Less than a week after my fourteenth birthday, I got onto a plane for the first time and alone I flew to Denver, Colorado. I was met at the airport by a shuttle that took me and a group of kids deep into the Rockies. I spent the next seventeen days hiking, sleeping under a tarp, climbing to the peak of a mountain, and crossing a canyon hanging on a wire.
I brought with me two pairs of pants (short canvas and long wool), two shirts (a t-shirt and a flannel button up), three pairs of wool socks, a pair of leather boots, a pair of sneakers, a bandanna, a hat, polypropylene long underwear, seven IB tampons packed individually in zip-lock baggies, and three pairs of underwear (I returned home in a clean pair - don't ever play "who has worn a single pair of underpants the longest," I will always win).
I was put in a group of 8 kids, none more than a year or two older than me, one girl a few days younger. There were 5 boys and 3 girls in my group and two group leaders. I can still remember most of the names of the kids in my group, though we didn't keep in touch. Justin and Brandt actually lived on the same street in Denver, but didn't really know each other. Katie's dad was an administrator at Choate and she went there for free and was pretty amazingly beautiful. Giovanni was there because he was getting in trouble at school and his parents thought this would straighten him out. Jenny was the one younger than me, only by days but she seemed a world apart. Richard was a whiner who really tested my patience for a good portion of the seventeen days. And that leaves one boy who's name I can't remember, but he was dark-haired and tall and very sweet.
The first night we slept 5 to a tarp we had stretched among the evergreens, 4 kids and one leader. I remember distinctly thinking I was surely freezing to death because I was so cold and could not stop shivering. I thought I was bound to be the first one stripped naked and shoved in a sleeping bag with one of the naked leaders to pull me back from the brink of hypothermia. So I rolled over to the leader and told her I didn't know what was wrong, I couldn't stop shivering, and I was surely near death. She told me to go pee. Apparently, when your bladder is full your body keeps the urine warm so it will not poison you and thus sacrifices the warmth from the rest of your body. Filed under: things I learned on the side of a mountain.
That is a picture looking back on Crystal Peak, I have a picture from the actual peak all of us smiling into the bitter wind, laminated even from when I put it in my freshman binder, but it is packed away somewhere. I really want to dig those out and hang them up like they deserve. The patch of snow you see near the peak (in July) was were we did snow school, which entailed us starting to slide down the mountain on our back, then flip over and dig our snow axes and tips of our boots into the snow. Sure we could have died, shattered on the rocks below, but really it was too much fun. Crystal Peak is so-named because there is a vein of crystals at the peak. I still have two small crystals I keep in a mason jar along with other small stones I collected during the course.
About halfway through the course, we hiked to a green narrow valley that had a rushing stream cutting through it, tall thin waterfalls pouring off the mountain across the stream, and was full of quaking aspens. We were each taken to a small patch of forrest and left there alone. We had a small tarp, a ground cloth and our sleeping bags, a package of nine crackers made from animal lard, twenty-eight raisins, and thirty-two peanuts, and a vile of iodine to clean water from the stream. And we stayed there for two days alone, this is the view from the spot where I solo'd:
We also dug two outhouse pits in the small little town of Crystal. We did a ropes course. We rock climbed and repelled. We hiked in the rain. All us girls stripped down to skivvies and jumped into a bitterly, piercingly cold pool in a mountain stream.
After all these years and years, after two decades, I still can't believe it was only seventeen days. My memories are still so vivid, so full I could go on and on here and never capture every moment, and especially not the quality of that time. I watched sunsets from mountain tops. I made food in the rain. I banged pots and pans to scare off marmots who were after my boot leather. I tested myself more than I knew I could be tested, pushed myself harder than I knew I was able. When the others didn't want to carry the 25lbs of climbing rope, I did for the next ten days in a pack that was already 60lbs. When we bickered who would carry the slimy, festering garbage one morning before a hike, I stuffed it under my climbing helmet and it smelled like rotten spaghetti for the rest of the course.
I am not sure that that everyone has an experience that is such a clear-cut life changing moment. At least not an experience that is not also filled with violence or grief. I am so lucky to be able to look back at that time and not only know that it changed me fundamentally as a person, clearly formed a core part of myself but that it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I have been lucky or blessed in a thousand ways in my life, but this time, those moments were so important and so amazing I can actually feel the warm weight of thankfulness and joy writing about it now.