Friday, March 4, 2011

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Ten years ago my best friend, Jennifer Chenier, and I were finishing up the final chapter in earning our College degrees. There were fifteen of us in our programs graduating class; our small size due to the limiting factor that the program included living at a small ecological field station in Lachute, Quebec. While living at this field station the fifteen of us lived, worked and studied together. It was the same year that the show Survivor came out, and after watching each episode ritualistically, Jenn and I would often return to our dorm room and fantasize about who we would "vote off" the field station if we had such a luxury! I know this may sound mean but living, working and playing, in the woods, with the same fifteen people for six months presents a variety of challenges, especially when everyone is under the age of 22!

Soon enough though, December had arrived and our field station term had ended. It was time to spread our wings and see what the real ecology work-world was like by completing a two month internship. Our classmates all had different visions- some stayed close to home while others traveled to far away places. I was a strong-willed, sassy 21 year old who had firmly declared "I am DONE with winter". After ample searching I finally accepted an internship as a bird rehabilitator in the beautiful Florida Keys. With a little coercing, I was able to convince Jenn that indeed, this was the internship she wanted as well! And so, on a frigid January morning in Montreal we boarded a plane and flew to South Florida.

One of our running jokes throughout our internship was to wait for the most sublime "Florida Keys" moment  and then say "What would Lisa be doing right now?". You see, Lisa was one of the fifteen; but rather than going someplace sunny she accepted an internship tagging Bighorn Sheep in Little Bighorn NRA in January. At that moment in my life, I thought her internship was the most absurd decision anyone had ever made. After all, who in their right mind would go to Wyoming in January?

In any case, upon saying "What would Lisa be doing right now?", Jenn and I would thoughtfully pause, visualize, and then crack up laughing as we would bask in the island sunshine. Our visualizations were always quite the same: Lisa walking on a snow-covered plateau, pushing slowly through the fierce wind and snow with a staff in hand. Our joke never got old during our internship but now the joke is on me.

Last week I found myself skiing in the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park. The eight days prior to this trip, Mother Nature had graced us with several feet of fresh new snow and a tremendous amount of wind. The weather conditions however, mattered little to me as I was determined to embark on this trip that I had been planning since the Autumn. The destination of this 3 day journey was Upper Berry Patrol Cabin; a perfect cabin along a creek surrounded by steep canyon walls. With a fifteen pound pack strapped to my torso I quickly discovered that the 11 mile journey to the cabin was NOT going to be easy. With every step I took I sank through 12 inches of powder, the wind and snow whipping me in the face. Crossing over the frozen lake, I broke trail for what seemed like a eternity, however I know it was probably closer to 10 minutes. Shane and our friend Dan slowly followed in my narrow cross country ski tracks, which sadly did little to help them since they were wearing their fat downhill skis.   Periodically, I would look up and around only to discover that I was now the leading character in a movie called What would Lisa be doing right now?!

Upon crossing the lake, our next challenge was a series of ups and downs through the mountains- with many more ups than actual downs! These ascents and descents mirrored my emotional status for the next 5 hours. I experienced moments of intense frustration where words, that I shall not repeat for my mother's sake, flew out of my mouth at rocket speed! I was angry at the snow, the wind, the mountains, my skis and even myself. But after each self-satisfying ascent I was refreshed with a burst of energy and suddenly everything in the world was once again beautiful! This emotional roller coaster while hiking/skiing was not new to fact I have been known to cry on the trail before (but that has only happened twice, I swear!). To better deal with my negative emotions while hiking I have learned that my ipod can work wonders. It shifts the focus from my negative mental status to the vibrant and energy boosting sounds of the music. Grooving to my music, Dan asks what I am listening to. Unwilling to admit that the urban tunes of Rihanna, Sean Paul and Wyclef are booming through my earphones while we are surrounded by the beautiful serenity of the Teton's backcountry , I diplomatically respond "Oh, you know, a little of everything".

Comparatively speaking, my mental anguish was nothing in respect to my husband's physical anguish. Skiing with his heavy downhill skis and borrowed boots, each step he took weighed approximately 6 pounds more than mine. About halfway through our trip his pace began to slow and his legs tired. Despite the wind and cold he skied in his fleece jacket and still complained of being hot. His face reddened and his rest breaks increased. I slowed my pace so that I could stick close to him. Taking a quick 5 minute rest I asked him what was hurting, to which he exhaustively answered "Everything". When your 6 to 8 miles in the backcountry "everything" is NOT what you want to hear! My selfish mental anguish quickly dissolved as I shifted my undivided attention and concern to Shane's well being. I offered up my coveted ipod- he declined. I offered to take some of the items from his pack to lessen it's weight- again he declined. Skiing in silence I mentally layed out a "worst case" scenario plan of action in my mind. I knew how to build a snow cave, I had plenty of food and water, I had a park radio, and Dan, who is a law enforcement ranger was just ahead of us on the trail.

Luckily, the worst case scenario never materialized and once we rounded the corner and saw the cabin we both breathed a deep sigh of relieve. Smoke emanated from the chimney; a sign that Dan had already been there for a while.  Arriving at the cabin, Shane ungracefully plunked down in the chair. Removing his sweat soaked clothes he was instantly chilled. I searched his pack for some dry clothing for him to put on while also wrapping my sleeping bag around him. As he removed his socks, he revealed why one should never borrow boots for an 22 mile RT ski: Giant and bloody blisters covered the backs and sides of both feet.

For next 36 hours Shane pretty much sat in the same position, with feet propped up next to the fire. Periodically, I checked his feet, cleaned his wounds and forced him to drink a lot of water and tea. I gave up my two day supply of multi-vitamins in hopes that it would boost his energy. I pampered him and fulfilled his every request. But there was still much to do even though we had reached the cabin.

The work does not end when you arrive at a back country cabin. The fire needs to be stoked constantly, wood replaced and kindling chopped. There is drinking and cooking water to collect from the river and snow to be shoveled from the doorway, windows and outhouse. I felt bad for Dan who had already broken 95% of the 11 mile trail to the cabin and so I tried my hardest to pull my weight and Shane's once we arrived. Ignoring my desire to sit next to Shane in a catatonic state of mind, I went outside and grabbed the second shovel. Then it was off to the creek to collect water, followed by cooking dinner. Sleep came quick that night and the following day was an excellent opportunity to recover and prepare for the 11 mile journey back out.

The morning of our departure I spent a great length of time trying to determine the best method for bandaging up Shane's feet. We all knew that no matter what I did it was still going to be painful. Eight giant band-aids, some moleskin and two ace bandages later, we were ready to start the grueling day. Thankfully, the sun was shining and the winds had ceased. My pack was heavier than when I started two days prior even though we had eaten most of the food, but the benefit was for Shane, not me. Shane willingly accepted my ipod and grooved to the tunes, but not without saying "What the heck kinda music do you have on this thing!". Amazingly, he skied 9 miles in excellent time and form but the last 2 miles across the endless frozen lake kicked his butt. Stopping every 3 minutes, no words needed to be spoken for me to know what he was thinking and feeling. I secretly wished he had smaller feet so we could exchange skis and boots, the way my older sister always gives up her shoes whenever mine start to hurt.  

Arriving at the trail head Shane kicked of his skis and threw one of them a few feet. Frustrated with his own demise he angrily barked at me "can you come here and get these stupid things". Without taking personal offense I said yes, but Dan beat me to it. Making his way to the bed of the truck, Shane sat there silently. Like only a good friend would, Dan gave Shane a high five and a "good job" and then proceeded to help Shane remove his boots.

Arriving back at Yellowstone, Shane's temperament had already shifted back to it's normal happy tone. After a much needed, slightly painful, shower he curled up on our leather couch, where he remained for the next three days! Now don't get me wrong, I do not look at this trip as a misfortune. In fact, it is quite to opposite. Despite the challenges I had a fantastic time and was reminded of several good things:

1- Never wear new boots or borrowed boots for a 22 mile trip.
2- You can never have too much safety equipment.
3- Find the thing that helps you get through difficult moments. (music, singing, writing etc)
4- Push your personal limits but be wise to know your physical limits.
5- Before you take things personally, think to yourself "maybe that person is just having a bad day, or week or even a bad year!"
6- Friendship is truly tested during difficult moments.
7- Being selfless is much more rewarding than being selfish.
8- Overcoming adversary is the best mental medicine.
9-I might be small, but I am mighty!
10-  There is no "I" in the word TEAM!

But even though I am a "glass half full" kinda girl, I think I might just go ahead and cancel our 14 mile trip to the Heart Lake Patrol Cabin next week. Maybe, I'll start looking at the cost of plane tickets to somewhere hot instead! 

No comments:

Post a Comment