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Expedition India

Q&A with NOLS trekker Jake Pahlke

Posted: October 5, 2012 - 12:00am
Jack Pahlke, back row, smiles with friends during a National Outdoor Leadership School expedition in India this year.   Courtesy of Jake Pahlke
Courtesy of Jake Pahlke
Jack Pahlke, back row, smiles with friends during a National Outdoor Leadership School expedition in India this year.

Jake Pahlke, 21, of Juneau, recently completed an 80-day expedition in the Himalayan Mountains of India with the National Outdoor Leadership School, according to a release from the organization.

The expedition led Pahlke and other participants over mountains, down whitewater rapids and into the homes of host families living in small villages in rural India.

Along the way, Pahlke learned the importance of teamwork, how to survive in wilderness situations and much about the unique culture and landscape of the region.

Q: Why did you choose to go on this expedition?

A: I chose to go on the expedition to help me put my life into perspective a bit.

Last fall and winter I found myself in what many people would call a transitional phase of my life. I had gotten my EMT-1 certificate while still in high school and jumped headfirst into the the world of emergency medical services. However, I quickly realized I may have been overly hasty in that decision. Growing up in Alaska, I have always been very outdoors oriented and it is where I feel most at home. A NOLS course offered me a way to continue earning college credits while also taking on the adventure of a lifetime.

I believe the outdoors can teach people self confidence and creativity in a way no classroom ever can. With regards to why I chose India specifically, I wanted the most exotic place I could find. What I mean is, most of the courses cost roughly the same amount regardless of scholarships and whatnot, so I figured, why not go to the most foreign culture I can find? If the whole purpose the trip for me is to broaden my horizons and help me see how much more there is to life, then doesn’t it make sense to go as far away as possible (both figuratively and physically)?

 

Q: During your NOLS expedition you learned outdoor skills, rafted rivers and spent time in a small village near Ranikhet, Inda, to name just a few — what was your most memorable or moving part of the expedition? Why?

A: The most memorable part of the trip ... I would have to say was the fourth day of backpacking. But first, I’ll have to explain a bit about how we organized the hiking days.

Our 14 members (one had already left due to injury, two more would leave over the next 40 days) split into three groups. Each group had an instructor with them and we set out from camp in the morning 15 minutes apart. The instructors tried to allow students to lead whenever possible, and since we had unreliable maps and limited navigation skills, it often led to hilarious mistakes.

Now, back to the fourth day. We set out for the village of Wan, which required us to go over a ridge and then down a long spine on the other side. We left at 8 a.m. After wandering around in the mountains until 1 p.m., we found that we were back where we took our first break at 9:15 a.m. Two other groups joined us with the hope we could work together to figure out how to get the village. When we finally reached the highest point, we found the trail we were supposed to be on all day and began following it down a steep spine on the other side. The fog had dropped low by this point (about 3:30 p.m.) and eventually we reached a veru precarious spot.

By looking at the maps and taking into consideration what limited sight we did have, we learned we were in a “no fall zone” meaning falling off the trail here would be fatal. To complicate matters further, we reached several sections of trail that were washed out and required one or two of our sure-footed members to leave the trail and spot from below (with the aid of ropes and an ice axe). By 9 p.m. it was dark, and we were tired. We reached a point where we had to decide if we wanted to make camp where we were, or continue onward. If not for the fact that we had no water and there was no water source until we reached the village, I expect we would have stayed where we were. However, thirst overcame fatigue and we kept going. At about 10:30 p.m. we were able to signal the first group with our head lamps and they came down to help us with the last bit of climbing to our camp site.

I think the most memorable and most valuable experiences I had on the trip were the hardest ones. They were the ones that helped build bonds between the people on the trip and they were the ones that really taught you who you were.

 

Q: What was the hardest part of the expedition? Mentally? Physically?

A: Later on, we had come to a point where we were roughly 10 kilometers behind where we were scheduled to be, and we were running out of food. The three groups set out that morning and didn’t all come back together for three full days. My group spent the night with five people crammed in a three-man tent. We had nothing to eat all day except a slice of cake in the morning (cooked on a small backpacking stove) and bouillon broth. It’s the challenges you remember and cherish though. The feeling of accomplishment you get when you overcome something really difficult is one of the best in the world and when that challenge is something easily quantifiable, like reaching a mountain peak, it makes it even better because you can sit there and reflect your accomplishment.

 

Q: Did you have any “close calls?” If so, explain.

A: During the last part of the trip, the students split into two groups and planned the route they would follow for the next nine days.

The instructors remained 24 hours away at all times.

I was elected to be the leader of one group and it was during this “independent expedition” that I had my most memorable “close call”.

For the past few days we had been dogged by illness (many people refer to it as Delhi Belly) and so our going had been slow and we were behind schedule. On the fourth day of the expedition, we pushed real hard and finally made it to a small shepherd camp called Mobir (pronounced exactly like “mo’ beer”). After collecting and treating some water and eating dinner we all simply collapsed.

The next morning I woke up at about 5:30 a.m. to find two cow herders near our camp watching us. This wasn’t unusual, as we were in an area where many locals had never seen a “Gora” or white person. Unfortunately, as the morning went on, it became clear these two men weren’t like the rest of the spectators we had encountered along the way. They became increasingly aggressive towards two of the girls in our group (blonde hair is exceptionally rare, and in a completely male-dominated culture, the men in these rural areas have little restraint when it comes to showing their sexual desires). Eventually the morning culminated with one of the males in our group in front, then the three females, then myself and another male in the back running out of camp holding onto as much equipment as we could carry.

The men were throwing rocks at us and shouting “You give me 500 rupies!”

All the while I tried to fend them off with an ice axe while running full tilt down a hill.

At the time, it was one of the most adrenaline-pumped experiences I’ve ever had; now, my friends and I can look back on it and laugh.

 

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m not sure. I learned a saying from an Indian man named TB that went: “There are only two options. Proceed as planned, or change of plans.”

I think this works both in the wilderness and in the front country. Life has a way of throwing curve balls at us and it seems that we rarely get what we want or expect. I am now hoping to go into outdoor education so I can help other students and young people who can benefit from either a program like NOLS or a more therapeutic one like Outward Bound.

However, I’ve learned that all you can do is PAP or COP.

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