The Wonders of Winter: Living and Thriving in the Utah Desert
FEATURED AUTHOR: The Open Sky Team
Every October, Open Sky’s course area moves from the high mountains of Colorado to the desert canyon country of southeastern Utah. With its sweeping vistas and crisp night skies, the desert offers a particularly expansive and striking landscape. The climate is hospitable, precipitation is infrequent, and sunshine is plentiful. At Open Sky, we take the utmost care to attend to students’ physical needs so they can remain healthy and comfortable as they engage in deep, therapeutic work. Indeed, winter in the desert is a particularly powerful time to enroll in wilderness therapy and can even enhance the overall therapeutic experience.
During the winter, Open Sky implements specific winter wilderness risk-management practices and protocols that encompass all aspects of our programming. From shelters to gear to nutrition to staff training and education, we carefully consider every aspect of our approach to winter programming.
Each group’s base camp is furnished with a large tipi, a canvas wall tent with a wood-burning stove, and a covered camp structure, which provide teams with shelter and warmth during winter. These structures also provide areas to gather, prepare food, eat meals, and dry gear.
Winter in the desert typically features clear skies and mild temperatures (the average high ranges from 41-61° F). If inclement or unusually cold weather (below 10° F) is in the forecast, however, students do not leave base camp for expedition and stay comfortable in their shelters during passing storms or cold snaps.
At Open Sky, we consistently evaluate our infrastructure needs and make any necessary investments to ensure we provide a quality experience for students. As we transition into the winter season, our field and operations team are hard at work expanding and fortifying wall tent pads, updating heating systems, rebuilding fire pits, weather proofing trail systems, and optimizing sites to improve visibility for supervision.
Every student is outfitted with exceptional gear designed specifically for winter conditions. This gear includes:
Average low temperatures in the desert at this time of year range from 20-32° F. The sleeping bags we use at Open Sky are rated to -30° F, so students stay warm and comfortable as they sleep. Our field staff also teach students how to make a “warm buddy” – a Nalgene water bottle filled with hot water and wrapped in sock – to add to their sleeping bags for extra coziness.
Open Sky modifies its diet during winter to include more calorie-dense foods, such as extra protein, butter, peanut butter, and nuts, so that sufficient calories are consumed to offset additional energy demands of winter temperatures. We also provide frequent, hot beverages and carefully monitor students’ water intake and hydration.
Open Sky field staff are highly qualified and experienced outdoor professionals committed to students’ physical and emotional well-being. All field staff are certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR) and have completed a mandatory curriculum for winter wilderness risk management training. During the winter, field staff carry out extremities checks (hands, feet, and head) a minimum of three times per day and more frequently in specific situations. Open Sky also has an around-the-clock field manager and field medic who live in base camp 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The field medic is a certified Wilderness EMT or registered nurse, available to rapidly respond to any illness, injury, or emergency.
Furthermore, our emergency response team meets quarterly to address seasonal needs and prepare for any potential response scenarios. These meetings are required for program management, field guides, operations staff, and field managers. Additionally, we hold a weekly 90-minute field staff training to address safety, wilderness skills, course curriculum, and other risk-management topics.
Living amidst the winter elements provides students with unique opportunities to increase competence and resiliency.
Meeting basic needs, such as practicing good hygiene and staying warm, dry, hydrated, and nourished, takes extra effort in the winter, and that effort generates esteem. The modern world is filled with immediate conveniences, and many students come to Open Sky having never experienced what it’s like to attend to their own self-care. They may feel anxious or depressed. We help them build the skills to show competency and thrive.
As students gain skills to stay comfortable in the desert in winter, they not only feel better physically, but also feel a sense of confidence, pride, and self-efficacy. There is therapeutic value in taking responsibility. The more ownership and responsibility our students take, the more empowered they feel. And the more empowered they feel, the more ready they are to engage in therapeutic work. It is a simple but profound experience.
There is a special element to winter that facilitates a group coming together to support and care for one another. Because the sun sets earlier during this time of year, everyone naturally gravitates toward the fire, whether it’s during meal preparation, eating, or enjoying some tea or hot chocolate in the evening. Gathering around the fire is a unifying experience that has connected generations of humankind.
Additionally, a lot of effort goes into taking care of base camp, building group shelters, and tending to fires in winter. Each person’s contributions are essential to the entire group being more comfortable, which promotes cohesion, togetherness, and accountability. Before coming to Open Sky, students often feel alone and isolated. Their experience while with us helps create meaningful opportunities for them to contribute to and bond as a group.
Winter is one of the best elements to dissolve the barriers that are preventing students from being receptive to therapy. Boundaries in the field aren’t hierarchical in the same way they are in students’ lives back home. When challenges arise in the wilderness environment, everyone – students, therapists, and field staff alike – experience and respond to them. A sense of bonding comes from the common experience of problem solving, working together, and sharing successes. Winter has a levelling effect that helps students see the guides and therapists in a different way than they may have previously looked at other authority figures. Students’ defenses start to come down, and they become more receptive to engaging in therapeutic work.
Not only does our winter course area have a uniquely beautiful landscape, it also holds evidence of civilization that shows there has been a vitality in the region that well exceeds modern America. The winter course area is not far from Mesa Verde National Park, the first and only national park designated for cultural preservation, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. It is not uncommon for students to come across remnants of the ancient Puebloan people. They hike to granaries, observe petroglyphs, or even discover pottery shards. For a lot of our students, their sense of the world and themselves is still emerging. The understanding that people survived and thrived in this landscape before them widens their worldview, develops a sense of curiosity, and gives them confidence that they too can survive and thrive in the wilderness. They feel connected to something bigger than themselves, which is an effective antidote to the “me and I” focus that is so prevalent in social media and modern American culture.
Winter is a uniquely powerful time to enroll in wilderness therapy. When students complete a winter stay at Open Sky, they leave with not only a new set of skills but a tremendous sense of pride, empowerment, and confidence, attributes that will serve them well as they navigate life’s future challenges.