To be vulnerable is brave: A lesson from my 30 days in Alaskan wilderness

Raina Yang/Staff

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Last summer, I spent 30 days in the Alaskan wilderness for a sea kayaking and backpacking course, two weeks each. I experienced and felt so much during these 30 days that it is impossible to express them fully through words. But I want to share one of the most important insights that I have gained through this unusual experience. I hope this story can become a starting point for you to explore the surprises and epiphanies that accompany your own meaningful journey. 

It was the second day of the backpacking section. My hiking team for that day consisted of me, the instructor Adam and three other male students. While carrying more than 50-pound backpacks, we chose a path that included four miles of walking either on a muddy all-terrain-vehicle trail or through shrubs, and then hiking upward for more than 1,600 feet in elevation on slopes covered with bushes.

While the first four miles were relatively manageable, we chose to challenge ourselves by leaving the ATV trail and cutting across the mountain through a much steeper path. I had already grown accustomed to stepping and falling into knee-deep mud and bushwhacking. As soon as we started climbing the slope with heavy backpacks, however, I started clenching my teeth and panting with pain. No matter how much effort I put into dragging my legs upward, I just couldn’t catch up to the four tall and strong males in front of me. Impacted by physical and mental pressure, as well as my extinguishing confidence, I was on the verge of breaking down.

And I did. It was when we reached 600 feet of elevation after more than three hours of hiking. I broke into tears and sobbed into my two hands, each holding a trekking pole. I turned around and faced the landscape, trying to recover myself. The guys stopped.

Adam looked at my back and said gently, “Don’t beat yourself up for this. It is really tough. The four of us are a lot bigger than you and we’re all carrying the same weight, so it’s going to feel a lot heavier on you.”

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I sat on my backpack and kept taking deep breaths, wiping my face with a not-so-clean bandana. I looked down upon the glittery lake, the withered and yellow branches, the scattered pine trees and boulders. But it wasn’t until I saw the winding path of footprints extending all the way back to a subliminal point on the horizon, that I realized how far we’d come.

But it wasn’t until I saw the winding path of footprints extending all the way back to a subliminal point on the horizon, that I realized how far we’d come.

By taking deep breaths and adjusting my mindset, I pulled myself together and stood up to lift the backpack to my knee. Adam asked me to take some heavy stuff out for him and the others to carry. I hesitated for a second and accepted the help. I still remember clearly the words that he said to me when I handed him the heavy water bottles and food bags in my backpack.

“Thank you for accepting the help! While some people think it’s a strength to keep saying, ‘No I got this,’ I think it’s more difficult and much more a strength to accept the help. I think that really shows your character.”

I didn’t know what he meant by “character” at that time, and it wasn’t until a series of unexpected events later that I finally did understand what he meant by his words. But his words encouraged me to wipe away my tears and face the challenges with more determination. I even accepted Adam’s request for me to be the pointer — the person leading the team to set the pace and find the best route possible.

After walking for another three hours, we finally reached what Adam said was the “X-point” of our campsite for that night. By then, everyone had exhausted almost all of their physical strength and mental will. We had entered the high-elevation alpine tundra terrain, about 5,000 feet above sea level. It was too cold and windy for trees to even grow. The freeze seeped through our jackets onto our skin, which was gradually becoming too numb to feel anything. The only living creatures around us were dwarf shrubs, moss and lichen.

We stood on the gentle slope between two mountaintops. Behind us was the halcyon scene of infinite rays of golden sunlight emanating behind saturated clouds, while in front of us we saw only the overlapping shadows of black mountains looming through the foreboding dark clouds. It was as if we were standing in limbo, the border place between heaven and hell — or standing between the past and future, unable to do anything about the ominous gloom engulfing us with its darkness. Even though we were all debilitated and intimidated, we changed into raincoats swiftly and started scouting for water sources.

We had barely moved 50 feet when a streak of lightning cut through the entire sky, illuminating our ghostly pale faces and the mountains. Nailed to the ground, we looked at each other while a crash of thunder broke right above our heads. One of my teammates hurled away his metal trekking pole. We all dispersed and sat down on the ground in the lightning position, crouching and putting our feet together.

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Big hailstones started lashing down on us. We all hugged our legs and buried our heads into our knees like scared children. Unlike cities in which rooftops and walls can separate human beings from the daunting forces of nature, the open wilderness offered no shelter for us. When our bodies were fully exposed to the hailstorm and the thunderbolts were so near to us; when we witnessed the withered grass around us gradually being covered with ice; when we started looking at each other in the eyes seeking fragile but powerful human connection, I felt how small and helpless we all were in that moment. How small and helpless we are and will always be in this world. I felt the tenacious and resilient spirit we must all have in the face of adversities in wilderness and in life.

I felt the tenacious and resilient spirit we must all have in the face of adversities in wilderness and in life.

After 15 minutes or so, the hail stopped. While walking to retrieve the trekking pole, we saw that the rest of our teammates and the other two instructors had already set up the kitchen tents on a valley beneath us. It turned out that Adam had misdrawn the “X-point” on his map. We carried our backpacks again and walked downhill to meet the others.

There were a few hail storms during dinner. But the sky became bright and clear again at around 8 p.m. The 14 of us all sat in a circle to share our experiences throughout the day. The oldest student — a 25-year-old from Singapore who had served in the army for two years — was the first to volunteer to speak his feelings. Beginning with the phrase, “I’ll be honest,” he confessed that he had a panic attack during the first, largest hailstorm. He also wasn’t mentally prepared for the difficulties of hiking, in terms of both terrain and weather. His eyes reddened as he talked, his words inundated with his sobs.

Everyone was quiet at the moment. I thought of my breakdown on the hillside and cried silently. Not wanting anyone to see my tears, I turned my head toward the outside of the tent. I looked toward the range of mountains far away and saw an incredible view.

Mountains on the left side were drowned in blue cold light, while those on the right side basked in the sunshine, reflecting warm orange light — as if the opposing worlds of yin and yang were coexisting side by side. I looked into the tent and at the student from Morocco who was expressing gratitude for this opportunity that brought the 14 of us forward and together, lighting up the flames within each of our hearts. I looked outside of the tent again and realized that, during this moment of mutual appreciation, a big fat rainbow stretched across the sky. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in life.

I looked outside of the tent again and realized that, during this moment of mutual appreciation, a big fat rainbow stretched across the sky. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in life.

After the meeting, I gazed at the rainbow by myself while wiping my tears. One of my friends gave me a hug and whispered in my ear: “You’re a spectacular individual.” I also went to hug the Singaporean student and appreciated him for being honest and vulnerable in front of everyone, which was something that I didn’t dare do myself. I cried again as I was talking to him. But I knew then that the tears had come to mean different things: the first tears were about pain and suppression, while these were of delight and emancipation.

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After the entire trip ended, we sat together to reflect upon our experiences. Many of my teammates mentioned that one of the most memorable things for them was how the Singaporean student — who we had always seen as a trustworthy and mature leader — had trusted us and expressed his vulnerabilities so honestly and courageously.

We might have always been taught that only the weak cry and show fragility. We might have always pretended to be confident and indifferent in order to prevent others from knowing how we really feel inside. But when we act tough and cover up our vulnerabilities, we expose our weaknesses in a different way. Suppression and concealment only alienate us from others — this separation, this self-alienation is what makes us most vulnerable.

It is only when we share our fears, hopes and other authentic feelings with others that we can build a deeper connection together. This act of opening up requires a huge amount of bravery and trust — which sometimes has risks of potential harm or exploitation. Regardless of the outcome, however, we should know that the more honest and sincere self is the stronger and braver one.

Perhaps this is what Adam meant by “character:” to be vulnerable is an act of bravery.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.