I have nothing but respect for Fort Lewis College students.
We take young minds and hope to inspire and prepare students for a lifetime of learning and diverse careers, yet often our students inspire us. They lead by example and prove that the next generation is ready and capable to tackle our nation’s dilemmas.
Take Anthony Reinert, for instance. He is earning dual majors in business and environmental studies. In my environmental history class, he enjoyed lectures about Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, so the next summer he canoed the entire Missouri River with two other FLC students, taking water samples and studying river changes over the last 200 years. To survive high winds on 60-mile-long reservoirs, he created an outrigger for their canoe made out of Styrofoam, plastic pipe and whatever else they could find at a North Dakota Walmart.
This summer, his outdoor leadership skills increased exponentially. He molded a team of FLC student climbers to ascend 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado for Climb Out of the Darkness, a project to raise awareness of mental health.
The seven-member team began June 8 and finished Aug. 19 after climbing 57 peaks for a whopping elevation gain of 175,000 feet. Imagine climbing Mount Everest six times in 10 weeks! That’s what these students accomplished. Their earliest start was at 2 a.m., but their average departure time from camp began at 4:45 a.m. In total, they hiked 400 miles. Of seven team members, five completed group goals.
“From the beginning, the expedition was my brainchild,” said Reinert. “The passion that exists for mountains here in Colorado is inspiring, and I felt the call. I was able to gather around me an amazing group of people that care about climbing mountains and the cause of mental health.
“It is a cause that is near to my heart as many in my family have struggled with dark nights of the soul, including myself,” he said. “In many ways, climbing peaks was our personal catharsis.”
Sponsors of the climb included Osprey Packs, Mountainsmith, Durango Outdoor Exchange, Chinook Medical Gear, Tailwind Nutrition, Smartwool, Mountain Chalet, Goddess Garden Organics and Postpartum Progress. The team raised $2,000 in cash for expenses and $3,000 in donated gear and equipment. Strategic planning involved finding the best climbing routes, pacing the climbs close to one another, driving to nearby trailheads, setting up camp and then hiking out in the predawn.
“Every day, just waking up knowing that the team was there and our day’s challenge was only a few miles and a few thousand vertical feet away from completion was enough to keep a sublime high going all summer,” said Matthew David Cranston.
But climbing Colorado Fourteeners in rain, sleet, hail and snow was not without its dangers.
Another former student of mine, Daniel Frauenhoff, tells a gripping story of a narrow mountain chute and whizzing rocks.
“My first major climbing challenge of the trip occurred on Little Bear Peak” he said. “The climb was an overall success as myself and four members of the team were able to summit one of the most difficult Fourteeners. Little Bear has a prominent feature that all climbers must pass through known as the Hourglass. The lower portion is a Class 4 gully of solid rock that is nearly vertical and partially covered by running water. At points, it is no more than 10 feet wide. Above this chokepoint, the gully widens significantly and solid rock gives way to extremely loose talus. Any rock kicked loose from the pitch above will funnel through the narrow gully below at tremendous speed.
“On the climb up the Hourglass, our team of five divided into groups of two and three to minimize the rock fall hazard,” he said. “This would be the team’s first Class 4 of the trip. A narrow summit and cloudy weather prompted us to descend in good time, reaching the top of the chokepoint in the Hourglass. At this point, a fixed rope trails down the steepest parts of the gully to assist less confident climbers.
“Everyone was wearing a helmet on the climb and had a harness with a repel device if necessary,” he said. “I chose not to use the rope and began to down-climb the gully. Moments later, a yell from above echoed. ‘Rock!’ A softball-sized rock picked up speed as it whizzed past Seth above, narrowly missing him.
“I pressed my body into the wall and tightened my grip, making sure to keep my head down (never look up at a falling rock) just as the rock deflected off the top of my helmet, jarring my head as it picked up speed,” he said. “Rattled by the incident, I quickly made the decision to use the rope after all to speed my descent from the gully, fearing more rocks from above.”
A few minutes later, Cranston was hit in the hand by a rock dislodged by a marmot. The Hourglass had clearly shown its danger on the descent, though the team kept cool and finished without injury.
Surrounded by external dangers, team members also faced internal challenges. They had to climb personal summits of anxiety, fear and self-doubt.
“I faced the hardest time of my life the winter prior to the expedition. I wanted to kill myself – for three months,” said Seth Pooler. “I am glad I had this trip to invest my time and energy in. I don’t think I would’ve made it without having this goal.
“The expedition was not easy, but I had my team supporting me,” he said. “Through the stormy weather, muscle-straining ascents and bone-jarring descents, through pure absolute exhaustion: I had my team. Through the sunrise-summits, breathtaking scenery, congratulatory beer and absolute sense of accomplishment: I had my team. We had each other. I sure as hell could not have done it without them.”
Fort Lewis College students took classroom lessons to the top of Colorado’s highest peaks. Those leadership lessons included teamwork, camaraderie, collaboration and setting and completing goals.
“We climbed physical mountains to represent the mental mountain some face when they climb out of bed,” said Aaron McDowell, who has also volunteered for Engineers Without Borders.
“Each day was the same challenge: summit. Each day the challenge was different: new obstacles, routes and conditions,” he said. “No two mountains are the same. The more challenging the peak, the greater the high: North Maroon, Capitol, La Plata and Mount Massive were such summits for me.
“Most mornings, we hurt. Hurt badly,” he said. “Sometimes it was mental, others it was physical. Having a team that counted on me, as we counted on each other, motivated me to crawl from my toasty sleeping bag hours before dawn, strap up gaiters and face the mountain with them.”
One of the team members’ greatest difficulties was returning to their student lives.
“The largest challenge to the expedition was being finished with it,” Cranston said. “I had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle that I had fallen in love with; seeing a new spectacular place every day with a team to support and encourage us.”
The Climb Out of Darkness Team succeeded. After days of summiting peaks and recovering from strained muscles, on Oct. 3 team members enjoyed the plush surroundings of the Denver Downtown Sheraton Hotel for the Mental Health of America Colorado Tribute Gala. No more sleeping bags. Clean sheets.
As the team stood on stage and explained its summer challenge and its dedication to mental health awareness, 600 people in the audience gave them a standing ovation. Twice.
Now, you know why I respect Fort Lewis College students.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com