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Walking along the hiking trail, its gentle slope carving through the greenish-brown meadow, my heartbeat pounded in my eardrums, and my stomach was aquiver with nerves. As we passed wispy pine trees and clusters of cheery aster flowers lit up in summery hues of lavender and yellow, I couldn’t quiet my anxiety; there was no trace of the calm I would feel on a typical hike in my beloved Rocky Mountains.
But this was no typical hike, made clear as Bear Grylls Survival Academy guide Ryan Flaherty signaled our group to stop, pulling his canteen from his backpack and crouching as he poured water in a tiny puddle.
“Time for muddin’ up!” he said, stirring his fingers in the chocolaty paste he’d conjured from earth and water, smearing it on his face and arms while asking us to do the same. It was the first of many out-of-my-comfort-zone tasks I’d be asked to complete last August during the 24-hour survival course at Colorado’s Snow Mountain Ranch.
“It’s really good natural protection from UV rays and bugs like mosquitoes,” Flaherty said of the mud, which also masked our scent from forest critters. “Plus, it just feels good. You’ve got to pay a lot for this at the spa.”
I chuckled amid our group of 10 — seven survival students that included my husband, Michael, me and three guides — the laughter temporarily quieting my self-doubt.
To be sure, the course offered far greater challenges than “muddin’ up,” including foraging, rappelling, tracking and fire-starting, to name a few. The one I dreaded most, though — even more than sleeping overnight beneath a self-made shelter — was eating grubs and earthworms, which I swallowed in disgust without chewing, determined not to put in writing that I had chickened out on one of the Academy’s least perilous exercises.
But we all emerged triumphant the next day from Gaylord Reservoir, soaked from swimming its width fully clothed, our packs heavy with water — the course’s final challenge. From there, it was, literally and figuratively, all downhill.