Travel

With the wind whipping, snow slipping under my feet, and a view of the plunging cliff to my left, I had a full-blown panic attack on the side of the Grand Canyon.

But before I get into that, let’s rewind a little bit. During my sophomore year, I decided to detour from the beachy college spring break that I initially wanted to one that would be a complete adventure. I had never been to the American southwest and was looking forward to experiencing the open skies I had heard about and seeing the Grand Canyon in its entire splendor. Anyone who knows me can tell you that nature, hiking, and the outdoors is way out of my comfort zone, but I figured, why not try something new?

After a few days of exploring the sites around Phoenix, such as the Heard Museum and the Superstition Mountains, the plan was to drive toward the canyon and tackle its Bright Angel Trail, which the brochures listed as a difficult trail. From our entry point into the canyon to our destination point called Indian Garden and back would be a 9-mile journey. Why we chose this trail as novices, I will never know. But, that was the plan.

Waking up the morning of, I was uneasy knowing what I was about to do. A girl who had never even camped in her backyard before was about to hike one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  Before I had time to talk myself out of it, gear was on my back and spikes were on my shoes. Yes, spikes. Did I mention the Grand Canyon’s high elevation created snow and ice on the trails?

grand canyon

Now, we’re back at the beginning of the story. The first mile down the canyon was simply treacherous. I was slipping across the icy, narrow trails and trying, but failing, to not look over the 4,380-foot cliff immediately to my left. The deafening gusts of cold wind were clouding the encouraging voices of the people I was with and intensifying my fear. I couldn’t master using the snow spikes and I was convinced this adventurous spring break was surely going to be my last. It was then I felt my face go hot and all I stopped dead in my tracks. I sat down right where I was and just cried.

Okay, I did a bit more than cry. There was some hyperventilating and uncontrollable shaking, too. I finally understood what an “anxiety attack” was. There were hikers piling up behind me, but I didn’t care. I had no plans to move out of my fetal position and didn’t let anybody touch me. With the help of my then boyfriend, I realized there were only two choices: hike back up and let my fear get the best of me or keep going because we didn’t fly all the way to Arizona for nothing. Truth be told, I wanted to turn around, but something in me (likely, just my ego) told me I would regret it.

After about 20 minutes of calming and pep talk, I slowly got back up and continued on. Everything from this point was nearly smooth. At about two miles down, there was no more snow and, in fact, it was dessert-like and scorching. We made it to our picnic spot and turn around point, and headed back up on the same trail. Hiking back up had its own issues, but that story is for another time. What I will say, however, is once we reached the top of the canyon; we literally kissed the flat ground.

Hiking the Grand Canyon is surely the most terrifying, but rewarding, thing I have ever done. Its power is breathtaking, in all senses of the word, and humbling. You never realize how strong you are until you’re put into a challenging situation. Regardless of the temporary strife it caused me, the canyon was absolutely beautiful. What is beauty without a little bit of pain?

Images by Aysia Woods

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Alternative Education Highlight: High Mountain Institute

Education comes in all shapes and sizes; there has never been a “one size fits all” when it comes to learning. Figuring out how you learn best is a challenge that you should continue to tackle until you discover what works best for you personally. Carpe Juvenis recently sat down with Megan Morrow, High Mountain Institute (HMI) alum, to talk about the high school semester program she took part in her junior year. Megan now studies at Johns Hopkins University where she majors in Global Environmental Change & Sustainability.

HMI is a program for academically driven high school students interested in an outdoor educational experience. HMI focuses on building students’ relationships with nature and their community through full physical and emotional integration. Based in Colorado, students take AP level place-based classes in tangent with learning survival and camping skills. There is a campus with off-the-grid cabins and fully functioning classrooms where students live and study when they are not busy leading hiking expeditions and camping explorations.

HMI offers a range of programs: Semester, Summer team, Apprentice Program, High Peaks Adventure, and Wilderness Medicine and Avalanche Safety courses. If you’re interested in applying to HMI, click here – applications for Fall 2014, Spring 2015, and Summer Term 2014 are due February 15, 2014.

Without further ado, we’d like to introduce you to Megan Morrow. Read on to learn more about her experiences at High Mountain Institute!

Carpe Juvenis: What exactly is High Mountain Institute?

Megan Morrow: High Mountain Institute (HMI) is an outdoor education program combined with experiential education. There are around fifty students from around the United States and you go on a set of three backpacking expeditions that are interspersed throughout the semester. You take normal classes that you would in school but you continue them when you’re on your hiking trips.

CJ: Would you recommend that someone apply to HMI and why?

MM: Yes, definitely! I was really hesitant to go and spent the entire month after I got in deciding whether or not I wanted to go. I actually replied late saying I would. But [HMI] helps prepare you for going away to college because you’ve already done it before for four months, and being in a small community forces you to deal with people. But [the staff] also teaches you about conflict resolution, getting along with people, and working with group dynamics. Its something I never thought I would be able to do … but being able to spend more than a month in the Colorado and Utah wilderness is amazing. I would have never been able to do that in my regular high school.

CJ: What is a challenge or difficulty you faced that took you by surprise?

MM: I expected that I would be homesick – and I was – but I got over it. The hardest struggle for me that I didn’t expect was that it took me a really long time to adjust back into real life again. I got so close to the people [at HMI] that I had a really hard time going back to school.

CJ: How did you feel about the academic aspect of HMI?

MM: The academics I think are really, really good. You have scheduled time to do work every night for two hours. [And work is continued on hiking trips] so you’ll have English class discussing Henry David Thoreau, or you have to do a science lab on your expedition walking around looking at trees, collecting data, writing essays, and all that. The other component is leadership training; you go over types of leadership, how to be a good leader, and you have to be “leader of the day” twice throughout an expedition where you lead your small group of students and you have to use topographical maps and make decisions about when to rest and how far to walk. As expeditions go by you become more and more independent.

CJ: Is there a certain “type” of student that should go to HMI?

MM: I think it definitely helps to be an outdoorsy person, but it was a mixture of people. It’s been interesting to see how [the students in my semester] have all grown up through college because we’re not all the same type of person. I think what’s interesting about something that [happens] in high school is that I was still young enough that it helped mold me. I was young enough to not come into it with such a strong identity that I wasn’t willing to be changed by it. I was sixteen when I went.

CJ: Has HMI stuck with you in any way?

MM: That’s actually where I started getting interested in environmental science. It’s a natural science program there so we would do water tests near old mines and learn about pollution and go to logging areas and learn about the succession.

Carpe Juvenis would like to thank Megan for her time and insight about HMI! For more information about this awesome person, check out her study abroad blog, as well as her professional blog

Photos courtesy of Megan Morrow