How do I even begin to tell you about this past week?! I have just had the experience of a lifetime with 9 amazing people, and many of you helped to make it possible. It’s hard to wrap my head around everything, and pictures only tell part of the story. I guess I will just have to start at the beginning…
July 6, Day 1 – Getting to Carbondale, CO
Two of the other mentors, Marie-Anne and Chelsey, picked me up at the hotel in Denver to go to the Big City Mountaineers (BCM) office. Marie-Anne is originally from Switzerland, has volunteered in the Denver office, and has a background in social work. Chelsey, a college student, has interned at BCM and mentored on a previous trip two summers earlier. On arrival at the office, we met the rest of the staff as well as Tracy – our trip leader – who also works as an environmental educator with the Appalachian Mountain Club. Turns out that the late spring out West put a little hiccup in our plans. Medicine Bow was still under snow, according to the morning’s trail report, so we needed to make a quick change in plans. Instead of heading North to Wyoming, we went West out to Carbondale, CO, where we would instead summit Oh Be Joyful Pass. After a quick orientation, MK – the After School Program Manager from Mercy Housing – arrived with the 5 girls.
It took us about an hour to get the girls all geared up. They chose sunglasses, hats, and socks to keep, as well as got fitted into packs, sleeping bags, and warm clothes – all donated gear to BCM. By 10:00 am, we were on the road to Carbondale. The first few hours in the bus were fairly quiet. While us adults chatted, most of the girls seemed extremely hesitant. When we reached Vail, we stopped for a picnic in a park. Thanks to a great playground, and a fairly involved game of tag, we started to see some smiles! A quick stop at Walmart to get 2 pairs of camp shoes for those girls who didn’t have any, as well as some awesome tie-dyed duck tape to make the girls some croakies, also didn’t hurt. The plan for the first day was to reach the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, where BCM had an arrangement to use their base camp and gym. However, this was a very hot and dusty location, so we didn’t want to get there too early in the day. When we reached Glenwood springs, we stopped again for a walk along the Colorado River. Most of the girls had never seen the Colorado before, and the walk along the trail was a totally new experience.
Upon arrival at base camp, we filled jugs with water, taught the girls to pitch a tent, and cooked dinner. It was very quiet. The girls were extremely nervous as they settled down that first night. Funny, they have gone through so much in their short lives but were still a bit apprehensive about sleeping in the dark.
July 7, Day 2 – Hitting the Trail
We started the girls early this second morning, as we needed to split up group gear and teach them how to load their packs. After a few hours of logistics, and some more name games, we hit the road for the Oh Be Joyful Trailhead. I can’t exactly explain where we were. It involved a 28 mile drive up an unpaved road to a parking area/horse park. Round trip, we expected to cover about 17 miles over the 5 days. While this does not sound like a lot, you have to understand that these girls had NEVER hiked before – unless you count their journeys to the refugee camps. They had never worn backpacks, or laced a pair of boots, or followed a trail. Most of them lead fairly sedentary lives, as the expectations of their families are for them to go to school, do their chores, learn English, and work to support the family. Extracurriculars, such as team sports, don’t exist in their worlds. In fact, for all but one girl who had played some soccer, being part of a team was a totally new experience.
By 1:00 that afternoon, we hit the trail. Tracy, our team leader, set the pace, and I acted as the sweep and brought up the rear. Less than 100 yards onto the trail, we needed to stop. Packs didn’t fit quite right, and we realized that none of the girls had laced their boots – so began “Beth’s School of Boot Tying.”
As we walked down the trail, I tried to talk with the young girl from Burma. She is 17 and has been in Denver for almost 2 years. I asked her if she had ever hiked before. She said, “no.” I asked if she had been on a mountain before. She hesitated and then answered, “Yes. We go over mountain to get to refugee camp in Thailand.” That should start to tell you a bit more about these girls.
By 6:30 that night, we had found a camp. The girls were exhausted, and it had started to rain. Luckily, there was a fire pit – definitely what salvaged the evening.
July 8, Day 3 – hike to base camp
Though we tried to get an early start, the girls weren’t moving too quickly. First, Chelsey had to give a group lesson in cat-hole (aka. pit toilet) digging. Then, Tracy did a foot check for hot spots and blisters. Finally, we reviewed boot tying. It took until almost 10:30 to start walking. There is no way around it. Day 3 was hard. We hiked about 4 more miles, most of it up hill. Though we lightened the girls packs, they still struggled with the load and the altitude. A 17 year-old girl from Nepal, served as our scout for the day. She struggled to maintain a consistent pace, stopping ever few yards to catch her breath. Despite a number of stops – one in a meadow full of wildflowers and another by a stream for lunch – the girls could not keep a consistent pace. By 4:30, thunderstorms were threatening and they were exhausted. Chelsey and I booked ahead of them to find camp, ditch our packs, and then come back to lend a hand. However, during all of this, three amazing events occurred.
First, as I mentioned, we started in the Aspen forests. The girls had never seen “trees with eyes.” However, by late afternoon, we had climbed up to the fir trees and evergreens. Tracy asked the group if they noticed anything different about the forest. A girl from Tanzania, said, “Yes. This is a happy forest! Not like the forest in Tanzania. That is scary forest. People go there and they get killed, or they get shot. The bad men live there. It very scary. This is not a scary forest.” The other girl from Tanzania, agreed, as did the one from Burundi.
Second, as the hiking became even steeper, we explained to the girls that they needed to encourage each other. With that, the girl who told the story about the scary forest jumped to the front of the line to help our scout keep the pace. We walked in cadence to her cheers. This may not seem too out of the ordinary; however, according to MK, lots of tension exists in Denver between the African and Asian refugee communities. The fact that these two girls supported each other was quite amazing.
After setting up tents in the rain, and scarfing down a hot dinner while huddled under the trees to stay dry, the sun reappeared and the clouds parted. More importantly, the girls started smiling! They ran up and down the hill behind the camp to get better views. They climbed up to a rock perch to look out over Buck Basin below our camp. After cocoa – which turned out to be boiled pudding mix in the end (minor detail) – they started to sing, dance, and play games. Despite the challenges of the day – in fact, the word of the day had been endure – they went to bed happy and ready for the next challenge.
July 9, Day 4 – Summit Day
To avoid afternoon thunderstorms, we hit the trail by 7:30. The plan was to hike up to Oh Be Joyful Pass. For four days, they had been excited about “going to climb the mountain.” We left most of our gear at base camp, and shared packs to lighten the load. For most of the morning, the girls sang as they hiked, smelled wildflowers, took pictures, and chatted as they made their way to the pass. However, just before noon, as the switch backs became steeper, they became silent. We adults encouraged and prodded them to keep going at a nice, slow, steady pace. It was pretty vertical as we gained just over 1,000 feet over 1.5 miles. However, when our scout for the day, saw the sign marking Oh Be Joyful Pass, she broke into a run. The girls dashed to their summit, cheering loudly.
From that moment forward, the dynamics of the group shifted. They laughed and smiled more easily. Some of the stoicism that marked the first few days melted. As you look through my pictures, you can see the difference. We celebrated that night with a campfire and more melted pudding. All of the girls talked about how proud they were to have climbed the mountain.
July 10, Day 5 – Back down the trail
The problem with out-and-back trails is that the half-way point is also the turn-around. On Day 5, we headed back down the trail towards Marge (our bus). By this stage in the trip, the girls were getting tired. At least it was all down hill! Our goal for the day was to find the lake that we missed on our first night out. As we hit the trail, I hung with Bakti, whose role was to be the sweep for the day.
By Day 5, I had become enamored with my new teaching strategy – to just be quiet. With this group of girls, I found that I listened way more than I spoke. That I was much softer and quieter. They needed neither a cheerleader nor an authority figure. These girls thrived by having a guide. So, given this new strategy, I asked the young girl from Nepal to tell me a story, and then, I waited. After a few minutes, in her very quiet and broken English, she told me about how her family fled from Bhutan to Nepal when she was 2. They then lived in the refugee camp in Nepal for 12 years, waiting to get asylum from the UN. Because of the strikes, and their ethnicity, her father could not find work. Finally, they were relocated to Denver through the UN Refugee Placement Service. Though already 17, she had just finished the 10th grade. She likes math, and wants to be an accountant. Her parents have never even been to high school. She is supposed to take care of her siblings and set the example for them.
Throughout the day, massive thunderstorms ran parallel to our trail. By sweating profusely in our rain gear, we were able to stave them off – gotta’ love Murphy’s Law! Around 2:00 that afternoon, we reached the location where we had camped the first night, but still had not passed this mysterious lake. Despite the rain, the girls wanted to keep hiking. Several yards later, we found the lake.
We couldn’t have asked for a better campsite for our last night in the backcountry. With the mountains towering over us, and the flowers dotting the landscape, it was the perfect location for the girls to play, explore, dance, and sing. (There is video footage of the wilderness congo line as well as the Pony Dance on my Flickr page.) They even took initiative cooking dinner, though I’m not sure if I would care to replicate Macaroni ‘n’ Cheese & Rice again!
July 11, Day 6 – Clean Up
The girls were ready for showers and clean clothes, so it was a fairly quick last 3 miles to the bus. Upon returning to CRMS, they cleaned gear and did laundry before happily taking over the gym showers. However, the adventure wasn’t completely over, and the girls still had a few firsts on this last full day: slurpees at 7-11 and dinner in a restaurant. Yes, it is a bit hard to believe, but these girls had never been out for pizza before. They felt terrified as we walked them into the restaurant. However, crayons, kids’ menus, and the world cup on TV brought them back out of their shells fairly quickly. Funny how pizza was the one common food they all enjoyed!
July 12, Day 7 – Back to BCM
I think the girls slept for most of the ride back to Denver. With the adrenaline gone, they were exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally. We returned the gear, did one last Pony Dance in the parking lot, and then they headed home.
It is amazing to think about how much 5 girls gained from 7 days in the woods. From Day 1 to Day 7, they learned about Achievement, Endurance, Perseverance, Leadership, and Teamwork. I think I had a few great lessons in these areas as well.
So, if you’ve read this far, I’m pretty psyched. If you’d like to check out my photos, here are my photos (the videos are at the end of the slideshow):
If you feel inspired by my post, you can still donate online to my Summit With Someone campaign (or send checks made out to Big City Mountaineers):
While I’ve surpassed my goal to fund the trip for my group, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to give a similar opportunity to another set of teens.
Finally, thank you again to everyone who has supported my work with Big City Mountaineers over the past year and a half. I hope you realize how much your donation means to these teens.