Snow in May: Leadership in the Face of Uncertainty

Posted by: Sarah Delany on 6/18/18 10:01 AM

Footsteps in the snow
Photo from Pixabay.

Postholing is a gamble at best; the unstable snow holds a person carrying a pack one step and collapses the next, leaving you up to your knees in snow when you least expect it.

When my Leadership Development class from Bates College rolled into the NOLS Northeast campus in Gabriels, New York this spring, the last thing I could have imagined was that I would find myself hip deep in rotten snow, moving slower than imaginable, and pondering whether or not I would have to set up my tent in the dark.

On day three of the expedition in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Areawhat had started off as an easy day with a beautiful summit was turning into one of the hardest times I’d ever experienced.

We had just finished summiting McKenzie Mountain, a steep and rocky climb that raised our spirits and my confidence as one of my group’s designated leaders (DL). But my high spirits were dashed once we started onto the ridge to the next peak, Moose Mountain, and hit snow. Lots of it.

Our momentum slowed to a stop when we ran into the other hiking group, and our instructors pulled aside the DLs to make a decision about what we would do next.

I looked around at my group. Our break had turned from a short map check into a long rest. Conversation had lulled, packs had been taken off, and most team members looked less than enthused to hike another few miles through deep snow.It was late in the afternoon, and we clearly weren’t going to be able to hike the next three miles across the ridge and up Moose Mountain. My co-DL and I made the mutual decision to take a detour and hike downhill to make camp at a much-closer pond.

The next few hours were equal parts hilarious, desperate, and brutal. When postholing, you’re never quite sure if your feet will find solid snow. The first few steps can be fine, but the next second you can sink into the snow up to your knee, or higher. Recovering from a particularly deep posthole is physically taxing, and every time you take a wrong step, you become a bit less sure of your footing.

On top of the postholing, navigation became a challenge, because the snow covered the trail. The person hiking in front needed to break trail for the entire group. Breaking trail is a challenging endeavor; your entire hiking group is relying on you to find the most efficient route without getting lost, which is hard enough work without the added challenge of pushing your way through deep snow. The momentum that I had felt throughout the morning slowed to a halt, and for the first time all day, I felt out of control of the situation.

The idea of not making a goal we’d set was a challenging pill for me to swallow, and on top of that I was worried that we wouldn’t make it down to our new campsite. I was impatient; my hiking group was tired and struggling with the deep snow. However, as I began to get out of my own head and look at the people around me, I was blown away by the combined effort of my peers to make this experience at least a little bit better.

For example, my instructor, Taylor, was quick to help me and my groupmates out of deep post holes on multiple occasions, often sacrificing his own comfort in doing so. Another person in my group broke trail for the rest of us, taking on a huge mental and physical burden. 

Although I was in a designated leadership role, seeing the way my group stepped up and helped each other made me realize that being a designated leader is only one part of helping a team reach a common goal. My hiking group’s encouragement of one another, willingness to help others, and positive attitude in the face of uncertainty helped ease a lot of stress, and made the day just a little bit easier despite the conditions. That afternoon, I realized being a leader wasn’t an individual act, but required a team’s support.

Airing out our feet at the top of a hill in the sun
Letting our feet warm up in the sun. Photo courtesy of Sarah Delany.

After the unanticipatedly long day of hiking, our group found a campsite and spent the last hours of the evening stomping down tent sites and boiling water for dinner and hot drinks before bed.

Everyone in our expedition group was cold, tired, and mildly apprehensive about the night we were about to spend on snow. Right as we were cleaning the kitchen for the night, everyone stopped what they were doing, turned off headlamps, and looked up at the sky. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the stars were illuminating it. At that moment, with all of us staring up through the trees, a sense of peace fell upon the group. No matter how crazy our day started and regardless of the anticipated long days ahead, we were able to take a moment to stop and appreciate the world around us.

This to me is why we do what we do out in the woods: every hard day, deep post hole, and wet boot is worth the awe felt when experiencing nature to its fullest. Our environment humbled us a little bit that day. That short moment when we were able to reflect and make meaning of our place in the world made us all put the hard times in perspective and think about the incredible, awe-inspiring ones, too.

Learn more about custom NOLS courses like this for your school.

The entire Bates groupPhoto courtesy of Sarah Delany.

Sarah Delany is a student at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine. An Environmental Studies major, she loves to spend as much time outside as possible: skiing, hiking, and playing ultimate frisbee during the school year, and kayaking, canoeing, and working at a summer camp in the summer. She was a member of the 2017 Bates College Leadership Expedition.