In June, I had the chance to participate in an Outward Bound Instructor Development course in the Rocky Mountains . We were a group of nine, carrying all our gear and food for a few weeks, at least a four day walk out from any others, hiking unblazed trails, with bear spray on hand and a satellite phone (with jumpy reception) in case a helicopter evacuation was needed. We developed our individual skills in navigation, survival and wilderness aid response with expert guides, practiced different roles, split up to endeavor on a solo excursion, with little more than a plastic tarp, rope and water, and then came together again as a group, designed the final component of our route, and continued onwards.
It’s one thing to be alone in the woods, to travel by oneself according to your needs and desires, somewhat easier in many regards, and quite another to learn how to take of others through an expedition.
In a group, complexity increases – tasks need to be split up, priorities constantly recalibrated, and diverse needs taken into account. Pressures of long outdoor adventures, means that at some point everyone has a hard time in one way or another. Nature constantly presents the unpredictable – weather turns for the worse, mapped river beds run dry, the cold climate can snap, animals can devour food storages, dry climates split the skin, and snow seeps in and soaks gear. Tensions and anxiety build. The group can either fall apart, or laugh about dinner, crack a few jokes, and see how the weather fairs the next day. The group needs to be content and healthy. Qualities of skills, compassion, honesty, initiative, imagination, adventure and a sense of service are called upon.
Overall, group survival in the outdoors really boils down to mindset and effective communication
Mindset: Travel light, take good care of what you have, for the benefit of all.
The more personal gear you pack, the less room you have in your pack for group gear, the heavier everyone’s bags are in total. Before the journey, we had to justify what we were bringing along. We had to consider the weight, versatility, function and necessity of every item. One set of day clothes, one set of dry clothes, warm layers, a headlamp, and not much else. Then the group gear came under scrutiny, the first aid supplies, the food, and quick shelters could be made from tarps and hiking poles.
After everything was distributed and packed, you felt the weight of your the possessions. It was a triumph to get by with as little as possible. And we used very little, just a few liters of water each for washing, no electricity, a few bottles of fuel for the trek, our own sweat and grit to move through the mountains. We carried out our packaging, scraped every morsel of food from our bowls, because that also was immediate fuel for the body, and used hot water in our water bottles to dry out our clothes during the night in our sleeping bags. We carefully checked our gear when breaking camp and made sure nothing was left behind, because everything was needed. Living like this left moments for the simple, raw, pleasures of life to seep through. Stripping down and bathing in a fresh river was a welcomed delight at the end of the day. Sunsets were truly our gold.
“The wonderful things in life are the things you do, not the things you have.” (Reinhold Messner)
Mindset: Keep a Flexible Focus. A Relaxed Awareness.
You might be feeling really great one day and want to try to summit a peak for a perfect lunchtime view. Others may prefer a relaxing day, or to investigate the local flora, or bones, or scat. Some may have a rolled ankle and plans need to be adjusted accordingly. Each morning we communicated how we felt and set a plan to strive towards. We also came to think of what striving in the mountains really meant. Because even with goals, we had to roll just as easily with the unexpected. Some days had to be calmer for people to rest, and others we could push past what we thought was possible.
In a group, you can go much further than what can be achieved alone. We took care of each other, shared our skills, supported one another, distributed the weight of our packs, and encouraged each other on more difficult terrain. And when we pushed up a challenging ridge for an incredible view, we all share the joy.
“There is more in you than you think”, Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, is famously quoted as saying, and we can help each other bring that out in each other.
At the same time, it is important to be relaxed. When things got tough, it’s important not to react much. It was easy to complain, but that didn’t fuel the group in any way. Staying calm helped. Reacting strongly raised the group’s tension. When a sudden lightning storm popped up we did what we needed to do together to get to safer circumstances.
It was important to stay acutely aware of what you were doing and the environment around you, always taking note of subtle changes in weather, snow conditions, cloud formations, and animal tracks in the mud. The details helped us avoid wildlife encounters, and storm proof camp hours before it hit.
Mindset: Take Care of yourself.
To be fully functioning, you had to manage your own needs. If you let yourself get dehydrated, cold, wet, hungry, or exhausted, you inhibited the rest of the group or limited your performance in challenging situations. You had to sleep well, rest, and keep dry. No one else could do this for you and then you could pitch into the group more as needed.
Mindset: There is a time to be a Leader, and always a time for leadership.
Each day, we rotated roles, from leader, navigator, cook, naturalist, to cleaner. Although the leader decided the larger group decisions, like the route, when to take breaks, where to camp, and how to achieve the day’s goal, everyone got had the chance to work on leadership. The chef would wake up extra early to surprise everyone with hot coffee in the morning. When the navigator got to camp, he would immediately tie up tarps for shelter and start filtering water. You didn’t have to do someone’s task, but you could help the group run more smoothly by doing what needed to be done when you could, responding to the needs of the moment, verses waiting for someone else to do it.
Communication: Be Honest and Clear. No judgement is needed.
If you were injured or not feeling well, you had to tell others. There was no need for remorse or judging others, it was just the set of circumstances that day. You can’t hide your truth or state when travelling so closely with others. If you were feeling more vibrant or strong, you could help lighten a frustrating situation, or be a strong support in a river crossing. But always, you had to let the group and yourself know how you were so that everyone could function at their maximum together.
Communication: Establish Intentional Conversations and Non-Violent Communication.
Setting a system for feedback and debriefing sessions, along with contemplative dialogue, allowed group members to share and moderate potentially conflicting behaviours. Speaking of personal accomplishments and airing out frustrations before they become larger issues, helped to minimize, personal, head-to-head conflicts. Goofy jokes, boisterous laughing, dancing, singing, might be loved one moment and despised another day. It was important to increase one’s self-knowledge and awareness, while at the same time work towards understanding each person’s concerns, fears, hesitations, joys, and backgrounds in order to know to step forward. Exploring bigger questions in a group setting gave great insight, such as: What do I value? Do my actions align with my values? How do I want to respond to others? What does it mean to strive? What does it mean to thrive?