The past 24 hours were unlike any I have ever experienced. Yesterday, after an eventful night of packing, we left in the morning for an overnight hike in Mussoorie. This excursion was included as preparation for our upcoming 10-day trek. The physical components of this experience did not intimidate me as much as cooking outside, sleeping in tents, or dealing with the grittiness of camp life. I had never in my life slept outside until last night.
Sleeping in a tent would be lovely if not for sweaty clothing. The hike was quite arduous, spanning steep downhills and sun-baked ascents. We started with downhill switchbacks, which certainly introduced everyone to the burden of negotiating an already formidable slope with a 50-pound backpack. I, for one, would rather trek uphill than downhill. While downhill passes are quicker, they are more precarious. My foot slid a bit in my shoe as I repeatedly fought for traction, raising blister concerns early in the trek. Fortunately, I aired out my feet at our lunch spot next to a river and quickly felt better.
The next leg of the hike was a long trail around a mountain that steadily trended upward. At this point, we were fully exposed to the sun. Mussoorie has been a bit chilly since our arrival, but yesterday was the hottest day we had experienced. A couple more hours of sweat led to a village in the mountains where our guide, Gaurav, spoke with a villager who offered us a site we could use for camping. On the way, we stopped for water next to a temple. Each Himalayan village (of which there are many) worships a particular deity. I had a chance to pay my respects this morning on our way out of the campsite.
Gaurav and Vipul assured us that they did not have a particular campsite in mind, so our encounter with this villager was pure chance. However, some higher power must have had positive intentions for us, as our eventual campsite afforded breathtaking views of the mountains and the villages populating the hillsides. It must be noted, however, that this plot of land did not readily seem like campsite material to a novice like me. There were large flowers, tall weeds, and piles of sticks covering the field. Somehow, we all managed to pitch our tents by clearing away the brush.
Once we arranged our sleeping bags and unloaded our backpacks, we returned to a slab of concrete to begin cooking. The main course was a tomato pasta featuring onions, garlic, and a host of spices. I never imagined such a large quantity of food could be prepared in the backcountry. We simply carried the small stoves, wind shields, food, pots, and pans in our backpacks. During cleanup, the air was filled with the ambience of a wandering goat, a passing group of buffalo, and a few barking dogs (all owned by the villagers). All of the extra scraps from our dinner went to the dogs.
Night soon fell around 8:00 PM, just after we concluded a lecture on how to relieve ourselves in the woods. Given that there was no longer any light to do anything productive, we brushed our teeth, washed our faces, and prepared for bed. Anita, Ally, and I had an impressive setup in our tent, but the interior was quite hot and stuffy. Some of the guys decided to sleep outside—a decision that Anita and Ally agreed was not desirable given the bugs and flies and everywhere. Soon, the tent did cool down enough to the extent that I used my sleeping bag. I cannot say that I slept beautifully—once or twice I forgot where the wall of the tent was and rolled into Anita—but the night passed fairly quickly and I arose at 6:00 AM to sunlight.
The sun felt quite hot this morning, and we were all worried that the return hike would be grueling. However, we coasted through the shade for most of the way back to the Hanifl Centre. This hike included more uphills than yesterday, which I enjoyed. As a group, we struggled at the beginning to find a consistent pace that everyone could maintain, but eventually we rearranged people between the front and back according to desired speed—slower in the front, faster in the back. This adjustment gave group members who were struggling a chance to set a pace that worked for them.
As we discussed solutions to this problem, I recognized several important leadership skills on display—compassion, selflessness, and especially honesty. The latter skill is particularly important because in my view, individuals (including me) are more likely to not complain about a campsite or a hiking pace and instead bottle any thoughts and feelings. Sharing candid, sometimes vulnerable opinions is a leader-like behavior. We can lead and inspire important changes in a group dynamic by inspiring a cascade of honest reflection.
I have chosen this route in the past as a leader. However, during our overnight experience, I tried to lead with my followership instead. I am usually outspoken, but I realized that others were more passionate about decisions like hiking pace and campsite location than I was. Contributing more noise to a conversation that did not have large stakes for me would be counterproductive to the group. Implementing this strategy and seeing its success during the overnight experience positions me well for ten days in the wilderness with this group.
In addition to leadership insights, I gained some understanding of what I should bring (and should not bring) on the 10-day trek. Fitting all of the necessary food along with my clothes and supplies will certainly be a challenge! I will wait to deal with this rather stressful packing process tomorrow and get some much needed rest tonight. I cannot wait to see more of the Indian Himalayas!
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