What defines wilderness? This is the question that the Partners in the Park participants were asked to explore during our week in Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Park. As a typical engineer, my response when this question was first proposed was to do the simple, logical act of looking up the definition of the word. Defining a word is not something that warrants deliberation and introspection. However, after hearing the responses and thoughts of other students, I realized that a word like wilderness can indicate vastly different things to varied people. During my week in the park, I hoped to generate my own personal definition.
One of the day hikes that we completed was from Monarch Lake to Columbine Lake, which consisted of about a two-mile hike straight up Sawtooth Pass during which about 2,000 feet of elevation were gained. On top of these tough conditions, the terrain was mostly sandy gravel (Think “one step forward, two steps back”). After a tough hike up the pass, we reached the top and stopped for lunch. At this point, the trip leader gave students the option of either immediately continuing the hike down to our campground or hiking up to Sawtooth Peak before doing so. A handful of others and I decided to make the hike to the top, which actually ended up being more of a climb. We ended up getting lost on the way down and this little excursion ended up taking seven hours, during which I frequently felt tested by the difficulty of the climb and convinced that we would never find our way back. In the end, this ended up being the highlight of the trip for me, as it was a genuine adventure.
On the hike back over the pass the next day, we saw a helicopter circling the general area, which we had also seen the previous day. Upon reaching our camping spot, a swarm of rangers in the area informed us that a woman had been missing for five days. She was an avid hiker who had gone alone on a day hike and never returned. A short time later, a ranger told us that her body had been found on the climb to Sawtooth Peak, and we realized that we had probably come within fifty feet of her body the previous day. A woman had literally lost her life climbing what we had just climbed. This profound occurrence made me realize the depth of difficulty and danger associated with what we had accomplished and aided me in the realization of what defines wilderness.
Wilderness is powerlessness. It is knowing that despite all the experience you may have and preparations you have made, there are things in nature that simply cannot be overcome. It is a test, mentally and physically. Experiencing wilderness is a life-changing event that leaves a person with a vast sense of achievement and awe.
This trip was an unforgettably amazing experience, and I feel so privileged that the Honors program allowed me to take advantage of such a unique opportunity. I hope that my photographs from the trip help to convey the beauty and marvel that I found while experiencing wilderness.
Jessica Hohenstein, Mechanical Engineering