Peak performance

Junior Lexi Lutz tests her strength on an 18-day wilderness expedition

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Ross Lesslie

After waking up at 4 a.m. and summiting the first mountain of the day, junior Lexi Lutz (third from the left) pauses to take a victory picture with her team at the peak. To get to this point, Lutz traveled through miles of technical terrain along a steep slope with eroded and loose rocks. “We summited three peaks that day and rested in between the peaks, because it shielded us from bad weather,” Lutz said. “The first peak was great, and it was a beautiful view; I was hardly tired. [Throughout the day], we traveled across so much land and my legs felt stiff and tired. The walking felt endless but I felt really accomplished and connected to nature when I got back down.”

In early May, junior Lexi Lutz interviewed to be a part of a program for the Montana Wilderness School, a non-profit organization based in Bozeman, Mont. that provides wilderness education for teenagers. Lutz was selected to go on a high-level backpacking expedition that lasted for 18 days and consisted of never-ending camping, hiking, summiting and ice-climbing.

Six months before the trip, Lutz received instructions from the wilderness school detailing practice hikes to practice carrying heavy equipment while hiking. She also did intensive weight training at the gym to help prepare. Lutz went on the trip alone, catching a three-hour flight to Bozeman on June 14. A course member picked Lutz up in Bozeman, and she stayed in the school’s home base cabin for the first night. She met her two instructors and three trip members there, and the group set off the next day for an intense wilderness expedition.

“I was really nervous going to a place I had never been with people I didn’t know. I had no idea what was really [lying ahead]. I knew it was going to be a huge challenge, but that was why I came on the trip. I wanted to find myself and [grow] by pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” Lutz said.

Lutz carried all of her camping, summiting and hiking gear in her backpack, and she needed a team member’s help to put it on as the backpack amounted to 60 pounds when it was fully equipped. Lutz carried all of her personal gear and belongings, however common items that the entire group used were divided among the team members. Some of her gear included climbing equipment and even an ice axe.

“It was super hard to carry a 60-pound backpack. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It was not just physically tiring, but mentally tiring. I wanted to turn around, to stop, to go back. I feel like I didn’t have any time for my body to recover. Every day got easier though. I was gliding by the end; I didn’t even feel the weight on my back,” Lutz said. “I was in some of the best shape of my life after that trip and I just felt really strong. I wasn’t even thinking about how much faster I was moving.”

Summiting, or climbing to a mountain’s highest peak, was a common activity during the expedition. Normally, the group would set up camp at the mountain’s base, pack the necessary gear and other materials in their backpack and set off with a large jug of water. While not a probability, the instructors always came prepared with the safety equipment necessary for fatal accidents. Despite the high risks, Lutz was not concerned at all by the possibility of an accident. 

“In case a big rock fell on someone’s leg, we would wrap it in a sleeping pad. We [also] brought a sleeping bag for warmth in case we got stranded,” Lutz said. “I wasn’t actually worried something like that would happen, not at all. I’m very brave; I never think anything bad is going to happen, which can be bad sometimes. But we all knew what we were doing, and we were staying safe.”

Lutz and her team set off at dawn to reduce the possibility of getting caught in a storm. The weather at the summits typically rolled in around noon, and the team would get up at 4 a.m. to avoid any bad weather.

In between summits, junior Lexi Lutz took a quick photo of the mountain views. (Lexi Lutz)

“If you’re at the peak when the storm hits, you will die. You will just blow off the mountain. We were prepared by just waking up really early and being on our way down by the time the clouds came in the morning,” Lutz said. 

Although no one got hurt while summiting or hiking, there were some things that went wrong during the trip. The team used an electric bear fence to protect their food from unruly animals, which stopped working once during the night. There was no bear attack, but a marmot did get into the food and eat all of the team’s hot sauce. Towards the last few days of the trip, the team also did not ration correctly and had to go without food during the day until the expedition ended.

“We had this hike that was nine miles, which mountain miles are longer with going uphill with full packs. We had to go the entire day without any food. All we had was a handful of trail mix and half a bag of dried apple rings, which were rationed for two people. We split it between all of us,” Lutz said. “Our instructors had their own rations, and my instructor gave me one dried apricot. I was grateful because I didn’t want to take their food, but I was kind of upset too. I felt like I had no energy to go off of and I felt extremely weak and tired. As the day went on, my feet were dragging because I was moving so slowly. The hike felt like it went on forever and I just wanted to finish.”

Although it would be hard for anyone to go without food for a day, Lutz and her team were fighting calorie deficiency. With hiking or summiting every day, setting up and breaking down camps and learning about survival, Lutz was burning more calories than what was strictly healthy.

“We ate M&M’s for lunch one day because we didn’t have any meals left. It was four days like that, [with little food]. The last day was when we made it back, and they had a big dinner for us waiting,” Lutz said. “I had thought about the dinner for four days, [about] how good it was going to be. That was the first time I ate meat in 18 days, and it tasted like the best thing I’d ever had.”

With still several days left to go and no energy left, Lutz was rapidly losing motivation for finishing the expedition. The three other people on Lutz’s team helped her get through the challenging moments by reminding her why she came. While she is now only in touch with one of them, Lutz appreciates the memories she got to make with her team members.

“[My teammates] told me, ‘you wanted to push yourself, to grow from this. We are going to take this to our advantage and learn from this experience and finish it out. That’s what we came here to do and that’s all we can do because we’re stuck in the middle of the woods. We can’t go anywhere,’” Lutz said. “The people on my trip were really kind, and they taught me so many things. They all came from different places, [including Milwaukee and Canada], and they taught me how to be self-aware, communicate and work together. We laid out one night in our sleeping bags under the stars, and the whole entire sky was lit up. It was so clear because there was no [light] pollution and it was really beautiful.”

I was totally positive and loving of everything that I saw when I got back. I spent time with myself and understood myself. I felt completely reborn, and I had so much love in my heart for myself when I came back home. [The trip is] something I’m never going to forget.”

— Lexi Lutz

The 18-day expedition posed many physical and mental challenges, but Lutz believes that overcoming those challenges allowed her to grow and better herself. Lutz says the trip also helped her realize her capabilities.

“One of the main things I learned is not to take my stress out on other people. I would yell at everybody and I realized that it totally put the group mood down. So I learned to keep my stress to myself so I don’t stress everyone else out too,” Lutz said. “I’m always going to remember how big of an accomplishment this trip was to me, because I didn’t think I could do it or make it to the end. I did make it to the end, but it was a really big challenge.”

According to Lutz, the expedition completely altered her perspective on her life. She felt much more grateful than before for the things in her home, such as a bed or a shower.

“Food tasted amazing when I got home. I didn’t look at my phone for two weeks. I was totally positive and loving of everything that I saw when I got back. I spent time with myself and understood myself,” Lutz said. “I felt completely reborn, and I had so much love in my heart for myself when I came back home. [The trip is] something I’m never going to forget.”