Jeff Snow

Big City Mountaineers

Jeff Snow
Big City Mountaineers

One of my favorite things about the outdoors is how easy it is to share. As a kid, it was cool fallen trees or secret trails in our backyard or rope swings along the lake shore shared between my brothers and my friends. As a teenager, Dad started teaching us how to camp and hike and read maps and manage a speed boat and bike long distances. Then college brought new stomping grounds, rock climbing, running, and surfing (even though I never did quite get the hang of that one).

In 2013, my husband, Dave, and I jumped at the chance to move to Utah - the outdoors scene here is so varied and different from what I grew up with in Tennessee. I’ve learned to ski, to check the avalanche reports, to read new weather patterns, to hike at high elevation, to backpack and snowshoe and mountain bike and trail run. And still, my favorite part of the outdoors is sharing these adventures with friends.

We found so many people who lived in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, but had never really ventured into them. We started organizing hikes and educating ourselves about the wildlife, plants, geology, and other points of interest. Mostly, we wanted to know more about our new state, but all that information came in handy when we took new folks out into the woods.

In August of 2016, Smartwool called, asking if I’d go on a seven day volunteer backpacking trip with a group of teens in Colorado. I said yes immediately. The trip was organized through Big City Mountaineers - a group that helps urban young people experience surviving in the outdoors. They were in need of an adult female volunteer to staff the girls’ hike.

I had only one hesitation: I’d never backpacked before. We’d done a lot of car camping combined with hiking that felt like backpacking, but I’d never carried all my essentials on my back for a week. The director reassured me that none of the kids had either, so we’d all be learning together. (That still wasn’t very reassuring - especially if I was supposed to be leading and encouraging the teenagers!)

As the team gathered at BCM headquarters and the teens arrived, I realized I hadn’t interacted with a kid their age in almost four years. At least not on an extended, seven day trip. Before I knew it, at age 31, I was fighting those seventh grader feelings of inadequacy that break eye contact and lower voices. The teens seemed to feel the same way - our three hour van ride to the Oh Be Joyful! wilderness was quiet. Maryanne asked the girls questions for a bit, but we eventually all fell silent.

The trip was going to demand that we trust each other, and I was beginning to wonder how we’d win the kids’ trust if we couldn’t get them to talk to us. One key piece of building trust, though, is evidence - proof - that you’re trustworthy. At our first camp spot, I helped the girls set up their tents -- a task I’d done several dozen times, but they’d never even seen. We didn’t have a mallet for the stakes (so I showed them the boot heel or sturdy rock methods). One tent didn’t have a footprint. And horrifyingly, another had a huge spider in it!

By the end of night one, the teens realized we all knew how to arrange shelter, cook decent food in a limited camp setup, and talk about pooping and peeing honestly and with the right mix of humor. I think the bathroom conversation was where we broke the ice - I had never pooped in the woods, nor had another of the volunteers, and the girls immediately knew we were just as weirded out by it as they were. Amidst Piper’s jokes and Anna’s laughter, we all resolved to figure it out before the trip was over.

Trust also comes from listening. We spent 24 hours a day for almost seven days with the teens - days one and two were full of silly stories and jokes from school, singing show tunes, and giggling at each other. But by listening to the nerves and the excitement and not ridiculing anything they said, the adults were winning trust. There was a lot of laughter at each others’ stumbles, but there was always a helping hand nearby when one teammate needed something. And by the end of day two, the teens had trusted us with more than just their surface stories and jokes. They were starting to talk about home life, hopes for college, life goals, and anxiety around the election.

And we shared right back. Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom - I was just as anxious about the election as the girls were.

One conversation I remember very clearly came over lunch. We had dug the bear cans out of our packs, distributed summer sausage, cheese, bagels, and trail mix around. And I was sitting with two of the girls on a shallow rock that edged the creek where we’d paused to eat. Betty suddenly said, “You know, this would never have happened at home.”

I laughed. “You don’t eat sausage in the woods at home?”

But she and Erikka explained that at school, in the college prep program they’re taking, the school counselors and mentors make appointments with them to talk over progress, feelings, and worries. The girls said the counselors don’t feel genuinely interested in them as people, so they avoid meeting the counselors whenever possible. “But here,” she said, “I feel like I’ve known you forever and I want to talk to you about stuff that worries me.”

There’s something about carrying all your food, shelter, and supplies on your back, in a single file line, through a part of the country you didn’t know existed. It’s a dig-deep something, a strength and resolve you didn’t realize you had, and a compassion for your fellow traveler that you may have felt before in bursts but is now a steady, welling thought of looking out for their best interests.

Watching Tim gently treat blisters and hot spots on sweaty feet, or hearing Piper’s quiet reassurances to Miriam, watching the softness and honesty that Maryanne encouraged out of the teens - I don’t think I’ll ever know if it was the special chemistry of that group or just being in such an isolated place together that gelled us into a family in just a few days.

The BCM program does an excellent job of providing time for reflection, time for appreciation of your surroundings and your team, and times to stretch yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of. Our team was crazy-intuitive and thoughtful - each of the teens had deep, life-giving insights at our evening reflections. But our stretch day was beyond my expectations.

As an avid hiker, I didn’t realize how many precarious-looking spots I’d climbed to in my life. Those are just the rocky outcroppings that offer the best view or the narrow footpath that leads to the highest point of land. Our stretch day, the teens decided to push for the high saddle of a mountain pass. We made it in good time up a steep, zig-zagging trail, past the snowline to a windblown perch that looked over two separate bowls: the one we’d just climbed, and a surprising new one on the other side of the pass.

Days before the adults had stopped calling the shots and let the teens decide our next moves. Our summit day was no different: Tim pulled Sanjay aside and outlined three options for the rest of the afternoon. Sanjay, the navigator, took the options back to the teens and they decided among themselves what adventure to tackle next. We were completely surprised when they unanimously agreed to push for the summit over our little saddle perch. The climb would be steeper than anything we’d done yet, didn’t have a marked trail, and our weather window wasn’t very long.

But Erikka and Miriam, the two most frustrated by all the physical activity of the week, said that if they didn’t at least try it, they would never learn to face their fears and work through them. And they’d be letting the group down.

That was easily the slowest and most tentative summit hike I’ve ever taken, but each hiker refused to quit, each for their own reasons. Miriam was terrified and crying the entire way up, and Erikka was shaken by the heights and thin air. Tony and Sanjay were unsettled too. But watching Nicole, Betty, and the mentors encourage and cheer and support was beautiful - everyone made it to just below the summit for a group photo and agreed to call that close enough. That night the teens’ reflections were all about teamwork, empathy, pushing through challenges and fear, and pushing your body beyond what you knew it could do.

For me, seeing those heights and drops from a new perspective put me in awe of the adventures I’ve had. When you’re in a very outdoorsy community, there’s always someone hiking higher, climbing harder, and going further than you. There’s always someone to compare yourself to and someone you’re not as good as yet. But to the BCM teens, we were those crazy people - they had never climbed anything so steep or seen views from that high up and it changed their lives.

On day two, Tony told me he wanted to record daily video diaries on the GoPros Devin and I were carrying for Smartwool. So we waiting until just before bedtime, found a quiet spot, and with some improvised headlamp lighting, let him talk about his day. Tony amazes me - he is bold and light-hearted but can drop into seriousness and insight in a blink. And his diaries went the same way - they started with a silly or dramatic story about the day and ended with a sensitive, thoughtful observation of our week. And Tony is infectious - by the end of the week, Miriam, Nicole, and even quiet Sanjay had recorded video diaries.

I’ve never been in a position in the outdoors where I had to process the struggle of what I was doing as I was doing it. I’ve also never been in the outdoors for seven straight days - that probably helps. But watching the teens, as they learned how to layer clothes and tie boot laces so they wouldn’t rub and identify hot spots before they turned into blisters - everything was so new to them. They were nearly overwhelmed by the amount of processing they had to do - not only the instructions and best practices, but also the views and the strenuous activity and the strangers. And here I was, frustrated that my pack was bruising my hip bones.

Perspective can be hard to maintain - we tend to quickly bog down in the little tasks and details of our lives and forget what an intricate part of a greater scene we are. In the woods, you’re sheltered under trees, on clear-cut paths, focusing on your footing, your balance, hydration, and safety, and it’s not until you break out onto a ridge top that you remember where in this vast wilderness you’re walking.

Even with Jeremy’s expertise on the peaks we were looking at, it was easy to feel lost and insignificant. And in the wilderness, you are. But in our group, each of us played an integral role in our team’s success - we were never alone, our actions were never insignificant.

Another piece of perspective is remembering: keeping in focus and clarity the events that you witnessed and remembering their significance. Since August, our group keeps in touch sporadically (mostly over SnapChat), contributing our memories to the collective picture of our week in the woods. We all promised, with Sanjay, that we wouldn’t go ghost - we’d do our best to keep connected and nurture those ties that were created in the wilderness. Because after those seven days of hard work, trust building, and laughter, we’re lowkey family.