After six years as a camper and four years as a backpacking counselor at Cheley, in 1988 I signed up for a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to broaden my experience, to get beyond the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and also to see if the backcountry skills I had learned and practiced were universal. Did the skills and knowledge I learned at Cheley line up with what other backpackers, hikers, and climbers were doing in the mountains? Could I “hang” with them? So I embarked on a 35 day mountaineering course in the Alaska Range, traveling over, living on, and climbing up ice and glaciers in the shadow of Mt. Denali. The verdict? A definitive ‘YES.’ Cheley taught me very well, and I have since gone on to build a career leading and educating others in the outdoors and pursuing my own adventures around the world.
Recently I trekked for three weeks in a remote region of Nepal – an area called Dolpo — high on the northwestern Tibetan border. Once again, the 30 year old foundation of my Cheley experience kicked in along with jets wäre somit Chat as I adventured high into the Himalayas, well over 16,000 feet. I was comfortable carrying a pack, knew how to live comfortably in a tent, loved rest days when I could sit in my Crazy Creek chair for hours on end soaking in the warmth of the sun, had become adept at spotting camouflaged animals in the rocky crags, and was confident that this entire experience would earn a five-star rating. I even drew on the well-practiced art of pacing myself and playing encouraging “tapes” in my head when the going got tough . . .
Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
Don’t look up. Just keep moving. The pass is high. Just get to that rock, your next landmark. Two more landmarks and you can stop to rest . . . have some water.
Finding my rhythm of breathing, carefully mapping out my line up the talus trail, and stepping gently, I glanced at my altimeter. 14,200 feet. Hmmm, that’s Long’s Peak. Breathe. 400 more feet to go to the campsite. I can do this. Almost there.
When I arrived at the campsite perched high in a rocky couloir, the last to arrive, I turned and looked back down, then across the valley to the un-named 16,000 foot peak draped in glaciers. I did it! I breathed a deep breath, one that you could only get when you stopped moving. Catching my breathe and turning to look around the campsite, the others were busy getting their gear in order, adding layers, and settling in. It was a rather lonely arrival, but I was relieved to be there.
I scrambled to find my tent which had already been pitched by our team of porters, and just as the sun went down, dropping temperatures at least 30 degrees in just a few minutes, I dove in, exhausted. I thought about the evening ahead of me: Change clothes and get warm, have a hot drink and dinner, get to sleep. Tomorrow we would wake in the cold shadow of 14,600 feet and prepare to climb over the next pass at 16,400. It would be a challenge for me, because I was struggling with an illness which came over me just as we gained significant altitude — an illness which was the basis for my late arrival and eventual helicopter evacuation from the trek — and I was low on energy.
In my tent I had time to lie there under my down bag and reflect on my struggle – Why is this so hard for me? Besides the physical illness, there is something else . . . what was it?
The next day as I started ahead of the group and was eventually passed by everyone except my trusty Tibetan friends, Thinle and his horse (who were both charged with keeping an eye on me!), I began to reflect on my experiences climbing a mountain or meeting a challenge at Cheley. Approaching a summit of a peak or a pass, whether one was at the front, the middle, or the end, there was always a sense of accomplishment as a group. There were words of encouragement, there were shouts up and down of “Way to go!” and “Keep it up!” If you were the last to crest the summit, often someone waited for you, grabbed your hand, and walked the last few steps in unison, laughing, smiling, high fives all around. At the least they were shouting encouragement from above until the moment you stepped up. And then, for the final celebration, the group sang “Netherlands” together, arms around one another’s shoulders, basking together in the fellowship of accomplishment.
This is what was missing.
Though I was with an amazing group of people – one of the best, most fun, and interesting groups I have ever trekked with — we were a group of individuals reaching individual goals, not a cohesive unit, succeeding and failing together.
It took me several weeks after I returned home (and a body full of oxygen) to fully absorb this realization. Something nagged at me about the experience. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot about myself, made solid friends within the group, and experienced the culture of Dolpo that was unforgettable. But I realized that the culture that defines the Cheley experience, that of accomplishing a challenge together, the intentional fellowship, is what gives such a wilderness challenge its lasting deep meaning. There is a difference between being alone in a group and being in alliance to reach your goals. I prefer the latter when I am faced with the challenges of the mountains, and I am grateful to Cheley for modeling and personifying this for me as a youth.
So, with Dick the Bunny strapped in his usual spot on the back of my pack, I will continue to explore the peaks and valleys of the highest cathedrals of the world, always learning, always growing, and always carrying the strength of Cheley fellowship to help me over those high passes.
Please join me on a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, this May 2012 – it’s the ultimate extension of you Cheley experience! If interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a description of the trek go to http://www.kamzang.com/KamzangJourneys/featured-treks/kamzang-nepal-everest-base-camp-trek.htm. For more information on me, visit my website at www.annmccollum.com. Hope to hear from you!