College students climb 14ers for mental health awareness

Whenever I lose faith in humankind I think of this generation of college students. I am humbled by their dedication, ingenuity, self-sacrifice and desire to change the world. Yes, they have mounting college debt. Yes, they spend too much time on their cell phones. But they think of others.

Here at our public liberal arts school, Fort Lewis College, we take young minds and hope to inspire and prepare students for a lifetime of learning and diverse careers, yet often our students inspire us. They lead by example and prove that the next generation is ready to tackle our nation’s dilemmas.

Take Anthony Reinert, for instance. He earned dual majors in business and environmental studies. In my environmental history class he enjoyed lectures on Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery so the next summer he canoed the entire Missouri River with two other FLC students, taking water samples, and studying river changes over 200 years.

Last summer his outdoor leadership skills increased exponentially. He molded a team of FLC student climbers to ascend 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado to Climb Out of the Darkness and raise awareness for mental health.

The seven member team began June 8 and finished Aug. 19 climbing 57 peaks for a whopping elevation gain of 175,000 feet. Imagine climbing Mt. Everest six times in 10 weeks! That’s what these FLC students accomplished. The earliest they started in the morning was 2 a.m. but their average departure time from camp began at 4:45 a.m. In total they hiked 400 miles. Of seven team members, five completed group goals.

“The passion that exists for mountains here in Colorado is inspiring and I felt the call. I was able to gather around me an amazing group of people that care about climbing mountains and the cause of mental health,” Reinert said. “It is a cause that is near to my heart as many in my family have struggled with dark nights of the soul, including myself. In many ways, climbing peaks was our personal catharsis.”   

Sponsors of the climb included Osprey Packs, Mountainsmith, Durango Outdoor Exchange, Chinook Medical Gear, Tailwind Nutrition, Smartwool, Mountain Chalet, Goddess Garden Organics, and Postpartum Progress. The team raised $2,000 in cash for expenses and $3,000 in donated gear and equipment.

“Every day, just waking up knowing that the team was there and our day’s challenge was only a few miles and a few thousand vertical feet away from completion was enough to keep a sublime high going all summer,” said Mathew David Cranston. But climbing Colorado 14ers in rain, sleet, hail, and snow was not without its dangers.

Team members also faced internal challenges. They had to climb personal summits of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. “I faced the hardest time of my life the winter prior to the expedition. I wanted to kill myself. For three months,” said Seth Pooler. “I am glad I had this trip to invest my time and energy in. I don’t think I would’ve made it without having this goal.”

Fort Lewis College students took classroom lessons to the top of Colorado’s highest peaks. Those leadership lessons included teamwork, camaraderie, collaboration, and setting and completing goals. “We climbed physical mountains to represent the mental mountain some face when they climb out of bed,” said Aaron McDowell.

“Each day was the same challenge: summit. Each day the challenge was different: new obstacles, routes, and conditions. No two mountains are the same. The more challenging the peak, the greater the high: North Maroon, Capitol, La Plata, and Mt. Massive were such summits for me,” he added. “Most mornings, we hurt. Hurt badly. Sometimes it was mental, others it was physical. Having a team that counted on me, as we counted on each other, motivated me to crawl from my toasty sleeping bag hours before dawn, strap up gaiters, and face the mountain with them.”

The Climb Out of Darkness Team succeeded. After days of summiting peaks and recovering from strained muscles, on Oct. 3, 2015, they enjoyed the plush surroundings of the Denver Downtown Sheraton Hotel for the Mental Health of America Colorado Tribute Gala. No more sleeping bags. Clean sheets.

As the team stood on stage and explained their summer challenge and their dedication to mental health awareness, 600 people in the audience gave them a standing ovation. Twice. Now you know why I respect this generation of college students.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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