Boulder Outdoor Survival School, Boulder, Utah
Spending a couple weeks car camping at the far end of dirt roads in Utah had kept me happy over the last years, but this year (2007), I was ready for something new. I had read about Boulder Outdoor Survival School, who offer 14 and 28 day "field courses" out there in the Utah mountains, canyons and deserts, using only the most minimal equipment one can imagine. Reading their course description again, I was hooked. Here is my account on "Surviving Survival School" :)
The First Day

"This is where we spend the night. Sleep well. Good night" Shawn said, before simply walking off into the semi-dark moonlit night with the other instructors. We students looked at each other, someone giggled. Two just hunkered down there and then and started rooting through their versacloth daypack to figure out what they were carrying that could be used to make the already chilly night somewhat bearable. True to the spirit of the "impact" phase, we had neither poncho nor wool blanket, but were carrying a set of longjohns, sweater and fleece jacket. Not much, but - as it turned out - just about sufficient to survive a chilly night in the woods below Boulder mountain without completely turning into an icicle.

Earlier that same day, we had spent lots of time at the BOSS Survival School field office in Boulder, Utah, trying to make sense of all our gear and learning how to bundle and pack it so that we could carry it without the need of a backpack, by wrapping all the stuff into a self-contained package that was surprisingly easy and comfortable to carry. Little did we know when we were served lunch at noon that we probably should have eaten more heartily. Of course we assumed (in spite of having been told by the instructors not to assume anything) that we would move out of BOSS headquarters later that day. But when the time came, and the sun had only just set, it was clear that all students were buzzing both with anticipation and a certain feeling of dread. We started with walking off into the forest, first on a trail, and then, the moon out in the meantime and providing just enough light to avoid having to find trees with the forehead, slowly fumbled our way down a steep ravine of a dry riverbed. Until - yes, until we reached a nondescript stretch of canyon bottom that would likely have rated under "further" on any fair ranking of suitable camp sites, but still ended up being "where we spend the night".

Gather ye drink while ye may!

The next morning we continued down the canyon, noticing an increasingly "earthen" smell that we later came to learn signified the presence of water. And water we found, a mouldy green wibbling trickle that most probably each of us would have bypassed in search for something more looking like the "water" we were used to from the faucets at home and from the Arrowhead bottles lined up on the shelf in the supermarket. But the instructors soon convinced us that we should better "drink up and fill up", or as we later came to call it: "Dont go past a good source of water without a full belly and two full bottles". I could easily accept this as wise - but I didn't quite agree that what we were facing at the bottom of this ditch met my definition of "a good source of water". It sure looked more like a good source of intestinal parasites, to say the least. But drink it we did, and fill up the bottles we did.

The rest of the day (and, literally, there is lots of "rest" if you start hiking at sunrise) we spent in quite interesting ways. I don't want to spoil the experience for students yet to come, so I won't go into details. Let it only be mentioned that, ahem, the range of what I came to accept as "water" was considerably stretched that day. And, in the spirit of "impact phase" again, we didn't get anything to eat beyond the little critters floating in what we drank.

The Blanket

Once, after a couple of days or so, the "impact" phase ended, and I'm not sure what we students welcomed more - reasonably clean, ice cold water from a fast flowing stream nearby, a cup full of lentils as first meal after a long time, or that we were finally issued our wool blanket and poncho. My vote very definitely goes to the latter - I had gotten used to mouldy water, I had left the pangs of hunger behind several miles ago, but I never really got used to waking up with a start with frozen feet and spending the rest of the night in half-slumber shivering away until relieved by the morning sun. Yes, the sun: Living outdoors, my relationship with the sun changed as well. The first 30 minutes of sunlight are a truly glorious affair, I can never get enough of the soft golden light that first paints the high cliffs, then the treetops, and finally reaches camp. Soon after though, the sun changes from friend to enemy, mercilessly pounding you from above during a grueling hike through the desert, forcing you to search for shade at every opportunity that presents itself. This continues for 12 hours or so, until the sun drops behind the canyon rim, the evening cool sets in, and the sun again returns to its role of a welcome friend, its light reflecting in a warm orange off a nearby sandstone cliff onto the canyon bottom.

The Feast

After some days of serious hiking, during which even the breaks were filled with instructions on how to tie knots, how to build shelters, how to make a bow-and-spindle set to start a fire, we were again out hiking in the dark of night, and very positively surprised when at the end of the hike we found a couple of pre-made shelters (wikiups) waiting for us. It wasn't quite as warm as expected, but it felt at least psychologically good to be sleeping under a roof for a change. Most of us slept like logs until long after daybreak. In the morning, we were informed that this camp was where we would stay for two nights to have ample time to get introduced to the art of "large game processing" and - implied - the consumption of whatever said processing delivered. I admit that I was rather looking forward to the latter, to a lesser degree to the former. Again to not to spoil the experience for others, let it only be said that "large animal processing" involves the slaughtering of a live animal and all subsequent steps to ensure that not a single usable part of the animal is lost. I sure was surprised how many usable parts an animal has - and even more surprised on what a massive amount of fat can be rendered out of what looks like sinewy rejects on first sight. For two days, we lived and ate (to not to say: feasted) extremely well.

The Playground

Which of course gave us the energy needed to climb a couple of little hills on the days after. One of the instructors had referred to the area around Boulder Mountain as "our playground", and they were sure using it a such. Following the face of a hill, there are several approaches you can take: You can stay at the base, trying to find a wash that heads in the general direction you are traveling. You can climb halfway up and around, but then are usually forced to go across deep ravines that cut the face of the hill top down. Or you can climb all the way to the top, and head down again on the side where your travel leads you. The BOSS way, of course, is to do all three, nicely blended so that distance and exertion are maximized to the level desired for the day. During "impact", when we students didn't have any map or compass, I only had the sun and the familiar silhouette of the Henry Mountains in the distance to give me a sense of direction (and a strong hunch that we were going if not in circles, then certainly not the most direct route). Once we were given maps and compass, I had to revise my judgement: We certainly were taking the most direct route available that met the requirement of having at least one massive escarpment to overcome on the way :)

Home Alone

The days of intense hiking and learning new skills where interrupted by the so-called "solo phase", where each student was dropped off in his/her own gorgeous piece of canyon real estate, to spend a couple of days completely alone. While this phase was perceived very differently from student to student, with some hating it like nothing else, and others completely immersing themselves into it and not wanting it to end, I think the part we all shared was the immense satisfaction felt on the first night of solo, when the bow and spindle actually worked, and the flicker of small cooking fires could be seen starting to light up tiny and distant sections of the canyon walls - here one, there one.

The prize we sought is won

Over time, some sort of routine set in. Lots of challenges had been thrown at us, had been gnawed at, sweat through, and finally overcome. The challenges kept coming, but neither lack of food, nor mouldy water, nor blisters, nor soaking wet clothing, nor getting lost in a canyon maze, nor the merciless daytime heat, nor the equally merciless nighttime cold, nor anything else, could put us down. All students in class J-66/07 persevered, which is - we were told - a rare case indeed. Now, at the end of 14 days, all of us have pushed their personal "I cannot" boundary a couple leagues further out, and have gained the confidence to say "I can" to quite a number of things that seemed unimaginable before the course: As long as something looks liquid, it probably is drinking water, as long as it is not an overhang, it probably can be ascended, as long as it doesn't reach above your knees, soft sand can probably be hiked through, for hours if need be. And as long as it is reasonably flat and is not overgrown with cacti - it surely makes for a perfect bed.

This is where we spend the night - sleep tight.

© 2007 Daniel Wesemann     (back to travel overview)which includes an account of using BOSS techniques, including the famous blanket pack, on one of my recent hikes in Utah