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‘Seam of remoteness and serenity’

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The Lone Peak High School Class of 2022 sit at the edge of one of the Spanish Lakes on their senior backpacking trip in early September. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

LPHS expedition returns for 11th year

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – The strength of the alpine sun is diluted today by the onset of fall, but we still sweat as we climb. I’m first in a line of bobbing heads and backpack tops, leading 10 Lone Peak High School seniors and two teachers through a meadow on the north side of the Spanish Peaks. 

These students are participating in their last year of expedition, an outing which happens every fall at the start of the school year. The freshmen, sophomores and juniors are sent out on multi-day camping trips, a cumulative experience that culminates their senior year: the backpacking trip. 

This year, I’ve joined the Class of 2022 in the basin that cradles the Spanish Lakes, the very place I stayed with my own senior class six years ago. I’m older than these students—I don’t recognize the music they listen to or even many of the social media celebrities they gossip about—but no matter the distance, we will always share this expedition adventure. We along with all the other LPHS students who’ve built the foundations of this experiential learning platform since it began in 2010. 

Two LPHS seniors hike across the Lee Metcalf Wilderness boundary on their trek up to Spanish Lakes. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

On this Wednesday in early September, we spent our first morning in the backcountry and are now on a day hike to Beehive Lake, not to be mistaken with the pond that terminates the Beehive Basin Trail in Big Sky. We’re on the other side of Beehive Peak, which looks foreign from this angle, moving toward a vast, blue alpine lake surrounded by ridgelines and scree bowls. 

The sound of tumbling rocks echoes around us, and English teacher Patty Hamblin points to the slope on our left. “Look!” 

Cutting across the nearly 40-degree slope are nine bighorn sheep. Conversation ceases and we watch in wonder as the ungulates skillfully move over steep cliffs and balance their 150 pounds of body weight on their hooves along sheer ledges. 

“They’re like you guys,” I tell the students, referring to their high school mascot.
“Big Horns.” 

The first LPHS expedition took place in late April of 2010, the first spring the high school was open. Paul Swenson, a teacher at the school since its beginning who helped design the school’s curriculum before it was even open, said that first year all the high school students traveled to the Flathead area in northwestern Montana where they stayed on a ranch and learned about spring planting.

“The purposes of expeditions were multifaceted,” Swenson wrote to EBS. “We wanted to combine the outdoor education focus with the interdisciplinary philosophy that the curriculum of the high school had in its early days.” 

Today, the school has more students in each class than were in the entire school back then, and expeditions have adapted to meet the growth. Now, in the fall rather than the spring, expedition is used as a bonding experience for peers and teachers as they head into a new school year. 

Hamblin, who’s led six backpacking expeditions, told the students around the
campfire one night that she was grateful for the chance to get to know them outside of the classroom. 

“I feel like even though I’ve known these kids for years, it’s not until you get out there in a place like that where you can really just kind of let your guard down and just truly be who you really are,” she said in a conversation after the trip. 

Brad Packer, the other teacher leading the expedition, agreed that the relationships built with students in the backcountry are entirely different than those formed in the classroom. 

“Those relationships will help when you have to work with a student in the classroom to get something done,” he said. “Having that relationship underlying makes the academics better and easier later on.”

This year’s senior class has 16 students, one less than I graduated with in 2017. It’s the last class under 30 at the high school. 

TJ Nordahl (right) roasts a bagel one morning for breakfast while (right to left) Kassidy Boersma, Campbell Johnson and Sophia Cone warm up by the fire. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

“So many people change their attitudes when they’re in or out of school,” said senior Campbell Johnson, who is new to LPHS this year. “It was nice to see people being themselves and their personalities and relationships with other kids that I hadn’t seen.” 

Personalities, in fact, were on such display that we decided to give each other unique trail names, like those adopted by thru-hikers. Names ranged from Drench—after senior Carly Wilson accidentally poured her water all over a fragile fire—to Rocky, given to Robert Pruiett, who was constantly throwing rocks at something. When the students got back to class the following week, Hamblin gave them a quiz on their trail names. 

On the second of our three-night trip, a summerlong burn ban was lifted, and we spent evenings beneath the stars and in the comforting presence of crackling flames, drinking hot chocolate and tea together and sharing stories. When Hamblin, Packer and I tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags, the students stayed, huddled around the fire, laughter resounding throughout the basin and shadows dancing against the firelit boulders.

“I’m grateful that our school gives us the opportunity to do this,” Wilson said one night around the fire, “because most people can’t say they went backpacking with 10 people from their senior class.” Wilson added she was glad it was a small group and said she got to have conversations with every person. 

Many of these conversations happened on the trail. Our hike from the Spanish Creek Trailhead on Aug. 31 was at times slow and arduous, especially the final steep, 3-mile climb into the basin. The dialogue dealt with what you’d typically expect from 17- and 18-year-olds: talk of soccer team drama and reliving summer shenanigans; expressed fear for upcoming big exams.  

But every so often I’d catch a glimmer of promise for the people they will be one day, the people they are already becoming; sophisticated and witty humor, tenacious grit and encouragement for one another on a challenging hill, discussions of their favorite (and least favorite) literature that Hamblin introduced to them over the years. 

The senior class trudges up a steep hill on their way to Beehive Lake. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

It’s often true that time in the backcountry is divergent from true hours and minutes. Cooking meals together, sleeping in a tent side-by-side and spending all night talking by the fire builds connections that match those made over four years of simply sitting next to someone in a math class. I’ve known many of the seniors since they were born, but it felt like such a privilege to meet them once again in this way, to experience awe and wonder together. 

Swenson later wrote to me that one of the values of expedition is the way it offers students a chance to find humility in the face of nature. I think of many examples of this from this year’s expedition but draw out the bighorn sheep sighting in particular. 

I’ll hold in my memory that moment we all stood still together and watched them. The trivial chat took a backseat to awe and respect. Even the boys, too cool for anything these days, let their jaws drop.

Just over the ridge were our four-walled homes and phone chargers and the gym floor the students would return to later that weekend for games—the gym floor emblazoned with the LPHS Big Horn logo. 

As we watched, I recalled Ellen Meloy’s essay “Bighorn Sheep” I’d read the night before in my tent. The last line in particular struck me as Meloy describes her own moment watching the tactful bighorns with reverence: 

“I simply fall into their seam of remoteness and serenity.” 

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