As a longtime repeat chaperone of CA’s Wilderness Club trips, Head of School Mike Ehrhardt has experienced his fair share of unforgettable moments with students and colleagues on the trail.
Some seem positively magical in the retelling: ascending out of cloud cover to be rewarded with a sparkling, sun-drenched vista after a soggy uphill morning slog. A perfect-weather twilight spent swapping stories and laughing around a crackling campfire, relaxed in camaraderie and warmed by a shared sense of group accomplishment.
Others make for captivating, edge-of- your-seat stories (or, as Wilderness Club leaders call it, “type two fun”). Harrowing moments—huddling against ground strike lightning in an electrical storm, rising rivers coupled with falling darkness miles from camp, days upon days of drenched socks courtesy of an interminable rain that defeats even the best rain gear—are rendered enjoyable in the hindsight of the present, and the satisfaction of challenges overcome.
Among those memories, perhaps some of Ehrhardt’s favorites, rewarding time after time: the return home.
“I’m always touched watching students reunite with their parents. Their pride is evident. You can see the sense of accomplishment in their expressions and body language: what it meant to them to meet the challenge, to have done something they may not have been sure they could do at the outset. On the trip, in front of their friends, they often hold it in. But in front of their parents, you can see it.”
HITTING THE TRAIL
And just what are those well-earned accomplishments? Consider this fall’s trip to Wilson Creek Wilderness area, where 57 Upper School students embarked on three days of self-contained and self-powered wilderness travel. Together, they traversed over 25.2 miles of backcountry, experiencing over 8,594 feet of elevation change, 27 stream crossings, several polar plunges into frigid mountain waters, and a relentless 34-hour rain event (remember those drenched socks?).
With a record-breaking number of participants, the trip marked a momentous milestone for the club, necessitating the first-ever split squad. One group trekked northbound, the other south; a quick cross in the middle allowed for an impromptu hello to friends.
The trip is a testament to the success of the club, which has become one of the most popular on campus. Participants engage in two multi-day trips and various supplemental X Day and Discovery Term excursions each year. Student leaders have the option of participating in additional intensive leaders-only trips, where they test their limits and advanced survival skills, covering upwards of 18 miles per day across all manner of terrain. (They head to Patagonia this winter.)
LEANING INTO LEADERSHIP
Over the last 10 years, the club has undergone a metamorphosis. Instead of the faculty-organized supervised backpacking trips of the past, today’s Wilderness Club is a truly student-led holistic learning experience that transcends the trail. Student leaders are responsible for all dimensions of the Wilderness Club, from trip planning to club management to peer teaching and mentorship (all under the watchful sideline guidance of longtime club advisor Upper School chemistry teacher Gray Rushin).
The recent growth of the club has necessitated a reorganization to accommodate its burgeoning size. The new structure mimics a hierarchy you might find in a professional organization, with a multi- tiered leadership structure that includes middle management and apprentices. At the top, two to three CORE leaders—positions currently held by seniors Will Capps and Jenna Pullen—hold the most responsibility, responsible for overseeing overall trip planning and general club management, including the management of the now 24-member (and growing) leadership team.
The expansion has been beneficial in broadening student leadership opportunities. However, it has also presented real-world leadership challenges akin to those you would find in the workplace—think communication, personnel, and management issues—that go hand in hand with leading a large, distributed team. (In true CA style, Capps is working on rolling out a new digital project management platform to club participants, Notion, to help keep track of it all.)
“Now, that we have our experienced leaders co-leading with apprentice leaders, they are figuring out how to manage that dynamic as a leadership team,” reflects Rushin. “They are learning when to step up and when to step back, how to show other students the ropes, how to share tasks, how to evaluate someone and offer constructive feedback.”
“We’ve totally revamped how it works this year,” explains Pullen. “Once a club participant has gone on two trips, they can apply to become a LIT, a leader in training.LITs work with Team Leaders who have at least three trips of experience. Together, they manage mini teams of about three to six participants each.”
Mini teams prepare together for trips, establishing a familiar, small group that will be tasked with designated responsibilities at camp. It’s a high-stakes exercise in leadership, communication, and collaboration.
“Building a fire for the night, collecting water, boiling and passing out the water, hanging the food so rodents can’t eat it—it’s different from doing a group project at school,” offers Pullen. “It must be done and done correctly, or else you could put everyone at risk.”
In before-school sessions and during X Days, leaders work to mitigate that risk. They guide participants through student-designed training modules that tackle everything from gear selection to cooking in the wild, properly packing (hint: your waterproof compression sack should always be in the bottom) to pitching a tent—even how to go to the bathroom in the woods (“‘Cause people freak out over that,” shrugs Capps.)
BACK TO BASICS
And that’s just the learning that happens on campus, long before students even make it to the trailhead.
Arguably, it’s away from civilization where some of the most impactful and memorable—and, yes, fun—learning takes place.
“The wilderness classroom throws the kids into an environment that’s profoundly different. The learning curve is much steeper and more intense,” shares Rushin.
“You might be able to veg out or decline to participate in the classroom, but you can’t opt-out in the wild,” agrees Ehrhardt. “It forces you to be present. You have to push yourself to rise to the experience, to the challenges that emerge.”
That primal, higher-stakes environment presents a unique combination of intellectual, mental, and physical challenges that are irreplicable in the classroom. How to navigate the unfamiliar, how to stretch yourself, to rebound from adversity, to adapt when things don’t go according to plan—these are just a few of the lessons taught by the unpredictable and unforgiving natural beauty of the backcountry.
Team Leader Danica Ginsberg, ‘22, discovered her passion for backpacking during an early Flex Day (now known as X Day) activity in tenth grade. Now, as a senior, she has ascended to the role of Team Leader and also signed-on as a student in Rushin’s experiential Outdoor Leadership course. (Now in its second year, it offers an even deeper dive into backcountry leadership.) Her experience has taught her a new appreciation for the reward and confidence that comes with selfless leadership and sharing your passion with others.
“As Team Leaders, we’re there to give participants the best trip they can have. That might mean hanging back when I could go faster, sweeping behind the group to make sure everyone is keeping up, or setting up others’ tents first instead of my own,” she shares. “It’s those sacrifices that have made me much more confident in my own abilities.”
“Helping others and leading others— seeing them succeed—it’s more fun than just doing it myself. I already know my limits. The reward comes in seeing other people achieve what they never thought they could.”
“Seeing people go from being total beginners who know nothing to seeing those same kids later leading other beginners is super rewarding,” agrees Capps. “Those full-circle moments are really cool.”
For Capps, Ginsberg, and Pullen, the analog and tangible nature of backpacking is particularly gratifying.
Without digital distractions and the daily stress of teenage life, there is the discovery of beauty, connection, mindfulness, and joy. In meeting the primal demands of survival, strong bonds are forged that extend across grade levels and beyond established friend groups.
“There aren’t cell phones. No one is spending time on homework. We’re with each other all the time in the tent, around the fire, or hiking in the creek,” shares Capps. “You get to know people on a deep level because you don’t have anyone to turn to other than each other.
It’s a bond that is born out of the vulnerability, humility, and compassion that come with sharing an immersive experience. It offers important lessons about leadership—of helping others to find what they’re capable of by sharing what you know, of motivating others—and empathy.
“You have to be confident about what you know and be willing to be vulnerable and honest about what you don’t,” explains Capps. “Everyone’s going to have a moment where they’re like, I can’t do this. I need help. Everyone’s going to struggle with different things.
“You can’t look down at the kid struggling to carry his pack up the mountain. You’re going to have that moment, too. Maybe it’s not carrying a pack; maybe it’s building a fire or falling in the creek. So, don’t be hard on other people; help them out. ‘Cause that is the only way you’re going to get through this trip: by helping each other.”
For Rushin, it is in that stripped-down vulnerability that the magic happens, where the lessons and rewards the wild has to offer are most readily available.
“Our culture is so busy and connected with unlimited and full-time access to information that comes at us from all directions all the time. I think it is a struggle for all ages to manage that flow, to learn to prioritize what’s important, and what’s not; what gets put on the front burner, and what’s on the back. But out there, life simplifies to basic needs. For kids that are new to the experience, that can be terrifying,” explains Rushin.
“Part of the teaching process—for me to the leaders and from leaders to the participants—is that fear is normal. Everyone fears bears and lightning and running out of food. There are so many worries: where to sleep, how to get water, and on and on. But you go out and have this experience and realize that when you simplify it down to just shelter, clothing, food, and water, the fear becomes manageable.
“I see it as a teeter-totter, with freedom on one side, fear on the other. And as you lift away the heaviness of the fears—through knowledge, preparation, and experience—your fear gets lighter, and your freedom grows.
“All these kids start with full heavy fear. And then my leaders—kids that are going out for the seventh, eighth, ninth time—their fears have shifted, and so has their freedom. Now they are empowered. Now they are leading with confidence. Now they have a better sense of what is possible.”