I was recently reminded of the power of a positive attitude while on a recent backpacking trip. What started out as an overnighter with only two or three friends quickly grew to the size of nine hikers. When I learned that our group had become the size of a small expedition, I immediately began to wonder about group dynamics and how everything would play out over the course of the short two-day hike. Having spent the majority of my life working in small groups both in and out of the military, I knew that group dynamics was something that could be powerful and this power could either be positive or negative. I sincerely hoped we could avoid the latter.
The makeup of our small hiking group was a mixed bag. There were three men and six women with experience levels ranging from first-timers to experienced backpackers. I was excited to off one of my favorite areas and even more excited to take a few of them on their first ever trip into the backcountry. The plan was to head up to Mount St. Helens, hike about 4 miles in, and set up camp where we could have a view of the surrounding area. The date was picked, gear was rounded up, and we were off!
As always, we watched the weather forecast closely leading up to the trip. The Northwest was having an incredible summer but as it turns out, we apparently picked the one weekend out of the summer that might include some rain showers. Backpacking in the rain is fine if you're prepared for it, but it's also one of those things that can go south on you quickly. There are certain techniques used when camping in the rain and you really only get one shot at employing them correctly before you're entire kit is soaked through and you find yourself miles from the trailhead facing a soggy walk back. The forecast didn't seem terribly bad but I advised everyone to prepare for a little rain by at least bringing a poncho to help stay dry. I really wasn't worried too much since the rain was actually supposed to move in on the second day and I figured if anything we'd just get a little wet on the way out. What I didn't take into account was that Mother Nature knows no bounds and had instead planned to rain on us about halfway into the hike on the first day.
We were two miles into our hike when the first batch of rain came in. For the final two miles we experienced scattered rain showers and before long I began to realize that if this rain dance kept up, we might soon find ourselves hunkered down in our tents instead of outside enjoying ourselves around a fire. I listened for minor complaints in the group about the rain but heard none. We were nearly all form the Northwest and would never complain about a little rainfall. Everyone just kept hiking, enjoying the clouds rolling by and the views of the valley below regardless of whether they had to pull out their poncho or not. From what I could tell, each person seemed to be enjoying the hike so far but it was getting time to start thinking about finding a campsite because the rain was really starting to move in and we didn't want find ourselves pitching tents in a downpour.
The campsite we chose offered no protection from the rain but the group decided the site would work anyhow so we got to work setting up camp and gathering firewood. Over the next few hours, we were met with a little sun and a little drizzle but once the sun went down, the sky cleared and we were able to enjoy the stars. My fear of a rain soaked backpacking trip was over and I assumed it was smooth sailing from here on out.
My assumption was wrong. I remember the rain moving in around 0400 in the morning and I immediately began to wonder how this morning would play out. Would people wake up soaked? Would we have a break in the weather long enough to strike camp and head for the trailhead? How wet will I be in the coming hours? I'm positive I was not the only one laying there listening to the rain dancing on the tent and wondering what the morning would bring. Whatever was about to come our way that morning was out of our hands and it was about this time that I began to seriously think of where our group dynamics would go.
In a prior life I'd been in the Marines and knew what it was like to see a group dynamic take a nosedive on account of bad weather. It can happen fast and there is little you can do to gain back the positive vibes that once existed. If one person goes south on you, there's a chance that another member of the group is close behind. From there you'll be battling negativity until the mission is over. This was my fear. I felt bad that my friends might have to walk the four miles to the trailhead soaked to the bone and I felt even worse that for some in the group this was their first backpacking experience which might quickly become very unpleasant. I couldn't do anything about our situation so I decided to focus on getting everyone back home quickly with one or two smiles on their faces.
When the light hit my tent that morning it was not alone. The rain was right there with it and it was quite a while before there was any movement in camp. I got up to assess the situation and found that while some had remained dry throughout the night, others had not. Any gear that had been left outside was soaked and water had invaded one of the tents pretty badly rendering its inhabitants wet. This was not a good way to start out the day. From the comfort of my tent, I made a cup of coffee to warm myself up while debating the next move. Do we wait for a break in the weather or cut our losses and do what no one wanted to do - strike camp in the rain? We decided we'd wait it out a bit to see if the rain would subside but we all eventually came to the conclusion that we were going to be wet one way or another. With that in mind, we crawled out of our tents and packed up.
Tearing down a campsite in the rain is not exactly the definition of fun. Regardless of whether you have rain gear on or not, you're going to get wet at some point and after just a few minutes we were all starting to feel that cold damp feeling hit our skin. I looked around the camp at everyone and was surprised to see that not one person was complaining about our situation. Even the couple who's tent pretty much failed them during the night were in fine spirits. If anyone had a reason to be slow to roll out that morning it would be them and I wouldn't blame them one bit. Everyone in camp just went about their business making small talk here and there and making the best of the situation. Laughter could be heard from time to time and I couldn’t help but feel proud to be in the presence of these friends. The pride I felt helped motivate me to help keep the energy going in the right direction. There wasn't one person that morning that headed down the trail that wasn't wet and cold yet it was clear to me that they had individually made the decision not to let the situation get the best of them.
If breaking down camp in the rain wasn't enough to break the spirit, the four-mile hike back to the trailhead might be. Four miles of walking in soggy shoes, wet pants, while wearing a wet pack might just bring out some sour comments. For the first mile or so everyone was focused on the trail and keeping a solid pace so we didn't have to stay out there longer than necessary. About halfway home, the group decided to take a small break to see how everyone was doing; so far, so good. We were wet, but we remained positive. Perfect! Just a little while longer and we'll be eating a big fat burger with a beer in the warmth of a country diner.
We were about a mile and a half from the vehicles when I noticed we were pretty strung out coming down off of the mountain. Arriving at an important intersection on the trail, a friend and I decided we'd hang out a while to make sure everyone took the correct turn. As each member of our group came through, I couldn't help but notice that the smiles seemed to have grown in size. Literally everyone was in the best of spirits like they had done this a million times before. I couldn't believe it.
When we arrived at the trailhead we must have been quite the sight to see. Everyone was soaked through to the bone and exhausted from the emotional toll the rain can have on you, yet we were smiles. Burgers and beer were the next stop and it would give us a chance to finally talk about the hike that morning from the comfort of a dry restaurant. As we stuffed our faces, we exchanged stories and it became clear that though our trip wasn't something out of a storybook, it was still special in its own right. It was great to hear each person in the group expressed how much they enjoyed themselves despite the rain. They had remained positive from start to finish and in the end our adventure was just that - an adventure.
The power of a positive attitude can move mountains. We had nine hikers who could have very easily spent the two days of backpacking complaining about the rain and the discomfort they were feeling, but because everyone was experiencing the same mental and physical challenges, we chose instead to lift each other up with smiles and laughter. The rain was going to be there regardless and we couldn't do anything about it so it was up to us to decide how we were going to react. I can honestly say that in the years that I've spent working in small teams this was by far one of the best groups I've ever spent time with. We worked together, cared for each other, and remained mentally strong for one other when the situation could have dictated otherwise. Though some members of the group were inexperienced in the backcountry, they performed as if they'd been doing this their entire lives.
Those of us who are drawn to the backcountry know that things do not always go as planned. There are so many variables awaiting us out there that it's important that we be mentally prepared to handle them. Mother Nature may make the rules but she doesn't get to decide how we manage our emotions. If there is any one tool that we should bring with us into the backcountry, it's a positive attitude. Though our two-day backpacking trip wasn't at any point life threatening, it was certainly a mental challenge for everyone there and proved to be a fine example of how to react when things don't go as planned. Each trip you take into the backcountry can to teach you something as long as you're willing to look for it. For my group and I, the lesson was how impactful a positive attitude can be on an individual or a group.
Regardless of whether we’re in the backcountry or just going through the rigors of our daily lives, our attitudes dictate more than we think they do. I encourage you to stay positive when things don't go as planned and remain open to the lessons the backcountry has to offer.
Be safe out there and have fun!