Written by: Katrina, Jasmine, Ali, Kira, & Nikhil
Group A: Days started early on expedition, but our Instructor Team (I-Tteam) made sure we were in our tarps before 9pm. Usually, we woke up around 6:30am, made breakfast, and were hiking toward our next campsite by 9am. We split up into two groups, each with a Leader of the Day (LOD) who navigated using a topographic map with the help of the I-Team. When it was my day to be LOD, we hiked up and out of a massive bowl that surrounded Hagerman Lake– the beautiful alpine lake we were camping next to– trekked atop the Continental Divide for a while, then navigated off-trail and bushwhacked until we saw Virginia Lake glittering far below us. It was one of the most grounding experiences to see the other exped members setting up camp around the lake like tiny little ants from our vantage point. I learned then that the mountains teach you how small you really are in relation to our giant and beautiful world.
Group B: As the days leading up to HMI got closer, I began to get more and more nervous to begin what would be a new start for me. So many things went a different way than planned the day I was supposed to arrive, but when I finally did, I was warmly welcomed to a community that would become my family. As soon as I arrived, the clock began ticking as time was essential in preparing for our first backpacking expedition. Then, after having slept only three nights on campus, we headed out to backpack in the Sawatch and Collegiate Ranges in Colorado. This 16 day expedition was not easy, but I was never alone. The time I spent out there taught me a different way to life, a different way of viewing it, and a different way of living it. As someone who had never been backpacking, it was super physically and mentally challenging, but the places I saw, the people I connected with, and the experiences I lived were worth every struggle. The way I felt changed in split seconds while in the field, I went from crying at a boulder field to being the happiest I’ve ever been right after. These 16 days allowed me to push myself beyond the limits that I had set for myself. Out there is where I feel like I have found my peace, I have found serenity between my thoughts and feelings. In 16 days I found in myself what I had been looking for for a long time. The connection between my thoughts and my heart began to strengthen just like my connection with everyone else there.
From day one, I felt supported by my instructor team. By the end, my instructors and peers became an extension of my family. Circle was one of the things that brought all of us together. Getting to learn about each person and their lives away from HMI was such a big moment that allowed us to connect with each other on a deeper level. Many times we bonded over tears– tears of happiness, of homesickness, or even about tiredness… but at the end of the day, we were all able to empathize. We learned to appreciate the small things in life: a frybake of brownies or a bathroom with toilet paper brought the purest of joy to our hearts. The moments that we all shared with each other allowed us to see each other in different ways and past the superficial. Erik, Diana, Emma, Ray, and Hayden became some of the most influential people to me. And Arielle, Langley, Declan, Maya, Kevin, Jack, Nimki, and Aubrey became like another set of siblings. This expedition taught me many things but, more than anything, it taught me a new sense of family.
Group C: At six in the morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal, made with water heated to a boil despite the ice fragments in our pot, we head out for our summit attempt–the northernmost peak of Mount Massive. Except with a twist: we were doing this one off-trail. In the dark forest, pink just starting to touch the horizon in the distance, I saw the blinding beams of the six other headlamps around me. As a band of hikers, we trooped through the brush, our eyes attempting to read the forest in the dark, dissecting game trails from distorted shadows, and truly embracing the art of bushwhacking. That moment, tromping through the thick brush of fallen lodgepole pines, willows when we neared water, and the occasional branch in exact alignment with my eye, epitomized my first exped experience. Surrounded by my new family away from family, I slowly fell in love with our temporary home in the Sawatch Range. The sun rose in a haze of smoke blowing into the mountains, obscuring our view of Leadville (or “lead-vegas”, as we called it), and turning the glowing ball into a vibrant red sphere. Its red glow blanketing us in our ascent through boulder fields, up a flowing stream, and finally above a perennial snow field named “Africa Bowl.” As our weary feet and altitude-affected lungs finally reached the summit, 360 views greeted us from the solitude. We shared laughs and candy bars (a tradition for us after hard hikes), and enjoyed the wind whipping past the 14,200-foot peak. I felt like I was on top of the world.
But that day, the day we summited Mount Massive, was only 8.5 out of the tens of hours of First Expedition, wandering the passes and valleys in the San Isabel National Forest. Attempting (and ultimately failing due to a spontaneous rain storm) to sleep under the stars with our entire group, Chloe, Ginger, Iniye, Juliana, Lola, Jack, Theo, Ben, and myself, watching brilliant red alpine glow slowing spread down a majestic valley wall, sharing the experience of a meteor shower with my tarp-mate and her first shooting star, and everything in between wove the unforgettable experience of my 15 nights, 16 days in the backcountry.
And then there was the food. Cooking in the backcountry, carrying eight nights of food on my back, changed my perspective of what makes an adequate meal. On first exped, I learned many new recipes, a few of which I will take home with me, many of which will not. Take, for example, backcountry pizza, an entire day’s ordeal. We began with making the dough, carefully pouring warm water into yeast and eventually into a bag full of flour. Then the waiting, the carrying of our dough babies in puffy jackets to keep them warm, and finally the art of making and flipping the pizzas in our frybakes, making unique pizzas filled with broccoli, garlic powder, and occasionally brussel sprouts. I loved laughing in our group kitchen that night, finally able to enjoy the fruits of our hours of careful attention and care on small bags of dough. On slightly less successful nights, we made cheesy bagels, or rice and beans. But the taste mattered less than the memories that came with each meal. From fried granola to “scrambling” brownies,” food was as impactful a part of exped as long hikes, or even summiting a mountain. Every aspect of this trip, led by Barrett, Nick, and Louisa, helped me find belonging in the wilderness, and now, comfort every time I glance at Mount Massive’s majestic peaks.
Group D: The Sawatch Expedition taught me many things about myself and my relationships with others around me. From learning how to find the next campsite using map topography, to setting up the tarp and cooking in a cook crew, every day was a new adventure. Learning how to cook with the outdoor stove and fuel bottles and purifying my water taught me how to appreciate the things I may take for granted back in the front-country. Every night, as a part of the closing Circle activity, there was someone who was the “spotlight.” The other members of the expedition group could ask the spotlight person any question they wanted. One round of questions were silly and more basic. The next round was more thought-provoking. When I was spotlight, I learned a lot about myself having to answer the questions on the spot. I also loved hearing what my peers had to say when they were spotlight. Circle also included a nightly game, which always had me crying from laughter, and a thought-provoking question everyone got to answer. By the end of exped, I got to know my group so well, and they feel like family to me. People who have been with me through thick-and-thin who I know I can trust, and who I hope to continue my relationships with forever.
Group E: My expedition group decided we wanted to watch the sunrise on top of Bull Hill. What did that entail? First: waking up at 12am. Second: hiking more than 1,000ft in elevation at 1am in the pitch black. On top of that: doing all this with our 50 pound packs. Some may call this utopia, and it sounds beautiful, but when you wake up at 12am and realize you are about to hike up a massive hill, beauty slips your mind for just a second. But it all came back when my tarp mates and I started screaming like warriors from medieval times to get our energy up. It was one of the best moments of my life, those first 15 minutes waking up. We went from three zombies to three excited-teenagers eager to push ourselves. We then met with the rest of our exped group who were filled with the same energy we were. Though the hike was treacherous to say the least–filled with boulder fields, slippery rocks, steep elevation, and tears–there was one thing that stayed constant throughout this night hike: a sense of camaraderie, a sense of boundless support. In retrospect, throughout the whole hike– especially in the scary moments with rocks slipping out from under us, and two feet forward sometimes meaning sliding six feet back, we had an amazing community of support. We pushed each other to do things that, at first, may have seemed too much to ask of ourselves. Often during exped, specifically on Solo, I thought about what I am learning. Over the expedition, I have realized that these 12 other strangers have turned into my best friends. My family. Through circle, Spotlight, KQCC (sometimes British accents – shoutout Steamy Lachlan & Danny G), and our difficult moments, we have built a family in the matter of 16 days. We have learned to love, support, care, and teach each other. There is nothing more I could ask for than for what this exped has given me. A community filled with limitless support, love, kindness, and understanding. I have felt the happiest I have ever been throughout this exped because I know that, through anything, these 12 people will always be there. There’s nothing I would trade this time for. We all recognize that this is time for growth. It’s time to spread our love with each other. It’s time to spread our life experiences to build this community we will be calling home for the next 3 ½ months. My friends. My family. It’s our time.
P.S. For more photos, check out our Flickr album!