An epic solo-backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Snowy Range is one thing. An epic with 10 middle school girls in tow is quite another.
On this outing, three 11-year olds who barely break 75 pounds apiece hike alongside other young women accustomed to homelessness, poverty, and in many cases, absent fathers. Most of the girls have never experienced wilderness before, and back at the trailhead, they couldn’t quite get their heads around the fact that we wouldn’t be returning to our van for eight days.
Women’s Wilderness was founded in 1998 in Boulder, Colorado to offer empowering leadership experiences. Women run the program because the sustaining vision holds that girls need strong women to emulate, as well as safe, girl-positive spaces where they can take risks and grow. To date, more than 5,000 women and girls have found their greater potential in our wilderness courses. And to ensure that all girls have access to these opportunities, we’ve never turned away anyone in financial need thanks to more than $335,000 in aid.
Six days into the eight-day Snowy Range trip, the girls are already visibly stronger and more confident in the backcountry. And the itinerary for the last two days is awesome. We’ll relax this morning, then cruise over North Gap before setting camp in preparation for a peak ascent the final day—then it’s a downhill run to the van. Except, when we arrive at North Gap, a low, but formidable pass that divides the Snowy Range, what should be a reasonable path across the talus slope that flanks North Gap Lake is now completely underwater.
The girls look at my co-instructor Kris and I expectantly. “Not happening,” we tell them. Making camp above the lake, we devise a plan to get back to the van.
Our map reveals a long climb up a nearby ridgeline followed by a steep descent down the other side.
Breaking camp and setting out before dawn, the going is slow, the route finding hard, the girls tired. Six hours later, we gain the ridge to discover panoramic views of the Snowy Range basking in sunshine and dotted with wildflowers. The girls are rightly proud of themselves… but Kris and I are dejected, there’s no way in hell that we’re going down the other side. The trail is non-existent. We’re completely cliffed out.
The girls can see our van from the ridge as we tell them we’ll be backtracking away from the vehicle to eventually make it there safely. It’s a crucible moment. I break the news and wait for the meltdown, but the girls are quiet. “I’m crying a little bit inside,” one says, “but it’s ok.” And then each girl nods her head in assent, picks up her backpack, and begins the long hike back down.
After eleven hours of marching, we make camp. Despite our ordeal, several of the girls are running and playing, and all of them are laughing. Kris and I stay up late talking. “Tomorrow,” Kris says, “most of these girls will be returning to places that are not beautiful.”
I don’t know where those girls are right now, but I hope they’re thinking about those mountains and smiling.