Not long after laying their test pencils down for the final time of the fall semester, 11 students loaded backpacks into a trailer and ventured into desolate canyons in Death Valley to complete the ongoing Basic Outdoor Leadership Training or BOLT program.
Taking place from Dec. 13-16, Assistant Director of SUU Outdoors Keith Howells and Coordinator of SUU Outdoors Levi Pendleton each took a group of between 5-6 students on a different route through the Cottonwood-Marble Loop in Death Valley National Park on a three-day backpacking expedition.
During the course of the trip each aspiring outdoor leader had the opportunity to not only take point in leading the group, but also taught several outdoor lessons in preparation for instructing future groups of students on SUU Outdoors-sanctioned trips.
The conditions in Death Valley — highs in the mid 60s to low 70s, and lows from 34 degrees to the mid 40s — made the location ideal for a winter backpacking trip that was planned to mitigate as many weather factors as possible.
The outdoor leaders experienced what it was like to improvise and adjust plans after having to add a total of 4 miles round to the hike due to poor road conditions preventing the vehicle from getting to the original starting point, bringing the total mileage count to 32 miles hiked.
The two groups, nicknamed BLT and Counterculture and supervised by Pendleton and Howells respectively, set out about half an hour apart Saturday morning from the SUU van and trailer where the first night was spent.
The groups hiked 2 miles to the junction of the Marble and Cottonwood Canyon roads, where they departed on their respective paths.
BLT took a clockwise route heading south into Cottonwood Canyon and Counterculture headed counterclockwise west towards Marble Canyon. They crossed paths on Sunday afternoon just outside the southwestern opening of Cottonwood Canyon, near Cottonwood Springs.
The groups were exposed to canyons of fascinating geology and some long tracts of open highlands, though each group faced its own challenges in terms of terrain and elevation gain.
Counterculture’s route required the hikers to climb a saddle at a nearly 40% grade at some parts, while simultaneously trying to navigate a poorly marked trail; BLT had to traverse the same terrain going downhill.
The use of offline GPS was crucial in areas of crossing and other open expanses where the trail was difficult to find. BLT ended up not making the distance to Deadhorse Spring by the intended time on Sunday evening, thus having to make up extra miles on the final day.
Another important factor was water availability. Each group had to refill water reservoirs and bottles at seasonal springs located on their respective routes. This was a planned teaching activity on how to safely filter or purify water in the backcountry.
In a group backpacking setting, food and gear was distributed amongst each member in addition to personal items individually carried like clothes, sleeping bags, head lamps, and other backcountry necessities. Backpacks weighed between 45-65 pounds, ultimately depending on the amount of water carried.
Though the hike was accompanied by blisters, aches, and soreness, there were also moments of serenity and introspection that manifested and in some cases was initiated by a simple pause for reflection by Howells or Pendleton.
Howells instructed the trip leaders that those moments and are some of the most important in SUU outdoors trips, often inspiring participants to make life-changing decisions or improvement goals.
“To be out here in the middle of nowhere and see how we deal with adversity, watching how people interact, becoming self-aware and have self-awareness grow is really awesome to see and inspiring to me,” Howells said.
The trip leaders-in-training also benefited from the mental and emotional aspects of the trip. Evelyn Zevala Gomez, a junior studying Outdoor Recreation, experienced a significant change of attitude during the hike:
“At first I was kind of upset the trip was right after finals, but at the end I’m glad that it was. Being out here put me in a different mindset than where I was before we left. There was so much time to think and I thought about the past semester and me as a person and I’m glad this is the start of a new chapter for me.”
The groups debriefed upon arriving back at the van Monday afternoon, each member recounting his or her “rose/bud/thorn,” an exercise meant to highlight the great points of the excursion, learn from the downsides, and share what things are looked forward to.
Aaron Dockins, a senior mechanical engineering major, shared that his rose was just having a good time, being around good people, and being outside in a cool new place.
Amongst the many roses during the three-day hike and despite the general exhaustion felt at the end, there very few thorns worth mentioning.
Story by: Reyce Knutson
Photos by: Reyce Knutson and Keith Howells