Although the blood red mesas, the varnish-stained canyon walls, and the sun-bleached trees remain, Bears Ears National Monument has metamorphosed since we last visited in late January. The arid land’s water is no longer locked up in snow, and with the melt, a new layer of beauty has emerged. Vibrant foliage and brilliant blooms awake from their winter slumber. Life crawls out of seemingly impossible, inhospitable cracks in the earth. The microcosmos that is the intricate system of canyons in southeastern Utah is transforming.
We can’t help but feel anxious before each of our expeditions, and this is no exception. For a claustrophobe, the towering canyon walls can sometimes be suffocating. But to drown in this phobia would be a mistake—there’s too much to miss. The desert’s treasures are well hidden. Ruins perch like the multitudes of ravens on canyon shelves, revealing themselves only to the keenest hikers. Like someone had planted an Easter egg especially for us, we come across an undisturbed site including a two-story ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling, pottery shards, arrowheads, and pictographs. Peering at the paintings of bighorn sheep, fertility gods, and the handprints of children, I wonder if there was an intention, some religious importance, or a ritualistic significance to their art, or if they were only passing the time in the sweltering desert heat.
As the promise of Independent Student Travel drew nearer, Wilderness First Aid became an essential part of our expedition curriculum. Although we legally can’t be certified by our instructors, all ten boys on our trip become competent enough to handle a medical emergency, should one arise.
In the blink of an eye, our two-week journey through the winding canyons came to a close. Huddled together in our sleeping bags one hundred yards from the highway, the solemn, enchanting cry of a lone coyote pierces the melody of the calm, cold wind. It’s bittersweet; trading the open skies for ceilings, knowing something other than beans and pasta await us, leaving the intimacy of a small brotherhood for the warmth of the larger HMI family. But a little piece of us all stays in the canyon, just as a small part of the canyons will remain in all of us.
We started with an eight hour drive in a crammed bus. After multiple gas station trips, reading, listening to music, and a sudden change in temperature we arrived at Bears Ears National Monument. Everyone sat with their eyes glued out the window trying to remember the scenery from first exped. The burnt orange of the canyon’s walls swarmed above and below us. The feeling of walking on split ancient earth was something that everyone was eager to get back to. The first night was spent on slick rock right near the highway. We were greeted with a new presence that we had not encountered first expedition: bugs. This ultimately wasn’t that big of a deal though, as there weren’t many bugs once we got further away from the highway. From then on we embarked on our journey and by embarked I mean traveled .003 miles per hour due to our 65 pound packs… we literally crawled. Just kidding! Nothing could stop us. Coming back to the canyons was thrilling, since we were no longer rookies. There were definitely highlights from the trip. One included the 12 hour day in Gravel Canyon. The second hiking group came into camp at a record 9:45 pm, overjoyed to see the first group cuddled together in sleeping bags. Other highlights were discovering ancient ruins; we all hiked up silently to this sight, touched the charcoal on the wall and saw the small corn cobs lying on the ground from thousands of years ago. On the fourth day of the expedition we were met with a steep drop off into the canyon we had to descend. There was no way we could walk down. The I-Team set up a belay and all of us repelled off of a 40 foot ledge into the canyon. At first everyone was a little bit nervous and shaky when Steph lowered us off of the edge but that was quickly tamed when our feet left the rock and we were left dangling. While the days were filled with adventuring, laughing, and enjoying the sun. The nights were filled with cooking brownies, British accents, and star gazing. By the end of the 13 days we were definitely worn and tired but sad to leave this beautiful place we have called home for 28 days. Now it’s back to life in Leadville!
This expedition was quite different from the others. We did way more technical travel with reppells and climbs, which we really enjoyed, but more so we got to do a lot more independent activities which we found surprisingly gratifying. While we had been to this area on first exped, it was a very neat experience to come back and see how much more prepared we were this time. Physicaly speaking our trip was much more rigorous, involving fewer long hikes across canyon tops, and more technical climbs and descents in canyons. We got to go in a lot of what we dubbed “narrows,” which involved descending up to 100 feet down slots at the bottom of canyons into freezing cold water that only saw the sun for five or ten minutes a day because of the depth and narrowness of the narrows. Overall it was a wonderful experience and we can’t wait for an opportunity to go back to the canyons of Utah.
The first night of expedition we camped on slick rock, right off the highway. During Circle that night, we began bonding with our group for the next 2 weeks. The next morning we went to the Ranger Station, to review the principles of “Leave No Trace” and learn about the ancient Puebloan ruins in the area. After, we hit the trails and officially began our expedition! Many days of hiking, learning, and making new friendships followed. After 4 days in Lime Creek Canyon, we had a spontaneous change in our route. Our original plan was to descend into Road Canyon, and continue hiking through the canyon. After hours of scouting, we decided to play it safe and turn back. We learned a lot about conservative decision making and risk management that day: as a group we had to keep in mind which terrain would be safe to travel down, and how much water we had left. 11 hours and 9 miles later, we arrived back at our campsite from the previous night. It was a difficult and tiring day, especially for our feet, but we kept spirits high by belting out songs on the trail, sharing stories, and telling jokes. We felt very accomplished after that day, and even more the next day, which was our first day of Independent Student Travel (IST). Before gaining IST, we had to demonstrate responsible decision making, knowledge of the terrain, and participate in the HMIfirst aid course. During this course we learned the basics of wilderness first aid, and even demonstrated our new skills on each other during the lessons.
Throughout the trip our Expedition Leaders shared stories, wisdom, and demonstrated exceptional leadership. One highlight was that Margi taught a very insightful and relevant lesson about Bears Ears National Monument, and the Native American history of the area. We expanded this lesson with a P&P reading and discussion about the monument, in context with the Obama administration’s legislature and the Trump administration’s future plans for the monument. We gained a very unique perspectives on this topic by learning about it while in the canyons of Utah.
After days of talking about Neville’s Arch, the moment finally came. It was a beautiful day: bluebird sky and full sun. We set up camp on the canyon floor, and then ascended the up the hillside. At the top, we journaled, took photos, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. It was a very special moment for all of us together, due to the breathtaking scenery and just being all together under the arch. For most of us, this day turned out to be a trip highlight. During the hike debrief that afternoon, we simply discussed how amazing that day was. This moment, along with many other over the course of the expedition, showed the special connection of an all-female group. We all felt comfortable with each other, starting on day one. By the end of the trip all nine of us shared so many inside jokes and memories. We got to know everyone in the group on a very personal level. During the more difficult moments, we empowered and helped each other. This was a unique aspect of an all-female trip: helping and motivating each other felt very natural. We explored gender empowerment, personal identity, the beauty of nature, and other topics, through prompts given to us by our apprentice, Emily, which aided our process of self and group realization. For most of us, this was our first single-sex wilderness experiences: it turned out to be very empowering, fun, and beneficial to our leadership skills.
Being able to return to the canyons of Utah with friends we’ve grown so close with over the semester was really something special. Contrasting with snowy, sometimes frigid conditions of first expedition in the canyons, we arrived in the canyons this time around and were greeted with clear, sunny skies, and balmy 75 degree temperatures. We wore shorts and t-shirts every single day; the weather felt like a tropical paradise compared our previous expeditions and time in Leadville!
This expedition was unique in a few different ways, even though it was spent in roughly the same area and with some of the same fabulous people as our previous expeditions. Our group in particular was very excited to earn Independent Student Travel (IST) after we finished our required first aid courses. We worked hard over the first half of the expedition and were able to get IST early on, which everyone was pretty excited about. The hard-working and friendly spirit of the whole group really helped in us being able to reach our goals. While we love the members of our instructor team, being able to spend all day just in the company of our peers helped to form an incredibly strong group bond between all of us. We spent the days hiking, lounging by pools of water, completing our academic work that had been assigned to us by various teachers, playing games, journaling, and other fun, relaxing activities. And while we did have a lot of relaxation time, it was also the duty of the whole group to pitch in with navigation, campsite finding, water collecting, and cooking. We had to accomplish all these necessary tasks without instructor supervision which, while it was difficult at times, played a large role in the cohesiveness of our group. We spent nights singing, playing games, stargazing, and finally all falling asleep together under the brilliant stars of Bears Ears.