In the Yosemite Backcountry

Joe Harvey, Head of School

"Okay, here's the schedule for tomorrow morning. We'll be up at 4:00 to break down our tents and get everything loaded into our packs. We want to be walking out of camp at 5:00 to be up on top of the pass for sunrise."

As my trail crew of 7th graders and I went over the plan for our final day in the Yosemite backcountry, we began preparing ourselves for a big day on the trail. Two days earlier, we had hiked seven miles and climbed more than 2,000 feet in elevation from Tioga Road to our beautiful campsite right alongside the largest of the Ten Lakes. Our crew had worked hard to get there, carrying packs full of our individual gear plus "group gear"--food packed into bear cans, our tents, the stoves, pots and pans, and more. On Thursday morning, we would be climbing back out of the valley to reach the pass--about 750 feet of climbing in just the first mile-and-a-half of trail--in time to see the sun rise over the ridges to the east.

Why is the Yosemite outdoor education trip so important? What do our students learn there?

One answer has to do with Yosemite itself. It is a stunning landscape. And even though more than 4 million people visited Yosemite last year, 99 percent never venture where our 7th graders do when they heft their packs and head out into the wilderness. This year while the Bay Area was sweltering in the early fall heat, we enjoyed temperate weather and the clearest skies I have seen yet in the high country. A highlight for me was standing on the shore of the lake after sunset with a student, Charlie, and one of our naturalists, gazing up at the stars and seeing the Milky Way above us and also--amazingly--reflected in the absolutely still water of the lake. Charlie mused about what we have lost in our cities and towns by lighting up the night, and how special it was to be able to see the stars as we stood there. While the weather was "perfect" this year, the Yosemite backcountry is beautiful no matter the weather. Seeing clouds curl over a ridge top, hearing the rain on your tent, even shivering with cold--we have enjoyed them all.

A second answer involves the skills that our students learn out there--and that they carry back home with them. The experience challenges them to leave home and family, to embrace the grit (literal and metaphorical!), to support one another, to take responsibility for their actions. Outdoor education, the Mark Day way, sets up authentic challenges for our students in a program that builds year upon year. The genuine self-reliance, self-confidence, teamwork, responsibility, empathy, and more that students develop in that classroom, even beyond the hard skills of safe camping and travel, cannot be recreated elsewhere. Laughter is a constant part of the days, even when things get difficult. On that early morning climb through the dawn, we each had our moments of struggle. It was early. Our legs were tired. We were carrying heavy packs up a steep and sometimes unrelenting trail. Alongside all of that, it was so inspiring to see our 7th graders dig deeply to find their strength and to support one another through the challenge. I was so proud--and they were proud of what they were accomplishing together.

We are captivated by stories of the voyage out and back again. From Odysseus to Rey in The Force Awakens, protagonists learn something crucial about themselves as they venture far beyond the familiar and, more importantly, far beyond what they imagine to be their own limits. Just so, our students venture out beyond the familiar, in the process learning so much about themselves and their peers. It is a joy to witness. And the program is a quiet hallmark of our school.