Who we are...

A couple of Berkeley natives, Eli Marienthal and Jesse Sachs - best friends and co-adventurers since high school - have spent their lives exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains and beyond. They are cooks, climbers, backpackers, cultivators, medicine makers, and hot springs enthusiasts. Their purpose as collaborators is to share the joy of cultivating kinship with the natural world.  

Jesse Sachs is the director and lead guide for Back to Earth. He is a passionate, nature-loving Renaissance man. He has spent hundreds of days backpacking, mountaineering, climbing and paddling in the Yukon, North Cascades and the wilds of California. He has received extensive training in outdoor education, leadership and wilderness medicine from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He is a certified Wilderness First Responder and has been trained in desert survival by the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.

Jesse Sachs began his backcountry cooking career more than a decade ago as a teenager in the Yukon. Here, he eats a meals he prepared for the group after a day on the glacier.

Jesse Sachs began his backcountry cooking career more than a decade ago as a teenager in the Yukon. Here, he eats a meals he prepared for the group after a day on the glacier.

Jesse has also kindled his passion for the natural world through a formal education in ecological design and the arts. He received a Permaculture Design Certificate from Bill Mollison in Australia and later received an MFA in Combined Media from Hunter College in Manhattan. His thesis project at Hunter consisted of a series of urban food-forests, participatory/educational paintings and a gallery exhibition of experimental cartography.

After spending four years in NYC, Jesse returned to his beloved Northern California to get closer to nature. He spent a year as manager of Oz Farm in Mendocino, where he led a small crew that operated a certified organic CSA and an apple orchard, all the while honing his skills as an herbalist. His broad experience connecting to and participating in nature serves as the foundation for his work as a guide.

"I have been madly in love with the wilderness for as long as I can remember.  Nature is not simply a place that you drive to and visit. We are all made of the stuff of the wild universe. Through Back to Earth, I get to hold a safe and joyful container for people to unplug, get out on the land and unify their internal and external natures." - Jesse

Eli Marienthal is the director of youth programs at Back to Earth.  He is an avid backpacker and rock climber who has spent much of his life exploring the mountains and deserts of California.  In 2014, Eli completed a three-year mentorship training program with The Tracking Project in New Mexico, a project designed for outdoor educators working at the nexus of natural and cultural awareness. He is a NOLS alumnus and a certified Wilderness First Responder.

Eli started climbing competitively more than two decades ago. At ten years old he was ranked second nationally in his age group. He continues to do it strictly for the love of the rock.

Eli started climbing competitively more than two decades ago. At ten years old he was ranked second nationally in his age group. He continues to do it strictly for the love of the rock.

A PhD candidate in the Geography Department at UC Berkeley, Eli has taught undergraduate courses in international development and post-colonial theory and written about urban development, dispossession and the politics of humanitarianism. He holds bachelor's degrees in international development and comparative literature and a master's degree in international development studies from Brown University.

Eli's creative practice is that of a poet, dancer, songwriter and spoken-word performer. He has a longstanding affiliation with Youth Speaks, the leading non-profit presenter of spoken word performance, education and youth-development programs in the country. He is a former Bay Area Youth slam champion, Youth National Team member and coach and has facilitated writing workshops in high schools, colleges, and prisons.

"The great joy of my own life comes from the reverence and awe I feel for the natural world, and my gratitude for being part of it.  Through Back to Earth I hope to share a sense of ease and safety at being in the outdoors that comes from reconnecting to the essential truth that we are part of this natural world and that a deeper relationship to it is always at our fingertips."  - Eli



Patrick Cook-Deegan guides Young Men's Wilderness Retreats with Back to Earth. A leader in wilderness-mindfulness and adolescent male education, Patrick's work draws on 10 years of mindfulness meditation practice and seven years working with Native-based outdoor educators. He is a graduate of a three-year mentoring program of the Tracking Project and the former West Coast director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, where he helped launch the wilderness program. In addition to his own mentoring platform for young men, he has taught semester-long mindfulness programming in both public and private schools and has led mindfulness and backcountry trips with Back to Earth, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, and UCLA-Mindful Awareness Research Center. He is a Wilderness First Responder, Level 1 avalanche certified, and a graduate of NOLS outdoor educator program.


What we're about...

Back to Earth provides experiences that celebrate life and enhance awareness of self, community and the Earth. The members of our team demonstrate excellence in their individual fields as well as a high level of backcountry technical competence. We take pride in our ability to craft journeys that meet the diverse needs of our clients. Whether you seek adventure, spacious time alone, the chance to make new friends or all of the above, you will find it with us.


Back to Earth has safely guided thousands of clients on hundreds of trips since its founding in 2001 by longtime friends Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel. They launched the company to realize the vision of a community space where people would gather to eat delicious food, exercise their bodies and minds and share inspiring explorations of the natural world.

During their tenure as lead guides, Eric and Ari worked with a range of individuals, non-profits and corporate partners to take groups into the wilderness for life-changing and community-building experiences. They developed a collaborative model in which they partnered with expert instructors to bring healing and creative arts - from qigong to watercolor - into the backcountry classroom. Cooking on small backpacking stoves, they pushed the bar in backcountry cuisine, demonstrating a passion for food that eventually led them to open the restaurants Gather and Verbena.  "Backcountry gourmet," as we call it, remains a centerpiece of all Back to Earth trips.

For the past four seasons, Dashielle Vawter served as director and lead guide at Back to Earth. Drawing on her extensive vision quest work, pastoral training, and experience in the back country, she developed a reputation as a thoughtful, compassionate and down-to-earth facilitator of powerful transformative experiences. She passed the torch to Jesse Sachs and Eli Marienthal in fall 2014.


From "Take a Hike" by Lauren Ladoceour in Yoga Journal
"The final steps toward the main road were both exciting and unnerving. The peaceful simplicity of our stay in the woods had made time feel irrelevant; there was nowhere else we had to be, nothing else we needed to do. In just a few days, I had let go of my life in the city, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back. I was already nostalgic about the intense connection with nature I’d experienced."

From "Back Country Bliss" by Debra Rubin in Yoga Journal
"The mere fact of being in the wilderness for more than an afternoon influenced my yoga practice in unexpected ways: Fending off the chill mountain air with layers of fleece and a wool cap while doing the postures reminded me to stoke my inner fire; dealing with sudden gusts of wind during balancing poses taught me to root myself more thoroughly and find a deeper poise than I’d previously been able to attain. More broadly, I found myself drawing strength and prana from the granite on which I stood. Practicing yoga alongside ancient mountains cultivated greater stillness—both mental and physical—within me, allowing me to enter my asana and meditation practices much more profoundly."

"l don't have any criticism, I really enjoyed everything about the trip. I loved learning about the basics of backpacking, the food was great & [Sarah] had great programming. The impromptu hike to North Dome was extremely memorable and the view from there will be forever imprinted in my mind. Additionally, the ending ceremony led by Jesse Sachs was very special. I felt like I got to leave a connection to my spirit in that part of earth." -Lety Gonzalez, Yosemite Trip Participant

"My time in Yosemite was awe-inspiring, transformational, and healing. I felt so deeply connected to Mother Earth and my fellow campers. Acroyoga and Thai Massage were perfectly symbiotic with hiking and camping. The food was amazing: I have many allergies and the chefs lovingly tailored meals to accomodate. Five stars all around!!" -Satya de la Paz, Yosemite Trip Participant

“Had the trip proven to be only ‘Yoga in Yosemite,’ I’m certain it would have been wonderful…but it was so much more. I came home more conscious and present than perhaps I’ve ever been. And when I begin to feel pushed or pulled away from my center, I have that space to return to – to return to me.” -Yosemite Trip Participant

“The trip left a deep impression on me. It felt like a spiritual turning point that altered my course ever so slightly back toward the natural world, and I’m so grateful for that. Every single person on the trip brought such richness to the community, and you were able to bring it out of each of us with your expert planning and direction. Thank you so much for that.” -Yosemite Trip Participant