The sky was gray and the sea restless and we had just pulled up to a desolate beach somewhere in the Marlborough Sound. I sat on a piece of driftwood with my head between my knees, taking belabored breaths in and out of my mouth, relishing the stillness of my current position.
For weeks the water had been calm and impossibly blue, but today it tossed our kayaks about like playthings. My stomach had grown more and more uneasy until I’d fallen completely silent for fear of opening my mouth. My expedition mate Babalu had motioned for us all to pull ashore, telling me afterward that he knew something must be wrong when I stopped talking.
Babalu, always attuned to the needs of those around him, had noticed something was wrong and given the signal for us to pull off the water to give me a chance to recover. While others explored the beach and took bathroom breaks, Babalu sat next to me and fed me his ration of snacks until I felt normal again.
During the first few days of our semester, our sea kayaking instructors Ben and Sally had told us about Expedition Behavior, or EB, and how it is the backbone upon which any good trip rests.
It means doing your share and then just that little bit more. It means thinking of others before yourself. It means asking if anyone needs their Nalgene filled and offering to carry the cast-iron fry bake in your pack for the day. It means waking up early to boil water for hot drinks and doing extra dishes. It means kicking painstakingly excellent steps for the people behind you across a steep snowfield and letting someone else have the last pull of peanut butter. It means being kind and giving and big-hearted.
Babalu was the one moving the kayaks up the beach in the rain when the tide came in, the one taking care of anyone who felt sick, the one waking up early to boil water, the one continuing to carry the heavy climbing rope even when his knee was bothering him. He was the kind of person everyone wanted on their team.
Years after my NOLS semester, I found myself preparing to lead my own trip for Adventures Cross Country. After a night with little sleep, I stood in the office, struggling to complete a job chart that felt suddenly like a complicated algorithm from hell that would crush my soul before it was done.
My co-leader David, at this point a relative stranger, came in from the other room and after watching me scrunch my forehead up painfully trying to figure out whose turn it was next for cook crew, asked me a question that was staggering in its simplicity.
“How can I support you?”
I looked over at him, quite possibly with my jaw actually hanging open. How can I support you. It was so basic, and yet so unbelievable. It was a question that seemed to wrap you in its arms. It was unassuming, understated, and yet so filled with kindness that I felt the stress of the task melt away. It was maybe the best question I had ever been asked. It was EB in a sentence.
On the first night of the trip I led around Northern California, a student pulled me aside to express her concern about the group dynamic. As is common at the very beginning of anything, she was feeling uncomfortable and craving a return to the familiarity of her regular life.
I decided to try it—I asked her how I could support her, and I watched as her entire face changed. It was a magical question capable of making anyone feel held.
In the outdoors and in life we rarely accomplish anything alone. We are roped up, we lead and are led, we hold on to each other and we hold each other up. We cheer each other on, we put sunscreen on each other’s backs, we keep each other warm at night. We need each other.
When you venture into the backcountry with people, you are inevitably and necessarily putting your trust in them and they in you. You are saying to each other that if something goes wrong, if someone gets hurt, if unforeseen complications befall you, that you will be there. That you will pull off the water and feed them snacks, that you will talk them through the hard parts, that if necessary you will stabilize their neck and check their c-spine, that you will dig them out of the snow. That you will support them in any and every way they need to be supported, and they will do the same for you.
Back in the frontcountry it is easier to forget about EB. It is easier to look at the person struggling with a job chart or homesickness or the copy machine or insecurity and let them handle it themselves. It is easier to do less than your share. They are not straddling a crevasse or buried in an avalanche or bleeding.
But imagine what would happen, imagine what kind of world we would live in if we all asked how we could support each other, and then did it. Imagine how that would change our relationships and our lives.
Carolyn Highland is a teacher and writer living in Truckee, California. When not taking her fourth grade students at Tahoe Expedition Academy (www.tahoeexpeditionacademy.org/) into the field, she can be found skiing, trail running, climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, jumping into alpine lakes, and then writing about it. Carolyn is a graduate of the 2012 NOLS Semester in New Zealand and the 2019 Rocky Mountain Outdoor Educator Course. You can follow her on Instagram at @c_highland