Conquests of Tankbird

Better Late Than Never… the MLS Saga
September 21, 2009, 9:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I don’t know why I kept procrastinating on this entry. Maybe because it’s such a huge undertaking, or because of all the baggage that went along with it… I’m not sure. But it’s been over a month since I went, so it’s only fair that I do it now. Note: I took a lot of these pictures, but there are a good chunk taken by Mike, one of our instructors. Most of the clear ones are his. For some reason my autofocus was being all screwy, so hence the blur on many of these. Sorry.

Mountain Leadership School was, overall, a positive experience. I learned a lot about myself, and I got to meet some pretty amazing people. But it wasn’t without its difficulties.

The Wilderness First Aid portion of the course was cancelled due to underenrollment, which was disappointing to me, since that’s the primary reason I signed up. But it meant I got to spend two more days at home, and that was all right by me. I headed out to the Highland Center at Crawford Notch on Tuesday night, August 11th. I had a roommate for that night who (at 9:00 at night, when I arrived) had already gone to bed. I stayed up in the lobby reading, unsettled and not quite ready to sleep yet, but did eventually sleep fitfully.

The next day was Wednesday and I met our instructors (Mike and Michelle) and my other MLS participants. We did some getting-to-know-you type activities. Then they chose leaders of the day. They chose Brian and I. What I didn’t quite understand was that it wasn’t like OLT: this time, I was supposed to be main leader, and Brian was my co-leader, meaning I was in charge. At OLT, they used the term co-leader to mean “leading at the same time.” But regardless, I had the responsibility of route planning, food and gear check and gear/food distribution. This put me pretty far out of my comfort zone, and I felt rushed on the route planning portion, but we got a rather ambitious route planned. I felt a little underprepared for this type of leadership, and would have rather taken extra time to plan contingencies.

Here we are, sitting on the futons in the Higland Center, in the Wednesday afternoon prep time.

And here is all our group food and gear, waiting to be sorted and packed.

That next day, my roommate had left, so I got to stay up and read with the lights on… in my own room! Got a nice night’s sleep. The next morning, we were up and packed and ready to go.

We got to the trailhead via shuttle, and Brian did some trailhead procedures with us before heading out.

We took the Valley Way trail up to the Valley Way tentsite. Honestly, I thought I wasn’t in that bad shape, but this trip proved differently. With sixty pounds on my back, I was exhausted pretty much the whole time and felt like a detriment to my group. It’s not a good feeling. Brian had been assigned as leader by this point, so at least I didn’t have leadership on my mind.


One funny moment: Mike took a picture, and the camera flash made Brian (and several others of us) go into a lightning drill. Brian started counting, trying to see how far away the storm was… only no thunder came. It was very, very funny and became a running gag for the trip.

We made it to the tent platform later in the day and there was a lot to do: shelters to set up, water to gather, and food to make.


What a view!
We could see Mt. Madison from camp.

The next day we headed up to the Madison Hut, which was a beautiful sight, since it meant a lot of our vertical was over, plus it was just a gorgeous location.

This is the trail we came up. It’s a lot steeper down from here!

Here we all are with Mt. Adams as our backdrop.

The view from the top of the Gulfside trail…. unbelievable!

Then we hiked to Thunderstorm Junction, this amazingly giant cairn in the middle of a boulder-strewn field.

This is Mt. Adams as viewed from this field.

We dropped our packs, took water and did a quick summit of Mt. Adams. This was my first 4000-footer, and it’s 2nd only to Mt. Washington, so I felt proud.

View from the top of Mt. Adams:

This is Mt. Washington… you can see the auto road.

So on the way down, I don’t have pictures. I started to have some hunger issues, and then a blood pressure drop. I took a pretty hard fall onto both knees and scraped them up, which made me super overemotional and I had trouble pulling myself together. I did, though, of course. But I wasn’t quite right after that. We did about 1500 feet of down… and my toes started to hurt. A LOT.

Break in the pain: we were told in the guidebook there was water next to a “conspicuous boulder” on the trail. Well, after two days of laughing about “conspicuous boulder,” we reached it. Here I am next to the conspicuous boulder. (If you know me, you can tell I’m not quite myself in this picture, despite the smile.)

No pictures for the rest of the night. We hiked out to the Perch campsite, and by the time we got there, I was in excruciating pain. Took my shoes off at the camp, and my toenails were gray and purple, and all red around the nail. I knew this wasn’t good. It hurt to walk on them. I thought I’d had blood buildup behind the nail, and considered puncturing them myself, but wasn’t sure if that was the problem. Plus I didn’t think I had the stomach for it. At this point, my spirits were really low, and I felt like I was letting the group down. Not very fun.

Mike and Michelle called me aside to talk, and I expressed my feelings. I wasn’t sure about making it the next two days. Talk about low morale… I don’t think I can describe it. Then I went to the group to say how I was feeling and ask about a route change. They’d already started considering it, without me talking to them, which was comforting. We’d planned seven miles that next day, and after taking all day to get three, that felt really unrealistic. The others said that other people were wiped out and a route change was in order. I felt really supported by the group, but I couldn’t help feeling like the leaders were disappointed in me. Whether they were or not, I didn’t like the feeling of wanting approval.

We planned a route change. That night, we got more sleep, and the next morning we were up and back on the trail. I was still in a lot of pain, but I wrapped my toes. This did nothing, but psychologically I felt better. We climbed up to the top of Gray Knob, and this was probably the highlight of my trip. The view was spectacular, and I was so happy not to be going up anymore, even though down was incredibly painful.

Mike and Michelle wanted us to wilderness camp, but we had plans of checking out the Log Cabin shelter on our route. When we got there, we didn’t want to continue, even though that meant an early morning the next day. I couldn’t really walk very well at this point and my toenails were no better. We decided to stay at the Log Cabin. I have no pictures of it, which makes me really sad… it was just such a great place. I started to have some hope, at this point.

The next morning, we got up at 4:15 to be on the trail at 5:00. We hiked down in the dark by headlamp, and it was slippery and dangerous. The irony is that since I was so slow, it didn’t really affect my speed. Everyone else was just now moving at my pace. This picture is taken about an hour after starting, when it’s just getting light out.


Whale rock!

When we reached this field, I could have cried, because I knew we were almost there. It’s the most beautiful field in the world.

This is the path we hiked down from the top of Gray Knob that morning.

Our pickup location. This was the most beautiful gas station in the world. We just all collapsed on the tarmac… then bought delicious treats from the gas station. I had a YooHoo. This is Bob having some water. Not as exciting as YooHoo.

We were at this summit just two days prior.

We got shuttled back to the Highland Center and took this victory photo.

After this, we had our individual evaluations. This was rough… I knew Mike and Michelle thought I should have kept my mouth shut about my pain a little more, and this was (kindly but unequivocally) confirmed in the evaluation. It was… well, a pretty uncomfortable feeling. It was a lot like being the kid who can’t do sports again, back in elementary school PE. I felt out of shape and out of my league. I felt really supported by my group, but I don’t like being the weak one. I think if my MLS people had read my OLT report, I would have looked like a different person. It’s funny what injury will do to you. But my individual presentation was a big hit (on shelter building, thanks MPSS!) and the people I met were pretty great.

For the record: I went to my doctor the next day when I got home to get my toenails drained. He told me I didn’t have blood buildup: I severed the nails at the base, under the skin. I had jammed them so hard and for so long that they broke off at their bases. The left was worse than the right, and I removed it myself a few days later (which felt just as horrible as you’d think it would). The right one was fine, and at the time of this blogging, is purple but attached and never hurts at all. I had hopes of taking my rock climbing class the next weekend, but what with my toes, I had to cancel. I got some of my money back but not all of it, since they have a no refunds policy and they were only able to sell my spot for one of the two days. Still, Chris and I went up to North Conway that weekend anyway and had a great time. He even climbed Mt. Washington.

So… it was a pretty intense experience, overall. And if I have to be totally honest, I probably wouldn’t have done it if I’d known exactly what it was like. I trained, but I didn’t know what to expect, and I spent four days feeling like the slow fat kid. I felt like I didn’t learn as much as I had hoped, because I was just trying to get through the physical exertions, and I did feel like I was holding back the group all the time. At least the group never made me feel like that, and for that I’m grateful.

One thing I’m really taking away from this is the feeling of being the worst. I keep a good attitude about everything I can, and I have a great sense of humor, but I learned how much of a defense mechanism that can be when emotionally raw and hurting. Even now, the memory smarts a little, and writing this was more emotional than I expected it to be. I hope I can bring some compassion to my students in those moments where they feel like the worst.


3 Comments so far
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I really enjoy reading your writing. I could feel the emotions, and I can so relate to what you wrote even though I’ve not ever taken Mountain Leadership, or gone for days with a huge pack, so you’re braver and hardier than me! I relate to the times when I’ve felt like the weak link – and for me it’s most often in performing. I’m around younger people who can flit around the stage for hours, either not letting the exhaustion and/or physical pain show, or not having experienced it yet. I love to sing and act, and wish I could dance in the way that I see these others around me moving, but I have the abilities that I have. I’m talented enough that I get picked to play a role or place for singing well in a competition, but I’m not one of the best and the brightest. I do, however, have the spirit for it, and I read that same spirit in what you’ve written, in what you’re willing to try, and what you’re not willing to do again. I think both are equally valuable! Thanks so much for your blogs!

Comment by Jerri H

I am so glad to see that the Leah who would rather watch TV than go for a walk has found a happy place with the outdoors. Good for you!!

Comment by Amy

Not sure exactly how I’m supposed to take this… but I’m assuming it’s with the best of intentions. šŸ™‚

Comment by lyet

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