I knew our week in the mountains would be challenging, but I had no idea it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. From now until the end of time, my party conversation topics, resume bullet points, and excuses for eating too much dessert will be centered around the time I backpacked in the wilderness with 12 of my best friends and didn’t die.
Nothing in my time as a Young Life leader could have prepared me for Wilderness. Yes, Wilderness with a capital W — for Wilderness Ranch, a Young Life camp in nowhere, Colorado, where hundreds of naive high school students and their leaders get dropped off and hours later dispersed to various trails to fend for themselves for 6 days and 5 nights.
I had never even been on more than a day hike or overnight car-camping trip, but something deep within me made me believe this would be a good idea. It was my duty as a Young Life leader to accompany these girls on the trek, so I couldn’t let them know the moment I realized that it was, in fact, NOT a good idea.
My first tears were shed between the time someone helped me hoist on my backpack at basecamp and the van, mere yards away, that would take us to our trailhead. I was under the impression that my backpack would weigh approximately 25 pounds. And while it’s possible that I made this number up in my head because it sounded more pleasant than 50, it definitely weighed closer to 50. It was immediately apparent that I was not prepared to carry this thing for a week and that my soul was being crushed at the same rate as my lungs and hips.
“It’s going to be hard,” I had told my girls weeks and days before we left Indiana.
“This trip is going to break us down physically and spiritually so that only God can build us back up.”
I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but I was completely and totally unequivocally right about that.
Despite the immediate
discomfort excruciating pain, I still saw my purpose: to appear as strong as possible for eight 17-year-old girls I love more than anything. To guide them as the trail broke them down and God built them back up. Reminding myself of that purpose during the first three hours of steep climbing came in the form of breathless prayers, silent pleading for one foot to move in front of the other, and quiet tears behind my sunglasses.
Our group was joined by two guides, Katie & Tina, and my fellow Young Life leaders Allie & Devon. I trusted our guides with my life because I had to. And because they looked like they knew what they were doing with all their cool Patagonia gear and trekking poles and stuff.
From the very start, I was the slowest member of the group. At any given moment, ten girls were hundreds of yards in front of me, and I trudged far behind with either Katie or Tina like I was dragging my body through quicksand. Those two deserve medals of honor for the grace and patience they bestowed upon me without hesitation. One or the other stayed with me at all times, asking me questions, encouraging me, trying to distract me from the fact that my boots and socks were completely covered in mud and and becoming clay sculptures.
I didn’t realize the onset of my altitude sickness until we made camp the first night. I wasn’t surprised when I figured it out, though. I could practically hear my susceptible immune system laughing in my face like the fragile little demon it is. I struggled hard through our first dinner, choking down a few bites, then barfing near our first BIFF (that’s Bathroom In Forest Floor — a square hole we dug at each campsite to, um, poop in). The biggest tragedy was that I couldn’t eat the chocolate chip cookies everyone had for dessert, and I’m still a little bitter about it.
Although I woke up the following morning (and every morning thereafter) like a confused zombie popsicle, the nausea subsided, and I didn’t have another health crisis for the rest of the trip. At least not a physical one.
One of the most humbling moments of the week came early that first morning. Guide Katie approached me to let me know that one of the girls, Lily, offered to trade me her meal trash for my meal.
Here’s what that means:
Not even 24 hours earlier, each of us crammed vinyl bags of food into our backpacks, and at every meal, one of those bags was used up (hiker rejoices!) and returned with just trash at a teensy fraction its original weight. I packed the heaviest meal, which was meant to be eaten on our last night because, well, that’s probably the burden most leaders are able to bear for their groups.
But that first morning, Lily honored me by trading her meal trash for my heavy bag of metal food cans. I cried (of course), partly out of embarrassment, but mostly out of the purest form of gratitude I have ever been able to conjure from the depths of my weary soul. She took the extra weight I was meant to carry, and I didn’t do anything to deserve it. It was the most beautiful picture of love and service — a reflection of Jesus carrying my sin and covering my weakness.
I needed this trip as much as anyone else in those mountains.
I could tell a hundred stories about our 6 days in the San Juan mountains, hiking Snow Slide trail. How we survived a hail storm and a stalker deer and the absurd amount of farting that occurred. Absurd. Amount. But there was one day that the 13 of us will never forget. It was one of the worst and best days of our lives — of my life — and I never want the painful / joyous / defeating / triumphant details of that day to fade for as long as I live.
The plan for our third morning on the trail was to wake up at 3:30am and spend all morning hiking to the top of the Continental Divide. I firmly believe that 3:30am should be reserved exclusively for sleeping, so the whole thing was hard to wrap my brain around from the very beginning.
It rained all night long. I know this because our sleeping bags were soaked and because, like every other night on the trail, I never fell asleep. Thunder storms delayed our original plan by almost 3 hours, during which we stayed huddled in our tents, praying they wouldn’t collapse or blow away. Finally, when the downpour subsided, we packed up our camp site, layered on every piece of clothing in our packs, and prepared to experience “Peak Day.”
We went for it, and the higher we climbed, the more snow and slush we encountered. There was no visible trail because it was hidden in slippery whiteness as far as the eye could see. Our guides carefully attempted to compact their snowy footprints for the rest of the group — footprints that still had us buried knee-deep in freezing slush.
Tina hiked with me, our heads down to guard our faces from sideways sleet. I tried as often as I could to walk on the little willow brambles so I’d be less likely to sink. Tina walked a step in front of me, doing her best to make a safe path of footprints, wiggling her boot with each step to prepare the space for mine.
After almost two hours of hiking, our guides decided it was too dangerous to carry on. We simply didn’t have the gear we needed to persevere through the snow, and the risks outweighed the benefits of continuing. (Later we found out that every other group had similar issues, and all the guides said it was one of the worst weeks of weather they’d ever experienced on the trails.) We had to turn around and go back to where we’d set up camp the night before.
The emotional conflict was palpable:
Wait, we’re not going to peak? We walked all this way like sad snow children for nothing?
collided and clashed with
Yes please, let’s go back now and get warm and dry as soon as possible.
Everyone felt everything all at the same time, including painfully frozen toes. We weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain, and that felt like a failure. But continuing felt like a death trap.
When we turned around, the rest of the group had hiked so far ahead of Tina & me that we lost visual contact with them for quite a while. I know she could hear my exasperated breaths and the sniffling that accompanied my tears. I’m pretty sure lots of snot was happening. She handed me a trekking pole for balance and was right behind me every time I gasped when my foot sank through the top layer of snow into slush.
With no one else around, Tina started singing hymns softly behind me. Be Thou My Vision. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. In Christ Alone. My small, trembling voice joined hers in a volume just above a whisper for the rest of the hike that day. It kept me focused. It kept me prayerful. She asked me what hymn was my favorite, and I told her It Is Well. She said she wasn’t as familiar with the words, so I did my best to squeak it out loud enough for her to join in.
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Trust me, when I got to the “whatever my lot,” part, the floodgates opened. My “lot” at that point felt like one of the lowest moments of my life. But unexpectedly, before my tired little eyes, it morphed into the most vivid scene of God’s unconditional love and faithfulness. The parallels swirled around in my heart until it nearly exploded.
Tina saved my life that day when she sang to me in the snow. And gave me her footprints to follow. And lent me her trekking pole. And stayed with me, leaving the 99, just to lead ME to safety. I’ll never be able to accurately describe how I experienced Jesus that day on a freezing, cold, wet mountain. But I did. And it was real and raw and uncomfortable, and I cherish every single second of it.
It took everyone a while to process our attempt at “Peak Day.” To come to terms with the fact that we’d spend the next couple days backtracking instead of finishing our original route. To recognize that our experience on the trail mirrored real life in so many ways, remembering once again that His plans are perfect and ours are not. And that there is so much more to be learned in the hard stuff than the easy stuff.
Our trip wasn’t typical. We didn’t get those triumphant photos of our group at the top of a mountain, claiming victory over our trek. It seemed like the trail had defeated us, to some extent. But I knew that it didn’t. If you ask any of those girls about our week in the wilderness, they’ll probably tell you it was hard. But I guarantee they’ll tell you how powerful it was. How God met them in the mountains. How they sought and received strength beyond their comprehension. Our trip wasn’t typical, but it was ours.
Lots of people have asked me if I’d take a group to Wilderness again. The day after we got back, my answer was a hard NO. A week or two later, it was “I don’t know. Maybe if I knew the weather conditions would be better and I had some sleeping pills and a llama to carry my backpack.”
But now that I’ve had more time to process everything, my only answer can be “If God calls me, I’ll go.”
Because miracles happen in those mountains. Miracles that far outweigh the physical and emotional exhaustion, brokenness, pain, and suffering I carried in my heart and on my back. The muddy boots and bruised hips and pooping in the dirt and sleepless nights and jello legs. Miracles that powerfully and poignantly remind me: Whatever my lot, it is well with my soul.