Editor’s Note: On NOLS expeditions, students learn tolerance for adversity and uncertainty in the field. Today, people around the world are facing profound adversity and uncertainty in their home communities. We chose to share this reflection written by instructor Navarana Smith—prior to today’s global health crisis—in hopes that it will resonate and inspire readers to look forward with hope.
Last summer, I remember liking the quote my co-instructor shared, "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." What I didn’t realize was that it would become a motto I would come back to.
Really, I think it all started on that NOLS Alaska Backpacking and Sea Kayaking course. We had just climbed up to a camp hung between several six-thousand-foot peaks. It was a beautiful spot, and as we sat together on the tundra that evening, we got talking about ambition. One by one, our expedition team shared their highest aspirations. I was humbled to be among these driven individuals, and felt so inspired by the goals they had for themselves.
And then, it was my turn. What’s your ambition, Nav?
My head swarmed with the question. I did have ambition...right? I had goals and initiative, didn’t I? A desire for success? As someone working in a profession driven by objectives (from summits to ski lines), it felt confusing to realize that maybe I hadn’t thought about this question for a long time.
Luckily, wild country whittles us back to our most human. Out there, we feel capable of more than we thought, and space is created for possibilities we hadn’t previously considered. And so, through shared conversations on the trail over the remainder of the course, I was able to articulate an earnest and overwhelming aim.
I want to challenge the ACMG Ski Guide exam.
Even saying it aloud lit a fire in my belly: committing to an accreditation that would take years of focused training and practice.
Exactly six months later, I stood on a ridge pummeled with blowing snow, feeling more myself than I had in years. I was on a ski touring trip with fellow NOLS instructors and felt totally filled up by place, by people, and by doing the thing. I was working toward the goal that I had said aloud so few months before.
Then, things changed.
I have come to learn the truth behind the saying, "The injury always happens on the last run of the day." We were on the last day of the trip, and the last real ski pitch, when I took the fall. The moment it happened, I already knew that my winter had taken a turn.
A knee injury is no rare thing in the winter outdoor world. It keeps folks out for seasons at a time. But even in knowing that, hobbling home to a winter of rehab was really crushing. I had no idea how long this injury would stay with me, and whether the goals I had begun to flesh out were still in the books for me. While it was my knee that was swollen, maybe the injury was about more: It was about being able to bear disappointment.
On last year’s Alaska Backpacking and Sea Kayaking course we discussed that sacred skill—being able to turn around and try an alternate route. An objective out there depends on so much more than our plan. Often, we will get partway to the summit before the weather turns, the snowpack condition deteriorates, or the rock crumbles under our grip. The only option is to reconsider the way forward. And if we need to head home, we can trust that we may just luck out with the chance to try again.
Why was it so hard for me to accept being injured this winter? Maybe it was that suddenly that ambition I had named for myself—the ski guide program—felt further out of reach. Yet surely my motivations to go for it had not changed. What difference does it make if I were to apply for the program this year or in three years? What’s the rush? Wouldn’t I be a better guide the more time spent developing patience, skill, and finesse?
This winter, while unable to travel on skis in the backcountry, I poured my energy into trip planning—mapping cool satellite photos, historical photos, and trip reports. I dehydrated lots of trip food. I tried new rope systems in my backyard, and doodled around big, reflective questions. And I came to appreciate that living with uncertainty feels easier when we keep trusting in what is possible.
When my co-instructor shared the quote, "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get," I think she was nudging me to remember that the mountains don’t allow us to be in a hurry. It can be frustrating when we feel a setback, but patience is not only helpful, it is the only option. We learn the skills with time, and with experience. While ambition may be a place to start, I am learning that allowing ourselves to slow down, may just get us there.
Author’s Note: Navigating Adventure and Community During a Pandemic
Depending on who you are, where you live, who surrounds you, and what kind of work you do, the coronavirus disease is impacting us all in really different ways. When we are out on the rivers or trails, we talk about skills to manage risk—but the coronavirus disease pandemic feels so different. The reality is that many now have precarious access to physical, financial, or psychological safety.
When I learned that this blog post would be shared with our NOLS community, I squirmed. I wrote this reflection in February, back when my biggest worry was performative. Our world has changed so much since then. What does it mean to talk about adventure pursuits, given this global health emergency?
When I turned on the radio this morning, an anonymous author shared this perspective:
We come to understand that this is a struggle more against our habits than a virus. This is an opportunity to turn an emergency into an opportunity of solidarity, and unity. Let's change the way we see and think. I will no longer say 'I am afraid of this contagion' but 'it is I that will sacrifice for you.' I worry about you. I keep a distance for you. I wash my hands for you... For you. For you, who are inside an ICU room. For you, who are old and frail, but whose life has value... For you, who are struggling with cancer and can't fight this too. Let's rise to the challenge, come together.
Maybe our drive for adventure puts in perspective what is at the heart of it all: the partners, friends, colleagues, family, mentors, and mentees we share in it with. When I think back to what drew me to NOLS in the first place, it was absolutely that sense of an expedition team.
This community has always been about coming together and, in doing so, redefining what feels possible. While we can’t know what is ahead, we do know this—how to take good care of each other. No matter where you are or what you are experiencing, please know that you make this community what it is. Cuídate mucho.—Nav
Navarana "Nav" Smith is a wandering field instructor and biologist who stores her dehydrator, skis, and extra charts in Smithers, B.C.