gila national forest (1)

Students backpack in Gila National Forest 

By Tianyu Chen ’21, China

Thirty-four UWC-USA students took backpacking trips to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico during Project Week, including 12 wilderness leaders who went on a six-day advanced trip.

The Advanced Gila trip tested backpacking skills, including risk management and team communication. Once qualified, the wilderness leaders will go on one of the most challenging hiking trips at UWC-USA, known as the April Finals.

“The Advanced Gila trip is for the leaders who will focus on risk management and run the backpacking experience themselves,” said Rachel Fristedt, co-director of the wilderness program at UWC-USA. “The adult instructors will play a spectator role more frequently and allow the student leaders to revisit the leadership skills.”

Besides the Advanced Gila program, the Open Gila was available to anyone who wanted to spend the week learning backpacking skills. 

“I chose (the Open) Gila because I realized that I haven’t been on as many wilderness trips as I could have,” said Ghita Sahbi, ’21, Morocco. “I wanted to have one last long trip in the wilderness of the Southwest before graduating.”

This year’s Project Week was the first time in seven years for trips to the Gila National Forest, one of the first designated wilderness areas in the United States. In the past, Project Week wilderness trips have included Blue Range in Arizona and Escalante in Utah. 

“Gila is pretty much like Blue Range, just 50 to 100 miles away from each other,” said Rachel. “It is drier than the Pecos Wilderness Area, but all the trips will be near the Gila River.”

Each group had two adult instructors, including faculty and licensed instructors who live in New Mexico.

“Frankly, I am a little stressed out about my first lengthy trip,” said Ghita. “But I am sure I will have a wonderful week out in the wilderness with the help of my peers and instructors.”

“Although Gila is my first full week trip at school, I feel confident because I have spent a lot of time in nature,” added Léna Molnár, ’22, Hungary. “I look forward to bonding with some new people on the trip.”

As a prerequisite to the April Finals, the Advanced Gila is a comprehensive evaluation of participants. Students will demonstrate leadership skills in safe kitchen management, map-reading, and risk assessments. If they complete the trip successfully, they will qualify for the April Finals — a one-night trip to Joaquin Trailhead on April 17 and 18. That’s also the same weekend for other students going on backpacking trips to fulfill the wilderness requirement. 

“You will hike with three to four other leaders without the help of adult instructors,” Rachel said about the April Finals. “Everything must be well-executed on your own, such as doing the bear hang and selecting camping sites.”

Equipped with an emergency contact device, the April Finals group will hike past the wilderness instructors on their way for a safety check-in. 

“From all the training I have got, I feel confident in myself but also in my peers,” said Keita Ueno ‘21, Japan. “I believe we can complete the trip successfully through cooperation. The April trip is a good way to conclude my wilderness activities at UWC-USA and hone the skills for future use.”

“I have heard from past participants that the trip was empowering and worthwhile,” Rachel added. “I hope that the April Finals will give students the confidence to go on wilderness trips on their own after they graduate from UWC-USA.”

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