HMI Gap: Starting Early with Gratitude

Student reflections from HMI Gap’s “Climbing and Conservation in the American West” semester.

written by: Noah Stiegler and Sabine Blumenthal

Our group – “F-Rock” (short for “Rock Climbing & Conservation in the American West”) – just returned from our first exped in the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado. We backpacked through the Mount Massive Wilderness, stopping along the way for a day of bouldering and finishing the trip with two days of climbing at Monitor Rock. Among many beautiful views, we stood on the famous Continental Divide, making sure to toss the Iconic Frisbee on top (a key member of our group).

Even after just fourteen days of being together, it’s starting to feel like we’ve known each other for years. Burned out on technology from quarantine, not having our phones has been a welcome respite and a great opportunity to live in the moment and connect with each other. Some traditions that have developed include sleeping under the stars, cooking near each other in group kitchens, and laughing together into delirium. Of our many bonding opportunities, Dahimi, a game brought to us by one of our most stoked climbers, quickly rose to the top. Most nights after Circle (another important community tradition), we played many rounds of Dahimi, soon becoming very competitive.

Our 6th day of backpacking began… early. After a restless night of anticipation, we arose before 5am, pulled on our warmest layers, and gathered under some of the brightest, clearest stars I’ve ever seen. Jumping up and down with excitement, we picked up our packs, ate a bite of breakfast, and set out, upwards, through the still night.

Atop a grassy ridge, we broke the ice capping our water bottles and marveled at the purple-orange sunrise. Although the temperatures must have been well below freezing, our brisk pace kept us warm. Still, our Aquamira, the water purification chemicals we use, froze while we refilled at an alpine stream where we were distracted by a herd of elk.

From there, it was a long and hard hike up to the windy saddle below the peak. The sun warmed our backs as we climbed. Among the cold rocks we spotted snowy ptarmigans, brave pikas, and lazy marmots.

After a short break to put on additional layers and take in the view of the surrounding mountains, we set off along the knife-edge ridge to the summit. Although our legs were sore and we were tired, our spirits were high. Leaving camp that morning, we hadn’t expected to make it this far, let alone have a chance at summiting. Yet, before we knew it, we’d arrived at the peak.

Amid cheers and whoops and smiles, our instructor Emma passed around a bar of celebratory dark chocolate. We discovered a cardboard sign proclaiming we’d made it to the top of Mt. Massive, at 14,429ft, the second highest peak in Colorado. The back of the sign revealed that it was a flattened and reused Corn Flakes box, truly the breakfast of champions. Posing with the sign, we took group photos and revelled in the excitement and thin air.

To descend we skipped the trail for a more direct route back to camp. Our exhausted feet moved at a slow pace as we picked our way down the steep, rocky slopes. On a break from our descent, we slid around like penguins on a small patch of snow. Walking back into camp, dead on our feet, we were greeted with cheers and warm second breakfasts.

Grateful for the experience and for the smiles and comradery of the group, we set down our packs and slipped back into waiting sleeping bags, for a nice nap to conclude one of the most memorable mornings ever.

“A Thank You Note” 

a poem by Sabine

Thank you Sun for waking up today

for filling the air with golden light

and dancing specks of dust

 Pass through me.

Then you mountains: 

 Elbert and Massive,

for watching over me

and grounding my thoughts firmly in place.

Thank you for holding me in warm arms

 like a really good hug at the end of the day

Thank you Trees!

 Ponderosas, Mountain Firs, and Colorado Blue Spruce,

for keeping my words locked in the ground,

interlaced between ancient dirt.

Thank you for teaching me how to listen

to stillness and feel the soft touch of quiet as the stars come out

Thank you Chipmunks and Gray Jays

for making sure I don’t miss my alarm,

for having the most recognizable banter

and a strong voice when I can’t seem to find the words

to express my wonder

Thank you Me!

For All that You do!

For the warm blood that pulses through my veins,

keeping me warm at night

  stable on my feet

  and spinning in circles to capture the day

Thank you for knowing Hope

 and Love

 for holding these feelings close

tucked away under puffy-layers

and between our sleeping bags at night

Thank you for strong legs

 and a fierce mind,

able to climb passes and summit peaks

for perseverance even when it seems pointless

Thank you Lungs!

For breathing when air escapes me

 lost in 10,200 feet of sky

 lost in the ache of muscles and grinding of teeth

Thank you for reminding me that all I have to do

 to conquer fear and survive the fall

is Exhale slowly,

and keep the warm fire in my belly burning.