Lessons from Desolation: Youth Leadership Adventures in the North Cascades

By Rebecca Zhou, Youth Leadership Intern 2017

12 days, 12 miles by canoe, 35 miles by foot, and a group of 12 girls. During the 12-day Science and Sustainability trip with Youth Leadership Adventures, students and instructors alike had the opportunity to dig deep and learn something about themselves. I believe that the fact it was an all-female identifying trip really helped with that. It helped create a safe space for each person to learn, grow, and be vulnerable with one another.

One such example of this includes our Challenge Day hike up Desolation Peak. Each Youth Leadership Adventures trip has a Challenge Day, or an exceptionally difficult day of physical activity. Instructors frame Challenge Day as an opportunity for students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and grow both as individuals and as a group. On this Challenge Day hike, we gained 5,000 feet of elevation over the course of the 7 miles of trail from Lighting Stock Camp, and then we turned around and hiked back. Many students had never been on a hike before, much less a hike of Desolation’s magnitude. Even for myself as an intern instructor, this was a challenging hike.

The day started off cold and crisp at an early 5:00 am. We ate our granola, did our morning stretches, tucked things under the vestibules of our tents. Shortly after we set off we hit our first bump in the road–finding the way to the trailhead! All twelve of us stumbled groggily into an occupied Lightning Creek Camp trying to figure out if we had to pass through the camp to get to the trailhead. Eventually, we found our way. By 8:00 am, we got to the Desolation Trailhead. The overall spirit of the group was cheerful and excited. Everyone was determined to reach the goal that was decided unanimously the previous night: get to the summit. 

As the miles stretched on and the trail grew steeper, the students distracted themselves from the burning of their calves by exchanging riddles. Still bubbling with excitement for the day, the students started to voice a desire for a snack when we hit another bump in the road—the instructor team realized we forgot to bring trail mix! The instructor team had a new thing to worry about, which was making sure none of the students went hungry and had enough energy to continue on.

There were still trail cookies, and we could ration some of the cheese and salami from lunch as well as surprise peanut butter M&Ms for when the girls all got to the top. Our motto concerning that for the next hours was ‘We’ll be fine!’, but, after a couple hours of hiking, the group started to get hungry, like, very hungry. Myself included.

This is when we all learned the lesson about the danger of ‘hanger’ aka anger due to hunger. Additionally, the students were all somewhat tired from hiking for so long. Our leaders of the day (LODs), or student leaders, decided that lunch should be soon, but asked the group to push on in order to find a level spot on the trail appropriate for lunch set up. As the students continued hiking, they learned that this elusive lunch spot was not going to show up soon. Students (and myself) were getting hangrier by each inch of elevation gain. The group was losing patience and tensions were running high. The LODs had to make a decision about where to stop to ensure the sanity of the group. Instructors ultimately left the decision to students and LODs. After much consideration, the LODs made a decision, but learned a valuable lesson about quick decision making around increasingly irritated and hangry teens.

Lunch was eaten in tired silence, but soon bellies were filled and energy was mostly recharged. We soon reached the tree line and entered the sub-alpine zone. At this point, the students were not in the mood for riddles and mostly kept to themselves. The general mood was ‘This hike is super hard but I’m determined to get to the top as soon as possible”. There were some in the back of the group who were worried about holding the group back. The students’ physical abilities were being pushed, but they kept going. Some felt anxious about the height. Many had blistered feet. Higher and higher, they continued their way up.

The one thing to mention about Desolation is that there is a false summit right before the fire lookout and the real summit. As the students climbed up the false summit, they all thought that they were really close to the top, but when they reached the false summit and saw that the fire lookout was still further away, they were all a little frustrated. There were a few who had adamantly set their goals to reach the very top, there were some who were content with reaching the false summit. However for those who still wanted to reach the fire lookout a decision had to be made as it was nearing 2:30 pm, our turnaround time. How could we help some students achieve their goal of reaching the fire lookout while still supporting the students who felt they couldn’t go any further? As we snacked on our surprise Peanut butter M&Ms, the group made a quick unanimous decision that respected the comfort and safety of the entire group—the students who wanted to reach the lookout had from 2:00 to 2:30 to meet their goal and return to the group. Ultimately, it was two students who went with me to the top.

With the 30 minutes we had, the two students and I booked it. Our calves burned but we learned that looks can be deceiving and it took us about 10 minutes to reach the fire lookout. When we reached the lookout both the students and I felt an immense amount of satisfaction and joy in knowing we could reach our own goals and overcame our own challenges to meet that goal.

We made our way back to the group, and took our fabulous group photo at the top of the false summit before starting our trek back to camp. As a group, we recognized that although we are a group, every individual has different goals and every individual has different limits. We realized that Challenge Day is not about getting to the top or trying to be ‘better’ than someone. It’s about pushing your own comfort zone, advocating for yourself, and recognizing your limits—every group member experienced this on our hike up Desolation that day.

Despite the relief of going back down, the students faced another challenge. The desire to just be back at camp was overwhelming. As the sun began to lower, we sank back below tree line, getting closer and closer to the lake.  We made it to the trailhead–just 2 miles left to go! Finally, finally, FINALLY, we reached the bridge that marked the entrance to Lightning Stock Camp. Everyone was exhausted, legs were covered in dust, and blisters were plentiful.

7:30 pm. As the group sat down, instructors Natascha and Rachael popped blisters while I made Mac ‘n Cheese for the group. From my spot at the camp stove, I could hear roaring laughter, and I could see wide smiles. Despite the tears, the hanger, the frustration, the test of physical and emotional abilities, despite all the challenges faced that day the students were able to smile and laugh together at the end of the day. Everyone knew that Challenge Day is not about who gets to the top and who doesn’t. It’s not about who is the best hiker, who has the fewest blisters. It’s about the self-growth that happens for each and every individual, and with that, the growth of the group. It’s about supporting each other, growing with each other, and being vulnerable with each other. And you know what? After that challenging day, every student was confidently able to say “I’m stronger than I think I am.” Even I felt like that after that day. To conclude, I just want to say, when you put 12 girls in the wilderness of the North Cascades for 12 days, amazing things happen.

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