Two weeks ago I co-led Andrew Skurka’s 3 day/2 night Ultimate Hiking Course in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was my first time working with Andrew on a trip, but it all went quite smoothly even though we’d only met a few times before.
We had 13 students on the course who’d flown or driven from all over: New York, Washington DC, Cleveland, Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ranging in age from 17 to 81 years of age, they had a diverse set of hiking, camping, and backpacking experiences ranging from scouting and supported adventure-style travel to high altitude winter mountaineering. Most hadn’t ever been on self-supported backpacking trips though and were there to learn how to be self sufficient in the backcountry.
Andrew’s Ultimate Hiking courses start about 4-6 weeks before the group gets together for their trip. The first step is for all of the students to participate in a joint information gathering exercise where they research the environmental conditions of the area for the class including average temperatures, rainfall, local weather conditions, terrain, water availability, local regulations, etc, before they start pulling together their gear for the trip.
This pre-trip planning process is run online via Google Groups and Docs so everyone can collaborate in group discussions and has easy access to the reference information that Andrew provides to students. It works pretty well once students unfamiliar with Google tools get the hang of it.
The whole planning process is crucial to Andrew’s approach to backpacking, where what you bring on any given trip is dependent on the environmental assessment and needs of your journey, not a static gear list. In addition to building group cohesion, one of the main goals of the environmental assessment is to break students’ habit of preparing for every possible contingency (“Be Prepared”) when certain needs are not necessary for a given itinerary.
The next phase of online preparation is to get students to document their gear lists and gear weight. This is almost always an epiphany for participants because it makes them quantify the cost of carrying heavy gear and lets them compare their gear lists to the gear that other student’s plan to bring. As students tune their gear lists, there’s a lot of back and forth discussion on the Google group about the pros and cons of different gear choices and new purchases that students often make before the trip starts.
In addition to buying new gear (Andrew provides manufacturer discounts for students that can pay for the class itself), Andrew provides students with loaners if they want to try ultralight shelters or packs. On our trip, Andrew loaned out two Golite Shangri-la 2 shelters with inner nests, a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid, and a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwin UL tarp.
In the Field
Despite the initial emphasis on gear during the preparation phase of the trip, students are immediately immersed in skill training and practice when they meet in person at the start of the trip. The style of teaching is highly experiential with students taking turns leading the group, working on small teams, and being required to practice their skills in a hands-on manner throughout the trip.
I got to teach too which is something I really appreciate about working with Andrew. While its his school and he’s the outfitter, I never felt like I was the hired help. We worked side-by-side during the trip, sharing the teaching, group management, risk assessment, and route finding tasks. I was really impressed by his willingness to listen to me and share in the decision making although we have very different backgrounds and experience.
Students taking the Ultimate Hiker class learn all of the skills required to be self sufficient on backpacking trips in wilderness settings, including leave no trace, packing, map and compass skills, fire starting, campsite selection, first aid, gear repair, stream crossing, water purification, bushwhacking, how to make and use an alcohol stove, and the best knots for pitching UL shelters.
When it comes to map and compass drills, Andrew is cheerfully relentless, making students stop and practice their navigation skills at every trail junction we came to along our route. It’s really easy to get turned around in the White Mountains National Forest when you’re below treeline and can’t see any landmarks, as was demonstrated time and again by students who tried to rely on their directional sense, instead of relying on their what they compass and map tell them.
Numerous other map and compass lessons followed including how to reach contour lines, the difference between true north and magnetic north, how to orient a map to true north, how to follow a bearing, and how to bushwhack in teams using the leapfrog technique, where one person walks out ahead of another on the bearing to establish a point of reference in dense woods without good landmarks to sight on.
Of course we also did some hiking, starting at the base of Mount Tecumseh and hiking through Livermore Pass and past Rt 112 at the foot of Mt Kancamagus. The students on the class were clearly intrigued if not challenged by the dense arboreal forest of the White Mountains with its steep ups and downs and rocky terrain.
Of the various skills taught, my favorite is campsite selection, which teaches students how to find comfortable, off-trail, low impact campsites. This is an essential skill for east coast backpackers who have to contend with dense forest. We spent a considerable amount of time teaching the students how to find well drained sites, prepare them, pitch their shelters, and how to restore them the next morning so no one could tell that anyone had slept there before.
Much to my amazement, Andrew provided all of the dinners and breakfasts for the group – and they were absolutely fantastic! Rather than cooking together, everyone in the class brought an alcohol stove and alcohol to cook their own one-pot meals. On the first night, we ate Polenta with fresh cheese, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and spices, and on the second night we had Ramen Noodles with Pesto. Our breakfasts were equally scrumptious and included Berry Granola with hot milk and Cream of Wheat with butter and brown sugar. I can’t recall ever eating so well on a backpacking trip.
The course ended with long easy hike back to the cars, where we all lingered for a while, unwilling to disperse until proper goodbyes had been said. Standing there drinking cold cokes, I noticed a new confidence in the class participants who talked about getting out again as soon as possible or passing their knowledge along to their families. Even now, I’m still in touch with many of them by email or facebook.
Andrew really impressed me on this trip. He’s a very knowledgeable and gifted teacher and really easy to work with. I’m looking forward to leading more of these trips with him and meeting students who want the freedom and self sufficiency that comes with becoming an Ultimate Hiker.
Disclosure: Philip Werner is a former employee and guide with Andrew Skurka Adventures.