GET OUT: Mountain Medicine

By on July 5, 2016

A young urban dweller confronts her fears at high altitude.

Liliana Campos (left), and her peers on their way to conquer the Grand Teton. (Photo: City Kids/Randy Lusky)

Liliana Campos (left), and her peers on their way to conquer the Grand Teton. (Photo: City Kids/Randy Lusky)

A few weeks ago The Planet hosted a high school student from Washington, D.C., considering a career in journalism. Liliana Campos has been visiting Jackson each summer since 2011 thanks to City Kids, a nonprofit that brings low income, at-risk students to Jackson to spend time outdoors and participate in character building activities and experiential education. “If it wasn’t for this program,” Campos told me, “I could have ended up like a lot of the kids I know who are now in jail, or are no longer with us.”

The following is an assignment I tasked Campos with that details her experience climbing the Grand Teton last summer. Swiftly tapping away at the keyboard, Campos crafted this piece with surprising speed. But what was more surprising was reading this young pupil’s work. At the age of 17, she possesses a voice that many writers struggle for years to develop. Campos’ promising future is in part a testament to the power of City Kids’ mentorship, that adults have taken the time to guide Campos toward a path where she can explore and cultivate her passions. Let us not underestimate the impact we can each have on a young person’s life as a mentor, confidant or advocate. It is one way to effect change in an increasingly volatile world.

– Robyn Vincent, editor

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As I sat there with tears in my eyes I couldn’t find anything to say to my teammates, people who were now my family. We had made it so far but I was ready to retrace every grueling step back down. I didn’t know how to look them in the eye and tell them I was giving up; how could I tell Robert who twisted his ankle that I was giving up? Danielle who fainted twice that I was giving up? Chauncey who has been waiting to do this for two years, that I was giving up? When I finally managed to look up, one of them broke the silence: “Lily come on you can do this, we all believe in you, but you gotta walk.”

And that was all it took, an affirmation of support, to get me going up the Grand Teton.

Training began three days before the actual climb, and during those three days we became familiar with our gear and multi-pitch climbing. Thanks to the nonprofit, City Kids, which brings students from Washington DC to Jackson to experience the outdoors, we had the necessary gear; Exum Mountain Guides showed us the ropes.

The first day was smooth, the skies were clear and everyone felt good about the climb and training. But over the next two days things would unravel. The second day of training was focused on actual climbing and trusting our new climbing shoes. We would climb all the way to the top of our practice route in sets and rappel back down, a mini version of our impending task on the Grand. To say things went wrong that day is an understatement.

Halfway up the practice climb, I gazed up at my teammate Danielle as a distant look registered in her eyes. Her face resembled that of a person in shock. I watched as she fell forward over us. What I felt as I watched her fall was a fear I had never felt before. While the ledge we were on was quite possibly one of the sketchiest I’ve been on, we were thankfully securely tied in. But this security did nothing to ease my fear, because her eyes were wide open and she was unresponsive for the longest two seconds of my entire life. It was only when she started to become aware of her surroundings that I could breathe again. Despite our refusal, our guide determined that she could still complete the climb. So we completed the climb and repelled back down safely, but none of us saw what came next.

As we made our way down the boulders my teammate Robert took a wrong step, twisting his ankle and injuring his knee. Our guide had to carry him down.

That night we discussed whether he was up for the climb or if an alternate would take his place. It was a difficult discussion—the alternate was now apprehensive about his involvement in the climb. Our team was slowly falling apart even before we climbed. But none of us were backing down.

On the day of our ascent I stood there, the angriest I had ever been. The gear that I had so meticulously selected was gone, all of it. I would not climb that mountain without my gear. I refused. After informing both my supervisor and the guides, one guide offered up his own gear to me and my supervisor brought extra gear to the starting point. But I didn’t have the rain jacket I had spent two hours looking for, or the last pair of rain pants I had managed to get, or even the extra soft fleece that felt like angel wings.

While I don’t consider myself an unfit person, I’m not exactly climbing mountains every third Tuesday. The Grand Teton was like a backpacking trip on steroids. There was a straight seven miles of everything from switchbacks to maddeningly steep sections. My legs had been set on fire then thrown in acid, and my heart was beating faster than it should have been. I was tired and the trail seemed to have no end, every three seconds I would stop to take a break and drink some water. Those were the most taxing six hours of my life and I hated everyone I saw. In my head I was having conversations with myself trying to figure out who I had hurt so much in a previous life to deserve this.

I’m not sure what time we finally got to the lower saddle where our camp was, but that was the happiest moment of my life. I could now sit for more than 10 seconds and I could finally eat something wholesome and nutritious: ramen. We went to bed as soon as the sun set since we had to wake up at 2 am to complete our mission. Waking up this early is completely unacceptable for any human. It’s downright unjust, but the laws of justice did not apply on the Grand. So we drank our coffee, ate our noodles and set out.

For some, darkness can be terrifying as our minds go haywire thinking about what could be lurking in the shadows. But the darkness of an early morning mountain is a different type of scary. The only things you could see were what your headlamp illuminated, other than that the rest was speculation. Since I had been the slowest the previous day, the guides decided to put me in the front to keep the pace. At high altitude the oxygen gets thinner and for someone who lives in Washington, D.C., that really sent me reeling mentally and physically. My lungs were on fire and I started to panic, I was going through a vicious cycle within my body and mind. Things got so bad that I caved, completely stopped and refused to move.

So there I was, sitting on a rock with six headlamps all aimed at me and my face turned away in shame and fear; I couldn’t let them see my eyes tearing up.

It took lots of encouragement to get up there, determination, and maybe even a guilt trip or two, but we made it. There we stood, the first City Kids team to have all of its members summit. As my friends took pictures and basked in the glory of our summit, I sat there and smiled to myself. I had been so close to missing out on this, to spending the rest of my life looking at the pictures of my team up here without me, but my new family had supported me and here I was enjoying it with them.

I enjoyed a snow blizzard on our way back down the mountain, but at least I was with family. PJH

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