There are few places in the continental United States as rugged and isolated as the Wind River Mountain Range.
It stretches across the western end of the nation’s least-populated state (Wyoming), south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, with the nearest “cities” of Casper (pop. 57,000) and Idaho Falls (pop. 61,000) hours away, and Denver is a six-hour drive.
Which made the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains an ideal place for nine Jesuit rising seniors in the Class of 2020 to become better leaders this summer.
Morgan Halme, Nick King, Anthony Kirchner, Nicolas Mortensen, Jack Price, Anson Rowe, Marshall Rowe, Andy Sebek, and Gio Taylor, along with Jim Ranieri, Jesuit’s Director of Counseling, participated in the Catholic Outdoor Leadership Program of Wyoming Catholic College (wyomingcatholic.org/cor-expeditions).
What did they do? “We hiked 5 miles a day, with 50-pound backpacks, and had leadership classes all along the way,” Ranieri said.
Jesuit has connected with COR Expeditions (Catholic Outdoor Renewal) and their Outdoor Leadership Program for a few years, with COR representatives coming to Florida and coordinating experiential leadership retreats for Jesuit students.
This time, Jesuit traveled to them, from June 29 to July 8. The nine seniors plus Ranieri flew from Tampa to Hartford to Denver and then drove the six hours to Lander, Wyoming to meet with COR Expeditions leaders.
That first night and the following day were filled with intensive outdoors wilderness training.
“Gio (Taylor) has been a Boy Scout, has done backpacking trips, but for the rest of us this was all new,” Ranieri said. “We woke up, cooked breakfast, went to Mass, and then started training.
“We got all our gear, they suited us up, our layers, snowshoes, everything. Then we took classes on how to walk the trails, trail etiquette, what to do about bears, how to use the bear spray. Lightning – what to do if there’s a storm, the count for the lightning, certain positions to get into, to spread our mats out, and squat on our toes. Places to take shelter … deep caves … then we did some rock climbing, took a 45-minute hike to a rock wall and worked on our climbing.”
The next morning the embarked on a week of trekking through the wilderness in the Rocky Mountains.
“On Day 1, (the COR leaders) demonstrated how to lead the group, and the rest of the days they assigned two guys as LODs, leaders of the day,” Ranieri said. “They were responsible for everything: waking people up, breaking down the site, delegating responsibilities, going over the map for risk assessment – rivers, snow, etc. These two were in charge, the leaders.”
“We carried our food, stoves, tents, snowshoes, layers. We woke up every morning sore, bruised, blistered – they called them hot spots. As soon as they caught it we’d stop and put some duct tape on it.”
There was one more serious injury, mid-week, incurred while trying to negotiate their way through a couple of feet of snow. Marshall Rowe injured his knee and was airlifted back to campus for medical treatment.
There were two leadership classes each day, during a mid-day break and then after they had finished hiking for the day and set up camp.
“The classes entailed leadership characteristics, different types of leaders and leadership styles, conflict resolution, group conflict,” Ranieri said. “The practical stuff came about during the hiking. Then the classes were mostly lecture and discussions.
“I’ve done a lot of leadership stuff, and these classes were really good. The guys received some great tools to help them becomes better leaders.”
After they returned to Tampa on July 8, Sebek wrote a first-person account of the experience:
Before I comprehended the reality of my situation, I was sitting next to my friends on a connection flight through Connecticut to Wyoming. Through a series of naive decisions, this ideal city boy was bound toward Rocky Mountain wilderness. Being the first group from Jesuit to participate in this leadership expedition, my peers and I knew that much was unknown, and we did not understand the difficulty of the journey upon which we were preparing to embark. Although tentative, we were hopeful for a chance to grow by being challenged, and to learn useful skills.
I had few expectations of this trip, not because I doubted its capacity to teach me, rather I had absolutely no idea what was involved in an outdoors excursion of this scale. I was not alone, as few of us had much experience with backpacking, or doing so in a foreign environment. Regardless, we expected to be challenged, though to a degree that we could not know. Whether it was growing accustomed to the altitude or lack of a toilet, we were all in for quite an adjustment.
It could be argued that every moment of this trip was memorable, but if I were to pick the one most likely to be engraved into our minds, it would be when one of our friends dislocated his kneecap. At first, when he fell, none of us realized what had happened due to his stoicism. After some discussion and his patella was relocated, we moved him to a proper area for a helicopter to pick him up. Besides the injury, what made this event so impactful was the team coordination demonstrated as we carved a suitable path for our casualty through the snow and our hurt peer’s good humor. Using his hiking poles as crutches, he merrily hobbled for roughly two miles. Throughout this endeavor, he joked and made conversation. I cannot emphasize the extraordinary behavior of my classmates enough, other than saying that I will never forget it.
When we were not accommodating unusual circumstances, we spent most of our day in constant motion. We had little free time on the trail because we were occupied with necessary work or leadership lessons. Typically, we would wake up, make breakfast, break camp, hike, eat lunch, hike more, set up camp, make dinner, and then conclude with an evening prayer. Everything else would work itself in somewhere, such as when our groups were cooking food. For example, we were taught about digging catholes while we cleaned our pots and pans.
Everything we did could be described as moderately difficult on its own, but when compounded, I am confident in asserting that this trip was very challenging. Strain is essential for the type of growth that this trip inspires, though, if I were to repeat this excursion, I would make a greater effort to prepare myself physically. Regardless, the trial-by-fire approach provided us firsthand experience of leading with real consequences.
My classmates and I grew from such exposure in faith, as men, and as leaders. We have a newfound confidence in our capacities and a heightened trust in our ability to adapt to unfamiliar environments. The wilderness brings out the extremes in all of us, furthering our aptitudes and reducing our weaknesses, which was the essence of this COR Expedition, development through ordeal.
Click below to view a photo slideshow from the leadership expedition: