Sunday, November 28, 2010

Life in the Desert

During my explorer canoe trip at Widji, a love was born within me for harsh, challenging outdoor experiences.  During the 21 day trip, I could not get enough of carrying heavy, awkward things through mud and water on dense bushwhacks.  I love the satisfactory feeling you get after completing a physically demanding task you've taken on.  I thoroughly missed these difficult times during my first section in the winds.   There were certainly days that were exhausting, but we were almost always on trail, so I never felt that deep connection with the wilderness.  There was a dramatic change in lifestyle when we were dropped of in southeastern Utah for our 26 day canyon section.  Our days became longer because of both distance and terrain.  Instead of the 3-7 miles we hiked each day in the winds, we were hiking 7-13 miles.  A more important factor though was certainly where we were hiking.  We had to use a lot of technical skills to safely travel each day.  That means whenever there was a drop off greater then 5 feet, we needed to scout for a way down and if one wasn't found, figure out how to lower ourselves.  On smaller drops, we would pass our packs and slide down by ourselves.  As the pour-offs (sudden cliffs in canyons) grew taller, we would build hand lines to lower ourselves safely.  In the most exciting cases, we got to rappel.  We each had a lightweight harness and helmet and the group carried two climbing ropes.  Our instructors would build anchors and then we would get to lower ourselves over the edge.  These technical maneuvers slowed us down considerably and resulted in many late nights, but allowed us to access more remote places.  

Our general route for the section was a large horseshoe.  Our drop-off and pick-up points were about 10 miles away from each other, so we did a large loop.  The first half was through smaller canyons while the second was through Dark Canyon, which is at about the same depth as the Grand Canyon.  A big part of NOLS philosophy is turning over independence to students.  The general expectation is that once you've been taught a skill, it's your responsibility to safely and properly use it.  This was a substantial part of our trip.  Most of the trip was a build up for a culminating challenge, of sorts.  We had an independent student group expedition (or ISGE, NOLS loves acronyms) for the last 6 days of the Canyons.  This meant two student groups of 6 traveling by themselves and not seeing anyone and essentially proving their skills.  We were tested quite a bit by our instructors before we were allowed to venture off by ourselves.  They would routinely surprise us with fake emergency situations that we had to respond to properly.  The ISGE was terrific.  I was voted by my peers to lead one of the two student groups, and it went wonderfully.  It was a great time to travel in a more personal community instead of the massive 14 person group we'd been living in.

We had one memorable 48 hours in gravel canyon, during the first half of the section, when our net gain of mileage for the whole time was about 50 feet.  It started off with a late night in which we finally found an acceptable campsite as the sun was setting...that was on top of a 50 foot cliff.  We could walk up to it, but the possibility of falling with heavy packs on our backs was too great, so had to pull them up by rope.  It was a 2 hour process to get all 14 people and our gear up to the mesa top (along the way, a pack's strap broke when it was almost 40 feet in the air, causing it to plummet to the ground only 5 feet from a student and instructor who were attaching the packs to the ropes...yikes).  The next morning we had to do the reverse process to get down to the canyon floor and continue moving.  Once we got back down, we hiked for about 10 minutes until we reached another pour off.  But this one didn't have a dry ended in about 9 feet of muddy water.  In order to get down, everyone had to rappel over a ledge and then give themselves a lot of slack right above the water so they could thrash about and attempt to swim to shallower ground.  The more challenging part was lowering packs so they didn't get soaked.  We set up a long pulley system where, if we pulled fast enough, we could get the packs down dry.  It was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we had everyone down on the ground, perhaps 1/4 mile down the canyon from were we started.  We hiked around the corner for less then 5 minutes and ran smack into a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are wild, they're incredibly thin, sometimes much less then a shoulders length wide.  Plus this particular slot canyon dropped down another 10 feet.  I took my pack off and dropped into the slot to scout it out.  It quickly became filled with water that was over my head.  And our packs would never had fit down into it.  So we turned around.  One of my instructors ascended the rope that we had luckily left up and built a rope ladder.  Then as the canyon became pitch black, we each swam out to the ladder and climbed up the wall.  We finally got back to the base of our previous campsite at 11:00.  

I'm in love with the challenges and beauty of the desert canyons.  I had some of the most fun I've experience while down in the canyons.  I can't wait until I can return...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To the Canyons!

One more post about the Winds before I head off in a few hours to the Dark Canyons of the Green River area...

We were hiking around 5 miles on average while in the Winds.  We would wake up around 7:30 everyday and pack up camp/make breakfast.  As our group was massive - 12 students and 3 instructors, we traveled for the majority of the trip in small groups of 4 students and 1 instructor.  At the end of the trip, we traveled in independent student groups of 4.  We generally got into camp between 1 and 3 in the afternoon.  When we got to camp we would usually need to start cooking, although occasionally we had a class - the topics varied widely..Leadership, Leave No Trace Principles, Managing Group Conflict, Astronomy, US Public Land Use.  After dinner every day we had an evening meeting - G.A.S.S.E.  Greetings, Announcements, School, Schedule, Entertainment.  Entertainment was generally a 'personal nugget', meaning someone's abbreviated life story.  Days were busy a full, meaning it never took me very long to fall asleep at night.  

I'll be out on trail until around Thanksgiving now.  Today we drive down to South-Eastern Utah to go canyoneering there (Canyoneering is essentially backpacking in canyons, although you occasionally rappel down deeper into the earth using climbing gear).  We drive to Red Rocks, Colorado immediately afterwards, meeting our new instructors on the way.  Then we rock climb for around 22 days, with access to phones and occasional trips into town.  We'll return to NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander for one night around Thanksgiving and then go backcountry skiing for 10 days.  Have a wonderful Fall!



Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A few photos from the Winds

The whole group the morning of our pick-up 

On the summit of Pyramid Peak, 12,030 ft. 
The morning after our first snow! 

Delicious Dinner!

Friday, October 1, 2010

21 Days in the Winds


I returned safely this morning to the NOLS Rocky Mountain Branch after backpacking for 21 days in the Wind River Mountain Range - a trip identical to Widji's Explorer backpacking trip.  I'm now in Lander for 4 days taking a Wilderness First Aid course and preparing for my next 2 sections - Canyoneering in the Dark Canyon section of the Green River Canyon system in Utah, and Rock Climbing in Red Rocks, Colorado.  I figure I'll write several posts about the Winds while I'm here..

Food has always been one of the essential parts of my life.  When I first went to my summer camp Widjiwagan at the young age of 12, I was rather flabbergasted with the quality of the food we ate in the middle of the woods.  NOLS' food has impressed me even more! There are two main differences between Widji and NOLS in terms of cooking.

              1.  NOLS knows how to bake - meaning REAL brownies instead of Widji's scrambled ones and delicious yeast breads instead of fried flat bread.
              2.  NOLS understands what "dehydrated" means.  See, most camping food is dehydrated.  At Widji, I was always taught to pretty much ignore said fact.  So many meals were rather crunchy with improperly hydrated foods.  My least favorite meal at widji - hash browns - is now my favorite at NOLS. By allowing the hash browns to hydrate for a mere 10 minutes, they become delicious, real food instead of crunchy crud.
       Here's another example of the beauty of rehydration....

This past summer at Widji was the first time my trip didn't have fresh onions for the whole time.  We ran out before the halfway mark, meaning we then had to deal with dehydrated onions as a substitute. Obviously we didn't bother to hydrate them.  And guess what the consequence was?....horrendous gas.  I learned on the first day of my NOLS trip during a cooking class that between the the patience of 10 minutes and some warm water, such problems disappear entirely!  It's an olfactory pleasing thing to not was horribly stinky tents..

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Off to the Winds

After attending Camp Widjiwagan for 6 years, I've become accustomed to their way of doing things..which it turns out is pretty slow in comparison to NOLS.  Between about 8 and 4 today, we accomplished as much as Widji does in 3 whole days.  It was exhausting.

My alarm went off at 6:20 and upon awaking, I was pleased to discover that I had in fact not rolled of the top bunk I had slept on.  I haven't slept on a bunk bed since I had a pair of red, metal ones back in middle school and I was pretty terrified of the potential 5 foot drop during the night.  I packed up the few items I had taken out the night before and brought all of my luggage downstairs to the main lobby and went into the cafeteria for my first NOLS meal.  The kitchen manager gave us a short tour of where everything was and how we were supposed to dine.  Breakfast was impressive:  fresh fruit, yogurt, whole wheat pancakes, scrambled eggs, bagels, cereal, and orange juice.  Seeing as it was 6:40 in the morning and my body was supposed to be asleep, I didn't eat much.  I was on the clean-up crew, which, it turned out, was exactly like work camping at Widji.  So I loved it!  I got to operate the industrial dish washer and clean all of the plates and cups.  Heck! I would volunteer to do such a thing, I love doing dishes in industrial kitchens, it's a down right blast!  After breakfast we loaded our bags into the back of a pick-up truck and followed it over to the NOLS Rocky Mountain Outfitter. It's pretty much the best place ever.  I love outdoor gear stores and this was the epitome of them.  I showed my instructors what gear I had and then they checked off anything I needed on a list.  With this magic piece of paper, I could walk into the store, hand it to a NOLS employee, and they would guide me around, showing me where everything I needed was.  And here's the best part: upon choosing all of the gear I needed/wanted, I simply said "thank you" and walked out the store.  All transactions had already been taken care of! (Thanks Mom and Dad :)) It was glorious.  After all of our gear was figured out, we walked down the hall to "The Gulch" and bagged all of our food.  Lists had already been put up of what food we needed to bag.  I worked with my new Dutch friend, Richard, and we made short work of the cashews, sunflower seeds, and granola bars.  Then our instructors split us into our cooking groups - groups of 4 that prepare meals together, share gear, and share a tent.  Once those groups were assembled, they each returned to "The Gulch" and were packed out with food for 7 days.  On our 8th and 15th days on trail, horses meet us in the mountains to drop off re-rations of food.  With all of our gear and food assembled, we returned to our dormitory/hotel for lunch.  I was once again very impressed: fresh fruit, salad, pasta dishes, grilled cheese, reuben sandwiches, soup, and brownies.  We went back to the Outfitter building after lunch and learned how to pack our backpacks and then packed them.  Next it was back to the dorms to take part in a class with our instructors about the term PLE- Positive Learning Environment (NOLS is apparently VERY into acronyms - even look at it's name!).  We talked about what words we wanted to describe our trip - respect, fun, and initiative to name a few, and words that we didn't want to describe our trip - non-communicative, complaining, negative, etc.  This evening has consisted of dinner: pesto pasta, salad, garlic bread, and brownie sundaes and overly aggressive (and incredibly fun) foosball, pool, and ping-pong.

Tomorrow morning we board a bus for a 3 hour drive to the Western side of the Wind River Mountains.  Then we will hike for 21 days to the Eastern side and be picked up just outside of Lander.  I'm incredibly excited - my group is fantastic, my instructors wonderful, and the mountains sound beautiful.  I'll most likely be able to send mail via the horses while I'm on trail but I can't receive any.  I would still love to receive some when I return to Lander in 21 days! ;) Here's my address:

Christopher Abbott
PO Box 333 
Lander, WY 82520

Christopher Abbott
284 Lincoln Street
Lander, WY 82520
I'll talk to you in 21 days! Enjoy the Fall!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

First Day


I arrived at the NOLS Rocky Mountain campus today in Lander, Wyoming.  About 6,000 people live in the town and NOLS is right in the downtown.  I'm staying in what was once the Noble Hotel.  It's now the NOLS dormitory.  After putting my things away in dorm room 208, I went downstairs to the game room and was shocked into the game of meeting new people.  Almost everyone from the two semester groups were there - about 24 people in total.  Everyone would introduce themselves by saying their name and then what section they were in, 8 or 9.  I'm a 9.  So I naturally forgot the name of an 8 as soon as I met them!  We had an orientation meeting right away and I met my instructors.  I have 3, a man from outside of Chicago, a man from India, and a woman from Kenya....I forgot their names already. They gave us our schedule, which is..

Logistics Calender
9/8: HIKE orientation
9/9: Packing and Preparations
9/10-9/30: Mountain time in the Winds
10/1: pick up after hiking in the Winds
10/2: WFA begins
10/3: - 10/4  WFA
10/5: pack for Canyon section
10/6: leave for Canyon section  
10/7: - 11/2: Canyon time
11/3: Canyon Pick-up 
11/4: Drive to Rock climbing at Red Rock 
11/4-11/26: Climb in Red Rocks
11/28: back at NOLS rocky mountain
11/29-12/9: Winter on Togwotee Pass
12/10:last day
12/11: Departure for home

I have to head to bed, but I'll post more tomorrow night before I head off! 


Getting There

I left yesterday morning with 2 bulging duffel bags weighing down my mom's prius and a little sadness from saying goodbye to my sister, dad, and girlfriend Caroline.  My mom started out the drive on 35-S until we hit 90-W.  Then it was 550 nearly straight miles though the plains of Minnesota and South Dakota to Rapid City, South Dakota.  Today we'll continue west for 7 hours to Lander, Wyoming and the beginning of my National Outdoor Leadership School course! 

During the course - Fall Semester in the Rockies - I will spend 4, 3-week sections in the Rocky Mountains backpacking, rock climbing, canyoning, and backcountry skiing.  The group will consist of 12 guys between the ages of 17 and 19 and 3-5 leaders.  At least, that's what I think I'll be doing.  The only way to find out is to get on the road!