Outdoor Adventurer Equally at Home in a Chemical Engineering Lab as in the Deep Woods
Although Ben Johnson has been facetiously compared to TV personality Bear Grylls, that whole extreme survival thing isn’t really his style. Still, for the past four years, when he wasn’t solving chemical engineering problem sets or working in professor Roseanne Ford’s lab as a chemE undergrad, you’d likely find him in the backcountry.
So, why did assistant professor George Prpich call you UVA’s version of Bear Grylls?
In our lab class we were doing this exercise to determine if a group collaborating together would truly provide better results than one mind alone. To evaluate this, there is an exercise called ‘The Desert Survival Game,’ where you rate a bunch of items from most to least important for desert survival as an individual, then as a group, and compare your ratings to come up with an ‘improved’ list. Once the lists are made, they are compared to the ratings of an expert who has actually had to survive in a desert awaiting rescue. It got out that I had the best score of anyone in the class by a large margin. Professor Prpich asked me why that was, so I shared with him that I am a semi-professional in the outdoor industry, and some of the adventures that I’ve been on.
As far as how extreme my adventures are, it varies. I love a short day hike to a swimming hole just as much as the next guy, but I’m mostly about seeing how far I can push myself into an uncomfortable and wild outdoor adventure situation. The more extreme adventures I’m into are long extended backpacking trips in the backcountry, rock climbing and bouldering, and whitewater canoeing. All of these sports I started as a participant, but through the years I’ve been able to get some good practice in and evolve into someone who regularly leads groups on these sorts of trips.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done? What’s been your favorite experience and why?
On a whim, I bought a plane ticket to Iceland with my roommate and backpacked the country for two weeks. Being the strapped-for-cash college students we are, our goal was to make the trip as cheap as possible. We packed our gear, bought all our food in the U.S., and hopped on a plane. When we got there, we drove a matchbox-sized car to the northwest corner of the country, and hired a boat to take us to a nature reserve called Hornstrandir, which had been abandoned in the 1950s due to harsh conditions and lack of infrastructure.
After the old fisherman boat captain verbally promised he would return for us, we spent a week schlepping our bags from bay to bay over mountain passes hidden in clouds and covered in snow, even in August. Sometimes the clouds would be so thick in the mountains, and the path would be so untrodden, that you couldn’t tell where you were supposed to go because the rock cairns guiding your way were too far apart and lost in the haze. While this doesn’t sound so extreme at first, something to know about backpacking in that environment is the constant exposure to the sky (there are essentially zero trees or places to get into shade), strong cold wind, lack of night since it was summer, and proximity to the Arctic Circle. It was some of the most beautiful and unforgiving backpacking I’ve ever done, and definitely the most difficult.
How did you get interested in these kinds of activities?
When I was younger, my best friend invited me on a camping trip. Little did I know, this camping trip was a self-sustained, weeklong whitewater canoeing and camping excursion. The trip was my first exposure to any real hardcore outdoors trips, and I was hooked. I went back year after year, and eventually ended up working at the very place that hosted the trip, Camp Bethel. Over four summers of work there, I continued to learn about the outdoor industry, and hone my skills as a leader in the backcountry, discovering what it meant to be ‘outdoorsy.’
This experience, paired with my hometown upbringing, combined to bring me to where I am now. Eagle Rock is the sort of small rural town where everyone knows everyone’s name, and there’s basically just a post office and gas station. My family has a history of small-scale farming in the area, and I’ve got a very close connection to that land and the associated rural way of life.
How committed do you have to be to this pastime, and what do you have to be prepared to endure?
Honestly, it can be pretty difficult to really chase these passions as a full-time student, especially as a chemical engineer. It’s no simple task to be involved with something as tiring and time consuming as serious outdoor adventure, while also balancing the frequent deadlines and large amounts of work in our curriculum. If you want to really commit to getting fully immersed in outdoor adventure as a student, you’ve got to be on top of your education. You’ve got to be prepared for the setback ahead of time, or just be willing to bear down and put your nose to the grindstone when you get back from a trip — which is, let’s be honest, the more common outcome.
Not to mention the physical hardship that comes with going on extreme outdoor adventures. Heading out into the backcountry for days at a time is not glamorous, and I don’t come back looking or smelling like some superhero conqueror of the West. It’s dirty and hard, but a whole lot of fun.
How does your most extreme experience compare to earning a degree in chemical engineering?
I really stand by a philosophy of a healthy work-life balance and separation, so I try to separate chemical engineering and extreme outdoor experiences in my mind when I can. That being said, there is a clear connection to the level of hardship and skill that has to be dealt with and attained in both. In chemical engineering, it is essential for you to have your technical STEM fundamentals down if you ever hope to design or run a large chemical process.
In the same way, when adventuring on your own in the outdoors without the safety net of connection to society, you must have practiced and proven fundamentals to get you where you want to go efficiently, and back from that place safely. Also, and maybe I’m a little strange in this way, but sometimes the allure of an activity lies solely in its difficulty. I find pleasure in the struggle of the pursuit for extremes outside, and in the same way, I can appreciate that I’ve really had to stretch and push myself to pursue my degree.
Why did you choose a degree in chemical engineering?
After considering biochemistry, I realized I value being a part of the moment where chemistry meets technology and moves from the lab to the real world. This matched my personality and interests, and I felt like I had the potential to make something real happen with my efforts.
What are some of your honors, awards and activities during your time at UVA?
Awards: Gregory J. Canty Research Awards
Activities: President, UVA Climbing Team; facilitator, Poplar Ridge, UVA’s team-building and challenge course; student coordinator, UVA Outdoor Adventure; route setter, UVA climbing gym
Internships and employment: Student researcher, Professor Roseanne Ford’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering; intern, Anheuser Busch Brewery Trainee Program, summer 2020 in Cartersville, Georgia; coordinator and counselor, Camp Bethel, Fincastle, Virginia
What was your undergraduate research project?
I was privileged to work in Dr. Roseanne Ford’s lab. My research focused on chemotactic bacteria’s relationship to soil percolation (water movement and filtering) thresholds, and how that influences the ability for nitrogen-fixing bacteria to arrive at leguminous plants.
What was the best part of your education at UVA?
The best part was finding and building up my community at the University. I wouldn’t say that my interests and hobbies are mainstream here, but there are some really excellent humans who are similar and have made college excellent for me — namely my main chemical engineering friends and the outdoors community, especially the climbing team and UVA Outdoor Adventure.
Where/what is your favorite local spot or activity to get away from the pressures of work and school?
My favorite local place is in the national forest climbing or hiking, but for a quick break almost nothing beats a nice evening in the front yard of my house (the UVA Climbing Team house) on Shamrock Road. You can find me in the yard slacklining, picking my banjo or just hanging around with my housemates.
What was hard about how COVID-19 affected your time at UVA? How did you make the best of it?
It has been really difficult to deal with how COVID has forced my community of climbers and outdoors people to separate so much. We are very community-focused, and it is really a shame when that is impeded. It has also been unfortunate to have to work over video calls with my close chemE friends. I have fond memories of late nights trying to solve problem sets together. Thankfully, I live with five of my closest friends, and we stick together like a family. With these folks constantly offering companionship, being around to get through the lows and celebrate the highs, it hasn’t been so bad to be locked up in a house.
What are your plans after graduation?
I will be starting full time in the Brewery Trainee Program with Anheuser-Busch in September. Until then, I will return for a fifth season at Camp Bethel as the assistant program coordinator of logistics.
Are there good backcountry trips close to Charlottesville you like or recommend to people?
The Three Ridges Hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a nice 15ish-mile loop that is very enjoyable with some good views and has a taste of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. My local climbing destinations are ‘The Forest,’ a bouldering field up on the parkway, and Love Gap. However, I’ll often take people trying to learn sport climbing to Manchester Wall on the banks of the James River in Richmond — a really good place to learn. You climb the supports of an old bridge!
I always have to point out, anyone who goes climbing should bring someone experienced with them, and strictly follow the leave-no-trace protocol. It’s important for their safety, the sanctity of these natural locations, and the local community to keep these areas well taken care of.
We have some great backcountry in our backyard, you just have to know where to go.