Understanding Empowerment: Lessons Learned in the Outdoors

By Ronan Byrne CdeP 2017

It was 3 A.M. as I turned my headlamp to look uphill towards the towering mountains above us. My two partners, both ahead of me, had stopped. We had already been hiking an hour to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney for sunrise. To avoid an extra day of hiking, we had taken the steep route up Discovery Pinnacle. It had felt cold all morning, but suddenly the weather seemed to warm up for a brief moment as snow began to fall gently around us. Still, we continued up the nearly 3,000-foot climb. With each movement, our freezing hands grasped for the next boulder to assist our ascent. With each step up, our sand-filled boots slid half a step back down again. Exhausted, yet invigorated we continued on, encouraging and helping each other. Soon thereafter, the snow stopped and our trek through the night continued.

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After a couple hours of walking, we reached the trail to the top and quickly finished the remaining distance to the official summit of the mountain. We arrived just in time to see the sun break the horizon. Waking up at 2 A.M. hadn’t felt like a way anyone should start their day, but at that specific point in time, the three of us knew that the moment was perfect. Nothing could parallel the beauty of not just the scenery, but the feeling of the of the energy in the thin, cold air around us. There was no anger, no sadness, no frustration, only the sun, the mountain, and the three of us, together.

Nearly an hour later we sped down the descent, content with our day and fueled by pure happiness. Nothing was capable of ruining the remainder of the day we had ahead of us. The best part was, whatever happened for the remainder of the trip, nothing could take that moment away from us, not the approaching thunderstorm, not the beautiful summit of Mt. Langley, not even the return to civilization at the end of the trip. That afternoon, as I sat in our tent, waiting for the clouds and the rain to pass, I thought about what this extended hike meant to me and how important the experience really was. Clearly, the trip was meant for us to enjoy ourselves and bond as a group, however, it ended up being much more than that.

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Experiences, such as this one, are identity-defining moments. As people, the summation and compounding of all moments make up who we are, but the critical ones change our perspective or teach us the way we want to live our lives. These are both the worst moments and the most beautiful ones. Most importantly, these experiences affect how we approach our goals, the methods we use to get there, and how we justify those methods. The key part of the story that’s missing is that the prior day, I spent much of the day thinking about navigating up Discovery Pinnacle in the dark and how worried I actually was. On top of that, I was worried about how functional I would be with very little sleep, eventually fighting a war inside my own head to decide if the trip that morning would be worth it.

What might I have missed out on had I decided against the early morning trip? I could have ruined our chances of summiting Mt. Whitney at all due to the storm that came later that day, let alone miss out on the unparalleled sunrise. For this, I owe my two hiking partners for empowering me to feel confident and excited instead of scared and skeptical. For me, this moment wasn’t just about group dynamics, but also about learning why I should enable others to achieve their own goals and how to go about doing that. One of my backpacking partners, Luke Leasure, states that “over the John Muir Trail, [he] came to better understand the importance of having each group member play to their own strengths, as it allows for group members to feel more confident and productive in their respective roles.”

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Backpacking isn’t just about learning a few knots, reading a map, and packing a bag, to me, it’s about shaping yourself into the person you want to become. It’s all about learning to inspire others to reach their own goals and encourage the group to not only work together as a unit but to inspire confidence in their ability to be a functional member in any situation that they face.