Personal Statement: Climb every mountain

Monday, October 2, 2017 - 7:12pm

Students hike through Paintbrush Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.

Students hike through Paintbrush Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

 

The first mountain I climbed in Wyoming wasn’t even really a mountain. Mt. Ann is located directly behind Camp Davis, the Rocky Mountain Field Station owned and operated by the University of Michigan where students of all majors can take earth, environmental, American culture and ecology classes during the summer — so it’s a typical first hike for new students. When my class of about 20 students arrived after a two-and-a-half-day cross-country caravan trip, we were told that we would be the next group to make the inaugural climb and that it would be an easy hike — the perfect starting point for a month of intense summits.

The hike began with our professors taking the lead while the class fell into a single-file line behind them. Our GSIs rounded up the back, carrying a cumbersome whiteboard for field lectures and prepared with bear spray and satellite radios. To my embarrassment and surprise, I found myself literally huffing and puffing after the first five minutes. All I could think was: "When will this incline end? It has to flatten out eventually. I can’t breathe!" Our professors noticed our sluggish pace and made several educational stops where we identified flowers and trees.

For me, the breaks were never long enough. As we climbed, I started to doubt myself.

If this were supposed to be our easiest hike, how was I going to survive the rest of the month? Worst-case scenarios were playing through my head, the most dramatic of which involved me calling home for a plane ticket back to Michigan.

I had never been so relieved and proud as the moment I reached the top of Mt. Ann after six hours of hiking. Surrounded by bright-yellow wildflowers and a view of the Grand Tetons in the distance, we sat down and had class right there on top of the mountain.

The rest of my month at Camp Davis was spent climbing actual mountains, as I would later learn to differentiate between the “glorified hill” that is Mt. Ann and the overwhelming monstrosities which are the Grand Tetons.

We hiked to an elevation of 11,000 feet on our first Teton hike, which dwarfed Mt. Ann in elevation and distance. As we walked, the trail transformed from forest, to open flower covered hills, to snow covered inclines that lead to snowball fights, belly slides, and a dramatic slip-and-slide trip back down. Making it to the top was even more rewarding than Mt. Ann and the view made every mile worth it. There was a palpable excitement as we all took photos, gathering for a group picture with the block 'M' Michigan flag prominently featured. We still had a quick lesson, scribbling in our orange field notebooks as our professor described the life of 500,000-year-old stromatolites that were still present at the top.

I was exhausted by the time we made it back down, but I could already tell I was becoming acclimated to my new life in Wyoming. My tolerance for the thin air was growing, my body didn’t protest like it had on my first climb and I wasn’t plagued with thoughts of self-doubt, but was instead surprisingly impressed by my accomplishment.

On our second free day, we were fresh off a four-day camping trip in Yellowstone, and had chosen to camp in the Gros Ventre range and spend the Fourth of July in the Tetons. The crowds were intense due to the holiday, but we were determined to make it to Phelps Lake, where there was a perfect rock for cliff jumping. The class had split into groups for various activities, but each of us made it to the rock at some point that day, all with the intention of jumping into the freezing glacial melt.

My stomach had been turning all morning in anticipation and my anxiety grew rapidly as I watched my friends jump off one by one, some more gracefully than others. By the time it was my turn, I had already been sitting at the top for what felt like hours, nervously talking to people who had already jumped several times, trying to gain some confidence from their experience. Every time I approached the edge I was pulled back by the sight of the water 20 feet below me and the jutting edge of the rock — I’d have to propel myself forward to avoid it.

When I finally made the jump after at least 20 false starts, I was rewarded by cheers and applause that drowned out my scream. I collided with the icy water in a discombobulating blast. The fall was disorienting as the high drop leaves you in the air far longer expected. I came out of the water to another round of applause (I’m sure the other tourists were just happy that I was finally off the rock) as I swam to the edge where my classmates were waiting.

Like most of my Camp Davis experiences, I was surprised by and proud of myself. Just as I would have regretted not going to Camp Davis or not finishing the first hike, I would have left Phelps Lake hating myself if I were the only person who didn’t experience the jump. While not all my challenges in Ann Arbor can be equated to those at Camp Davis, it is comforting to think that if I jumped 20 feet into an icy lake or hiked to 11,000 feet I can pretty much do anything.

On the last day our class we hiked Mt. Ann together one last time. We had just taken our final exam and spent the day relaxing in Jackson. We all wanted to end our trip the way it started. It had been just over three weeks since our first hike, but everything had already changed drastically. The hike was familiar yet entirely different as the trail had grown over and new wildflowers had come into season while the old ones now towered above our heads. But we had grown too. What had once been a challenging six-hour endeavor was now a relaxing and nostalgic conclusion that barely lasted an hour and a half.

While I had been looking forward to attending Camp Davis since high school, I was still nervous about the challenge that committing to a monthlong class in Wyoming with 20 strangers would bring. Everything about it was out of my comfort zone, but I knew that not only did I have to do it — it’s one way to fulfill the practical experience requirement for the PitE major — but I wanted to do it. As stressful as those first few days were, I am so thankful that I didn’t let my fear and anxiety hold me back.

My time at Camp Davis reinforced my passion for the environment and my confidence — personal and academic.  

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