Tracing history on foot: Hidden Villa’s long hike

Campers on Hidden Villa’s Sierra Backpacking Trip study historical photos to measure how the land has changed and alternate serving as student leaders who guide the route of their three-week trek.

Amid the high-tech camps and programs of a Bay Area summer, a few organizations and individual families take science to the mountains, directly examining how climate change, the landscape and human needs intertwine.

One local group learns - on foot - how glacial movement once shaped vast mountains and measures drought-driven austerity by its inching retreat. For last year’s inaugural Sierra Backpacking Trip, Hidden Villa campers made an 18-day foray into Yosemite’s wilds, wending up hillsides and off trails to track how the land has changed over the past century and why. Eleven high school juniors and seniors with two adults traced the Bay Area’s major water source up Yosemite’s rugged terrain to its origins in the high mountains.

An inspirational path

The idea began when Hidden Villa Camp Director Nikki Bryant uncovered historical documents in the 70-year-old summer camp’s archives that described an adventurous backpacking trip the camp had sponsored in the Sierra Nevada. Bryant pored over an old brochure and decided to resurrect the project with a new twist, partnering with the Alpine of the Americas project to add citizen science to camping.

Alpine of the Americas runs a crowd-sourced project that mirrors historical photos, compiling a database of submitted photos that re-create historical angles precisely, documenting how mountain landscapes and glacial caps have changed. This year, drought was written into the changing landscape.

"It’s observational data for individuals interested in tracking this," Bryant said of the photos, "combining this information with the very important resource of water - the idea that individuals need to get closer and more attached to the resources that we have, and are not endless."

Trip leader Alec Douglas developed a curriculum that focused on environmental education, reading the visible science of the mountains Hidden Villa’s campers traversed. Sitting beside a trail edging around the Rim Fire’s burn zone, they discussed forest ecosystems; perched over Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, they pondered how water storage changes the landscape.

"We really ended up focusing on how the shifting climate is affecting what we’re seeing and how things have changed over time," Douglas said. "Having photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, we could find the specific location where a photo had been taken and repeat it. There was a very visual component of the retreat of a glacier or the shift of a certain type of plant dominance - a rock slide, for instance, may have occurred."

Such a model for environmental education extends beyond the 11 students who made the trek with Hidden Villa. Any local family or group can build an itinerary to read science from the landscape.

"How many people get to have a conversation about how glaciers work and construct a landscape while you’re standing at the base of one and looking at it?" Douglas asked.

Bryant imagined the backpacking trip as a source of forward-looking inspiration in line with Hidden Villa’s overarching values - the idea that one climbs a mountain not just because it’s there, but to build ideas to take back to everyday life. As Bryant put it, campers trek "for inspiration, whichever path their lives end up going down."

Hidden Villa’s 1,600-acre farm and forested preserve hosts more than a thousand children of all ages each year. As preschoolers become young adults, participants graduate from day camps to overnight farm and wilderness camps.

Several groups of Hidden Villa campers hike the closer Santa Cruz Mountains each year, but heading into the mountains beyond Hetch Hetchy required a new level of planning and preparedness. Most of the Yosemite hikers are alumni of the camp’s Bay-to-Sea trip, so they know what it means to sleep rough, tape blisters and plan a trail lunch.

Trekking teens

The trip begins at Hetch Hetchy, where the O’Shaughnessy Dam was built in 1923 to stop the Tuolumne River. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir channels water 167 miles to the Bay Area.

"They hike along the water like a salmon jumping upstream, walking up the hard way through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne," Bryant said.

After they level out 5,000 feet higher at Tuolumne Meadows, the teens head up again, to reach Lyell Glacier, among the Sierra’s highest peaks - which may, after years of diminishment, no longer qualify as a glacier at all. Along the way, the campers volunteer with Yosemite’s park service. Last year, the group picked up trash along the reservoir and removed invasive plants in Tuolumne Meadows.

Hidden Villa’s hikers come from different backgrounds and areas around the region. The program dedicates time to meeting each other and establishing what community means beyond an initial extensive safety talk. Both of the program’s leaders are Wilderness First Responders trained in backcountry-specific first aid. But the trip’s purpose extends beyond shepherding students safely from point A to B. Any family planning an adventurous outing may want to think through what it means for a young person to take the lead.

"The point is for them to learn to deal with situations in the wilderness and to build a foundation of what to do. We spend time teaching them how to cook on a camp stove, read maps, use a compass and what kind of weather to watch for," Douglas said.

Each morning a different camper takes over as Leader of the Day, bearing the map and directing the group’s course.

"Suddenly, the students become the ones keeping track of when we’re breaking for water or a snack, the pace we’re going," Douglas said. "Once we get into camp, the kids are responsible for finding and setting up their own tent space, then joining us for the group things that we need to do."

Backcountry camping raises the ante on wilderness learning. Bay Area hikers are used to the luxury of pit toilets and water spigots. Yosemite campers, by contrast, set out with a trowel, a conversation about etiquette and the awareness they’re about to do things very differently.

"The realization that you’re not going to see a bathroom for a week - they were all very ready, albeit nervous," Bryant said.

Teen-friendly backpacking rations require equal consideration of weight, athletic fuel and personal preference. Dry and dehydrated staples such as couscous, red beans and rice, and falafel and hummus mix combine high protein with low weight in a pack. Hidden Villa’s campers personalize their own preferred high-energy trail mix for daytime snacking. (See sidebar below for inspiration for your own mix.)

The dinner option that entered Hidden Villa fame repurposed two teen favorites to present a well-rounded camp-stove meal.

"Pizzadillas are essentially just a crowd-pleaser," Douglas said. "Everyone loves pizza, and quesadillas are very easy to make. It is essentially just a quesadilla with some pizza toppings inside." (See recipe on page 7.)

Comfort food and a steady supply of Snickers bars help smooth the cold and exhausting parts of an ambitious trip. Mountain camping can be uncomfortable: Hikers may get rained on or spend the better part of an hour hunkered down in a defensive position as lightning passes by.

Building trust

Last year’s cohort elected to summit Clouds Rest, a nearly 10,000-foot peak, as an extra challenge. It’s a tough hike even for athletic adventurers, but pushing into an uncomfortable place is part of the program.

"A lot of it comes down to establishing trust," Douglas said.

Building a sense of community - the idea that taking inappropriate risks isn’t just dangerous for an individual, but also has consequences for the group - is part of developing a more nuanced understanding of personal choice and consequences. But beyond that, Douglas said, blossoms a different level of community, "the trust that they’re there to take care of each other."

"Anytime we’re taken to that edge and able to really find our own strength, even when we don’t have it, is just such a power moment," Bryant added. "There’s a lot of very profound self-care and community care that come out of making this decision to create this very intentional and kind of survival-based community."

According to Bryant, you need to be able to communicate well and turn the hard moments into light moments.

"There is a self-confidence aspect to this," she said. "You may not realize how much you’re getting ready to push yourself - and then you do." ◆

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