The stone beneath me wobbled and I lurched to grab a neighboring boulder. I looked back to where Zacarias and Julie picked their way through the boulder field, faithfully and foolishly following my lead. I had been sure that the easiest route for us would be straight up the ridgeline, connecting to a llama trail that lay faintly across a scree slope. Once we reached that trail we could follow it horizontally across the slope of the mountain, inching our way upward toward the pass instead of advancing straight up the grassy ridge. Now, mired in a pile of jagged rocks that had been hidden from view moments before, I realized our path was in fact the most difficult one. Not only were we fighting with every step to gain elevation with full packs strapped to our backs, we were also risking injury. I dropped my pack in frustration and scrambled upward to see where the llama trail intersected our floundering. To my dismay, the trail had vaporized.
I looked down the ridge to where the rest of our group edged through the much smaller lower section of the boulder field, quickly gaining the firm ground on the opposite side. From there they would climb a gently sloping ridge to connect with a much more clearly delineated llama trail than our own. I knew I had failed and clenched my teeth in frustration. Of the entire group, we three were the slowest, and could not afford to waste energy. I called back to my followers to abandon the climb and head left. Minutes later we struggled to cross the scree slope that the first group had avoided altogether. We slid down the hill with each step, risking sprains and exhausting our energy in the loose gravel. Somehow we reached the opposite side without injury and pounded across the firm ground in an effort to catch up to the group. I glanced at my phone; we had wasted an hour.
The sky darkened and I looked up at the mountain peaks looming above us. Mist swirled around them, gathering into clouds and darkening with the threat of hail. Could we make it through the pass before a storm broke? At this elevation, rain was likely to be accompanied by lightning, and the ridge provided no shelter from it. I looked down into the valley where we had hiked hard for three hours. Lush green pastures lay deceptively peaceful in the sun. Awaking on day three to clear skies, I knew God had favored our moment to get through the pass, but I also knew we had until noon before the sun disappeared. The boys had broken camp with admirable speed to take advantage of the weather, but if we failed to cross through the peaks before then, we would lose another day and be forced to camp in harsh conditions on this side of the ridge.
The boys shouldered their packs and trudged upward, picking their way up to 15,000 ft and stopping occasionally to regroup. Carlos and Wilder accompanied us as we forced our legs to take each step, trying not to fall too far behind. Multiple llama trails snaked up through the pass, evidence that this was the easiest route to the eastern slopes. One by one the boys disappeared over the crest of the hill, and I prayed that was the highest we would climb. A minute later and we stood on level ground, gazing across a barren and rocky landscape with a single boulder perched in the middle, and a group of boys gathered around it laughing and passing around a lizard they had caught. I smiled. We made it.
It is difficult to describe the sense of accomplishment that comes with tackling a new route through the mountains, using every ounce of your strength to haul yourself over them with all of the necessary implements for survival strapped to your back. But the reward of looking out over a green valley ringed by misty mountains as your tired legs welcome the effortless descent is well worth the effort it takes to get there. I glanced at my phone: 11:54. We had charted our own path through an unknown wilderness, and despite several setbacks had reached our goal. The going would be easy from here. Nothing but downhill and hot springs lay in our future.
One of the things we work on most consistently with the youth is resiliency. The ability to get back up and keep trying in the face of setbacks and barriers to success is imperative for kids who are used to losing. Losing families, security, trustworthy relationships and their place in the world is all too common for them. With every mountain or river crossed, they learn to take charge of their circumstances and fight for the outcomes they desire. With every success, they grow in determination and tenacity. As we work on communication strategies, they learn to advocate for themselves and refuse to take what life hands them sitting down. With each camp, they also learn to work together, to depend on each other not just to build a bridge across a river, but for the harder tasks in life like getting good grades, avoiding the pull of alcohol and drugs, and holding down a job.
This trip met its fair share of obstacles. Brian got a parasite and had to head to a clinic on day three. On day one our transportation fell through, and plan C resulted in a 5pm departure from the BLC. Once we reached the mountain valley where we would start our trek, we hoofed it uphill for two hours into the darkness only to find we had chosen the wrong road and ended up on the wrong side of the river. We regretted that decision on day two when we found ourselves at a creek swollen with rainfall, and our path up a sharp hill on the far bank. For two hundred yards up and downriver, boulders lay just out of reach for a jumping teen, and the milky water rushed with just enough force to make falling in dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. Brian waded into a calmer section and found a way to ford the freezing water, but the creek reached his torso and would sweep away more slender campers. A human chain is the go-to method for crossing this kind of water, but nobody seemed eager to start day two of a five-day camp soaked to the bone. Bushwhacking to find an alternative route up the valley was even less appealing. Several boys sat dejectedly on rocks lining the river. Already we had missed our goal for where to make camp, and this new obstacle slammed the brakes on our eager efforts to recover time lost on day one.
It was a moment when one chooses to either give up and take it easy, or to forge a way forward. An hour later, we had built a bridge out of rock piles and a tree trunk hauled into place by Alex, Carlos, Ervin and Wilder. Harold passed packs to Brian, who threw them across the water while perched on precarious islands of stone. With our second obstacle overcome, we raced to make up the time we had lost on day one. With each day, the boys’ determination to reach their group goal on the far side of the mountains grew, and their enthusiasm grew with it. By the time we had crossed the mountains it was all I could do to hold them back and make them eat lunch before continuing.
Personal goals were a big part of this trip. At the start of camp, the boys wrote their goals down on a piece of paper, and after a paper snowball fight, we read them aloud. Some boys committed to being completely honest for the entirety of the camp. Others vowed to pack out their trash, some to refrain from insults, and two of them made the significant commitment to work as a team with people they do not care for. Throughout the trip we checked in on those goals, and by the end the boys could claim success both as individuals and as a group. To close the camp I asked them to summarize their experience in one word or phrase: Success. Achievement. Happy. Desire. Experience. Difficult. Really Tough (x3). Something New. Kindness. Challenge. Exhausting. Teamwork. I couldn’t have said it better myself.