I’m always open to learning new skills or trying a new activity, but the one thing I didn’t know how to do, and couldn’t seem to figure out, was how to slow down in the mountains. I’ve been getting outside since I was a cub scout, and currently work as a guide for my university’s outdoor recreation coordinator as well as running office logistics. On any given day, you can probably find me climbing, biking, skiing, or trail running, or preferably, some combination of those activities.
Photo by Melanie Ruth Photography
My day-planning thought process before my NOLS trip usually went something like this: 4 pitch classic route in the North Cascades? Let’s do another route too, that’s not long enough for a proper day out. Relax in the ski resort parking lot and make a hot lunch? I’d rather catch a couple more runs; I can eat on the lift and sleep when I’m dead. This attitude also translated to a maximum efficiency mentality on nutrition in the mountains - to me, it was just that, nutrition. Energy gels, trail mix, 1000-calorie gas station breakfast burritos, and peanut butter & Nutella wraps were my jam. Anything that my stomach could roughly equivocate to rocket fuel was on the menu.
It was at the beginning of one of these action-packed summers that I got an invitation through my work with College Outside to join a NOLS Alumni Trip. College Outside is a outdoor education gear distributor dedicated to getting more students outside and they have been a partner of NOLS for many years. My boss Sarah and I, along with 10 other NOLS alumni, would go on a 9 day backpacking trip traversing the Wind River Range. At first I was hesitant to commit to a full week and a half in the woods on someone else’s agenda, but I’m glad I did because I learned a valuable lesson about making meals in the mountains and, deeper than that, about how to slow down and rest.
Photo by Melanie Ruth Photography
On the first day of the trip, we were introduced to the NOLS bulk ration system. Instead of providing you with dehydrated, army surplus style pre-made meals, NOLS gives you raw ingredients to do what you like with - a pound of flour, a roll of summer sausage, a block of cheese, a bag of spices, etc. You and your cook group have full creative and culinary freedom, and it’s up to your team to budget ingredients so they last the whole trip. On the short weekend-long overnight trips that I help lead during the school year, this style of cooking would never have occurred to me. This system forces you to slow down earlier, set up camp, and relax around the whisperlite stove, recounting the adventures of the day while you cook dinner as a team. Instead of rehydrating your individual bag of mac and cheese, you can enjoy a homemade meal like backcountry pizza, fresh baked bread, or anything else you and your team can come up with. This radically different approach to meal-prep forced me to step back and reevaluate my relationship with the outdoors in a truly profound, unexpected way - to literally stop and smell the roses… and the fresh coffee brewing in our backcountry french press.
Relaxing in the Wind River range also meant I had time to fly fish, something I’ve never taken the time to learn or appreciate. I’d barely bait fished before, let alone fly fished, but over the course of the trip, our guides patiently walked me through the art of the cast and catch. I’m still working on mastering the skill, but on one of our last days in the range, I managed to catch a 14 inch rainbow trout! Moments later, the afternoon clouds unleashed a torrential wall of rain, and I sprinted back from the lake to our kitchen tarps. We fileted and steamed the fish, and then improvised fish stick batter and a delicious, sweet and spicy sunrise sauce. It was one of the best meals of my life, made even better by the belly laughs we shared while making and eating our creation. We were all so distracted by this incredible, beautiful luxury that we barely noticed the skies opening and thunder crashing all around us.
To me, days in the mountains had often been measured by how many lines I skied, how many pitches I climbed, and whether I made the summit. However, that evening spent cooking under the stormy skies, and nearly every other day on the trip, was just as epic to me as any other big day I’ve had out in the mountains, despite the fact that I never once shouldered a pack full of technical climbing gear or clicked into a pair of skis.
Photo by Melanie Ruth Photography
Beyond slowing down to eat a well-prepared meal, I learned to rest in different ways. Nearly every day after setting up camp, a few of us would jump in the nearest ice-cold alpine lake, air dry, and then stroll back to camp just in time for a hot bowl of mushroom soup our guide Roger had made from the wild mushrooms we found along the trail that day. (Thanks Jeff, for teaching us how to not poison ourselves!) During another “rest day” another student, Elise, and I walked down to the river and did some backcountry laundry. This new skill was something I might have previously considered a “waste of time”, but in this new environment, I recognized it as an opportunity to relax and experiment instead of rushing to accomplish some other, more ‘exciting’ task. Every night after dinner, Jeff, our other guide, would read us a poem or story from a fantastic selection of ‘readings for the wilderness’ that he’s compiled. If I’d been on my own, I likely would have been using that time to furiously plan the next day’s activities down to the minute until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instead, we listened and relaxed, laughed easily and loudly, swapped stories, went to bed early, rose early, and just started walking instead of worrying about where we’d end up that day.
It’s been a challenge to try to remember the lessons I learned on my NOLS trip - I’ve been busy prepping for the college semester ahead and tying up loose ends, and found it hard to slow down back in our 24/7 society. But even if I’ve stumbled along the way, I can still keep my eyes on the new path to life both in and out of the mountains I discovered during our week in the Winds. On a recent trip to the bike park, instead of trying to fit in as many laps as possible, my partner and I relaxed at a picnic table, ate leftover homemade pizza, made ourselves milkshakes fresh from the cooler, and took our sweet time before jumping back on the gondola for the afternoon’s riding. And you know what? I couldn’t tell you a thing about a single trail we rode that day, but I could tell you plenty about the time we spent sharing a good meal, good conversation, and reveling in the beauty of creation.
Originally from Arizona, Nate is a senior at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. When he’s not studying for his degree in Computer Science, he’s busy climbing in the Cascades of central Washington and ski touring in the Selkirk Range of northern Idaho. He’s currently studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, where he’s on the hunt for some off-width desert cracks between Arabic lessons.