom and facetime and we often reflect on our experience. Just a little bit ago, Luke made an interesting statement.

“It’s as if our experience happened to better prepare us for what’s going on now. That shit was stressful. It sucked sometimes, but no matter what you’re going through you can always find at least one thing that’s good.” – Luke Moran-Petersen.

I think these are really important remarks. And I wanted to highlight them because they apply directly to what we’re all going through – on a mass scale. Granted, nobody signed up for COVID, as we did for our extended field course, but it’s happening anyway. We are in a stressful situation – one with adversity and uncertainty levels through the roof. I am incredibly grateful for the lessons I was taught during those three weeks in the woods and think that they can be applied to any situation in life, especially this pandemic.

As we continue this journey through the unknown, let us remember the little things; the little blessings we have that are often taken for granted. Let us become present in our day to day lives, and focus on what we do have. It won’t “fix” the pandemic, but it sure will make the journey a little more enjoyable. After all, this is an adventure that will go down in history.