Quantifying the Unquantifiable: What I Learned after a Week in the Wilderness with the Archer School for Girls

Posted by: Jen Pontrelli on 5/9/16 8:10 AM

There I was in the middle of the Galiuro Wilderness in southern Arizona. Traversing a mountain trail at top speed for the terrain, sweating profusely in the desert sun, and humming Fergie’s 2007 hit “Glamorous.”

As a diehard Metallica fan, I didn’t expect this particular tune to be rattling around in my brain, but my fellow expedition members, 12 high school freshman girls, would not have it any other way.

Hiking in the Southwest with Archer at NOLS

Photo by Audrey Kruse.

I was traveling in the Galiuro as a member of the instructor team on the Archer School for Girls Freshman Wilderness Expedition, a custom course organized by NOLS Custom Education. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Archer is an independent school that seeks to provide unique and worldly opportunities for its bright young women. With a strong belief that students have a lot to learn about leadership in the mountains, Archer partnered with NOLS Pro in 2011 to create an expedition course progression for students in 7th, 9th, and 11th grades.

As an employee in the NOLS Custom Education office, my particular role on this course was not as instructor but as an observer. Going into this experience, I expected to see a lot of learning moments for the students.

What I did not expect in this sea of young minds is that I would be learning profound lessons as well, and that day in the Galiuro the lessons were lasting.

With our feet rapidly hitting the trail, the course leader, Jesse, and I were on a mission. Our group set out that morning, expecting a relatively easy day hike to the summit of Sunset Peak carrying a few essentials and without our huge, heavy packs. The accomplishment of ascending a peak was something the whole group was looking forward to, especially the young girls who deal with L.A. traffic on a daily basis.

We soon learned the Galiuro had other plans for us.

Hiking in the Southwest

Photo by Eryn Pierce.

A little over two miles into the hike most of our girls ran out of water and snacks began to run low. Still a considerable distance from Sunset Peak, the arid heat of the desert started to take its toll. Up until this point our group had been a beacon of support, friendship and fun.

But now spirits were dwindling, tempers were rising, and our precious group was beginning to show rifts.

In an effort to salvage the day, Jesse and I volunteered to run back to camp to fetch some extra water while the others soldiered on to the peak. We left the group with two instructors and the chaperone from Archer and took off at full speed down the trail. We covered a considerable amount of distance before I turned and looked back at our group. Their sunken shoulders and downtrodden expressions said it all: today wasn’t going to be the great day we had originally thought.

When we got to camp, we hurriedly loaded up every water vessel we had. Jesse, in all her sage NOLS instructor wisdom, grabbed a bag of M&Ms just before heading out. Seeing the group at a definite low before we left, we fully expected to be walking into an imploding bomb of tired, hungry, and stressed teenagers.

When we finally rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of the group in almost two hours, I was astounded at what I saw. Our 12 girls and their three adult supervisors were blazing up the trail toward us, laughing and singing at a powerful decibel that intensified when they saw us.

What happened in that short time that caused such a turnaround in spirits? The buoyant demeanor of the group implied a successful ascent … maybe they found a mysterious cache of food and water on Sunset Peak?

When our parties converged, Jesse and I learned the truth: the day had actually been a failure.

With no clear trail up to Sunset Peak, sunlight waning, and resources dwindling, the leaders of the day decided to create a new plan. Instead of scaling the mountain top, the group spent some individual reflection time on a high saddle.

After their reflections, the girls spontaneously gathered and began howling into the wilderness like fierce mountain women, with lots of laughter ensuing.

The elated group we happened upon on the trail was the result of that shared experience. As we passed around water and M&Ms, I noticed a very different dynamic among our group that would carry on for the rest of the course. Despite being mere acquaintances before the course, the Archer girls found a way to connect on a very intrinsic level that day and pulled one another out of an abyss known as "the bonk."

Although Sunset Peak was not attainable, everyone worked together through the mire, coming out of the experience closer and stronger.

Take a closer look at Archer and NOLS in action here:

Find your grit—look at courses today.

Jen Pontrelli is the sales manager for NOLS Custom Education.