As many outdoor guiding trips begin, there were several last minute organizational tasks to be completed. Tents needed to be picked up, propane for the camping stoves needed replacement, and sleeping arrangements needed to be resolved for participants who forgot their sleeping bags. Amidst this frenzy, I looked at the clock, realized the trip was about to commence in 20 minutes and that I still had to pack! Oh the joys of leading. In these preparation stages, I often find myself thinking that leading outdoor trips is way more work than it’s worth. The last minute scramble and attention to detail is initially a difficult push, but let me tell you, what comes after is always worth it.
We were on the road by 5:30 pm, taking off for our rock climbing adventure at Smith Rock State Park. There were two vans to transport the 11 participants and 3 leaders for the 3-hour drive. The participants were all beginner climbers, many of which were Japanese exchange students and English language learners, who had never been camping, let alone rock climbing. Regardless, everyone came with incredible gratitude and excitement to share this adventure and unique natural environment with old friends and new acquaintances. We arrived at dark and hiked out to our camping site. Where a night of cold rain were in the forecast, we were met with clear starry skies and a full moon.
Waking up at Smith Rock is an adventure in and of it self. You drive in the dark and hike into what feels like a high desert forest. But when the sun rises, and you step out of the tent, you are struck by enormous rocks that seemingly jetted out of the earth overnight. The soft and vivid oranges glow as the early morning sun eases its way onto the rocks.
Wake up time was with the sunrise, so as to get ready for a full day of climbing. I got up early to get the water boiling for breakfast while people packed up their belongings around me. I crave these morning moments of routine and solitude. There is an ever-present dichotomy between the joy in sharing the outdoors with others and the alone time I inwardly desire. Early morning coffee and the ingrained routine of packing up camp is the perfect time to let my mind wander in the peaceful meditation that refreshes me like little else can.
By 9 am we were harnessed up, waivers signed, and ready to climb. We hiked down to the base of the rocks and along the river for about 40 minutes to arrive at a specific cluster of climbing routes. At Smith Rock, which boasts over 1,500 climbing routes, you need to be specific and realistic about the challenge and types of climbs that you seek. In our case, we trekked out to a couple sets of rocks that provided an excellent beginner-intermediate climbing experience. Despite the groups being full of first-time climbers, I knew that of the many athletic and well-coordinated individuals, several would already be looking for more of a challenge within an hour or two.
The other outdoor guides hiked ahead to get the routes set up, as I helped to control the group dynamic on the hike over. Group dynamics on outdoor trips is one of the more nuanced parts of the job. The trail was a single track, with a few turns so I stayed in the rear, allowing a participant to lead from the front. I prefer the stability and safety of staying in the back of a group and giving the front of the pack the freedom and excitement of leading. Naturally, this position also allowed me to check-in with those who were falling back out of physical exhaustion, timidness, or just from having a more introverted personality. This one-on-one time with these participants was essential to gauge apprehensions and to be a resource throughout the day.
Most incidences only become disasters when a safe learning environment is not properly created. The bottom line in leading outdoor trips is that people must feel physically, mentally, and emotionally safe—in that order—to trust one another and succeed. When participants feel comfortable and are able to take appropriate risks, they are able to grow and gain confidence in their skills. However, there is a balance. Too much risk and new environments in big groups can overwhelm a participant, leading to compromised decision making. This, more often than not, comes when participant recognizes that they have a problem, but think they can push through in order to not burden the group. It is the leader’s role to check-in and spot these problems and assume the responsibility to change the group’s course so that it includes everyone’s needs.
Within the last 5 minutes of the hike to the rocks, one of the participants started slowing down and partially collapsed on a steep incline. My gut dropped, I had failed to recognize a participant’s signs of physical exhaustion in the face of her ever-present smile and our cheerful conversation. But these are the moments you train, prepare for, and pray will never happen. We were about 1,500 feet lower in elevation than the nearest access road and about an hour hike out to find help. Instantly, there was frenzy in the group and a million people became doctors and were swarming to give aid. It all comes from good intentions and the need to help our fellow companions, but very rarely are these reactions useful. I sent the group with the other leader to the final destination, as it was a mere 3 minutes further up the trail. The participant, her close friend, and myself hung back and further assessed the situation. I took a deep breath, centered my thoughts, and began going through the well-rehearsed risk management and wilderness first aid protocols that I had been equipped with. After some good rest and recovery time, the whole group had made it to the rocks at the end of the trail, a small victory in and of it self!
The first brave climbers scaled the easier walls, instilling confidence in the more timid beginners. After about 30 minutes, we had 5 climbers out on the rocks. We taught the eager learners how to belay each other and the group became self-sufficient. We all became equals. For the most part, my role was to provide encouragement and oversight. I coached people into their next moves on the rock and helped them achieve a smoother climb.
While I was initially nervous about the English language learners feeling safe and comfortable in the apparatuses of climbing, it was such a physical and visual learning process that everyone picked it up in no time. The excitement and presence that people get in their eyes after accomplishing something challenging, a little scary, and wildly cool reminds me exactly I love leading outdoor recreation trips.
As I was driving home, with a van full of sleeping participants I felt a serene closure with my time as an Outdoor Program Leader and the technical, social, and leadership skills I had developed over the last four years. I sat up a little straighter and let a fulfilled smile ride with me all the way back home.
About the author: Katie Gavares
Katie Gavares recently graduated with a B.S. in Earth and Environmental Science from Willamette University. Her passion for environmental protection and education stems from a love of playing outdoors. Katie grew up backpacking, rock climbing and simply enjoying the sunshine in Southern California. Throughout high school and university, she worked in different programs getting youth, mainly young women, into the outdoors. With her first-hand experience interacting with nature, Katie believes in nature’s power to instill the confidence and the skills that carry through to all aspects of our lives.
Katie has enjoyed facilitating outdoor leadership training and outdoor trips for students that grew up in metropolitan areas with limited access to nature. During her time at Willamette, she continued to introduce new communities to the outdoors through her position as Leadership Coordinator for the university's Outdoor Program where she taught and managed outdoor trip leaders. Katie also combined her experience and excitement for the outdoors and passion for education as the Straub Environmental Center's Collegiate Intern / Program Support Specialist during her final year in university.