By Ben DeMarco
It was the middle of winter and we were hitting a mountain trail with 100 liter backpacks, a cooking tent, and sleeping bags in tow. The snow was deep and the snowshoeing arduous on some stretches of the 18-mile loop that lay ahead of us. Good news actually because we were looking for challenges although post-holing in the deep snow can be a pretty miserable way to spend a winter hike.
Every morning, the team woke up with the sun. We shared a breakfast of oatmeal or other backpacking food before breaking camp. By about 10 am, we were ready to go and pretty much hiked all day. When it was almost dinner time, we looked for a good spot to spend the night and set up camp.
As far as getting ready and getting on our way is concerned, the routine was pretty much the same every day. The trail was another matter. You have to be prepared for some surprises. This is part of the learning curve for our young men in recovery from addiction. Most of them have not been on a hike before, but that’s what we have been working up to!
We did about three miles and set up camp at a creek so we had water. It was pretty easy going but very cold at night. At 14 below, it was the coldest night we would have out there. A client felt a little in over his head and said, “this is going to be the hardest thing I have ever done.” His fear that he “can’t do this” wouldn’t last long, though.
We managed to do about three to four more miles. Again, we camped near a small creek where we had water. The snow was deep, making the hike fairly difficult. But at four degrees in the evening, it was substantially warmer than the night before.
We made it to the top of the mountain where we set up camp and had an amazing view from the pass. This was by far the most difficult day of hiking going up vertically almost 1,000 feet in steep and deep terrain. Without nearby water, this was the first night we had to melt snow. It was a lot warmer, though, to the point where we did not even set up the kitchen tent, we just created an open kitchen to take in the view. The client who wasn’t so sure that he “can do this” began to realize he could accomplish something great on this trek. After dreading what was ahead at the beginning, he was now saying “this is amazing.”
Mother Nature cut us a break and we were able to cover more ground more easily than we had managed up to that point. We covered about four more miles and stopped hiking to set up camp long before we felt we had reached our physical limits. Once again, we were melting snow for water but had a great campsite with views looking out to the southeast.
We traveled several miles that were not easy but had at least some forgiving stretches. This is where the trail became poorly marked and we had to make some route-finding decisions. We were melting snow again for water at this location.
We set out to reach our pick-up location at a mountain pass. We had to do a lot of route-finding since the trail markings had mostly disappeared. It took us much longer than anticipated but we made it to the target location after a long day of hiking and covering around six miles.
During the route-finding, the aforementioned young man wasn’t so sure anymore that we were going the right way and feared we could be lost, even though we were not, of course. He had never been in such a situation before and was a little rattled by it. But once we came out of that situation in the evening, he felt elated again now that we had completed the trip.
He was actually part of the route-finding process, looking at the map, using the compass, and figuring out where we were. Throughout the wilderness trek, he gained a lot of confidence in himself and his ability to navigate difficult situations—a crucial skill in the recovery toolbox. We camped right at the trailhead and were picked up in the morning.
They picked us up at around 10 am and drove us back to the ranch. Once we got back we showered and de-issued which we finished by about 3 pm.
As the diary shows, sometimes we crushed the mileage, reached camp early, and just hung out. On more tasking days, we got into camp late and had to scramble to get our things together. Different aspects of the mountain will have different snowpacks and you have to deal with it, that’s just the way it is.
Of course, we do our best to get our clients ready for this trial. Physically they are certainly well prepared. We do treks with them once a week during their initial 60 days on the ranch and before the start of the wilderness excursion. It’s all part of the recovery process for the young men to learn to be comfortable on a trail. That way, they start to sense the healing power of nature.
Mentally, it’s gonna be a challenge every time, though, especially in the winter. It’s tough out there and there will be unforeseen obstacles. We want to get these guys into situations they did not anticipate, to make them realize that they are able to overcome those challenges. This represents the core of our treatment approach—that is what makes what we’re doing so valuable.
The camaraderie clients experience in such a small group out on the mountain, the connection with the people around him, and feeling a connection with the majestic land around him—all of those are powerful agents of change. It’s a moving experience when clients are suddenly overcome with feelings of gratitude.