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Higher Learning

Written by Courtney Clemente

Kristen taking a break

While working out at the Ithaca College Fitness Center one night, Kristin Olson ’10 saw a poster that caught her attention. “I saw this amazing picture of people walking up the summit of El Dorado Peak in Washington State,” Olson says. “It looked so incredible, and I thought to myself, I’ve never done anything like that before.”

The poster was for a 13-day glacier mountaineering course offered by the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies in collaboration with Alpine Ascents International, a mountaineering school in Seattle. The two-credit course is open to students of all majors and grade levels, and previous mountaineering experience is unnecessary.

Olson and two other students took advantage of the opportunity to spend nearly two weeks in Washington, where they learned snow-climbing techniques, ways to save themselves and other climbers from falling, and rescue drills. They spent the first five days of the trip ascending and descending El Dorado Peak, an 8,868-foot mountain.

“Each day we would do harder and harder climbs,” Olson says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in so much pain, but it was something to laugh about once we got back to camp.”

It took the climbers 10 hours to climb to the low camp on El Dorado, which stands at approximately 4,000 feet. There, they learned how to walk up and down steep slopes in the snow and how to glissade (a controlled slide down a slope). On the third day, the students climbed to the high camp at approximately 7,500 feet, where they learned how to build snow anchors. They also slept in tents on the mountain and cooked their own dinners on the snow.

After the El Dorado climb, the students were given the opportunity to spend two days pursuing their own climbing objective. “We got to pick a mountain that we could climb and plan and navigate ourselves to the summit and back,” Olson says. “It was both beautiful and amusing for the experienced guides to watch us navigate. We were inexperienced, but we tried so hard that we made a lot of progress.”

Margaret Arnold, associate professor of recreation and leisure studies, believes that the opportunity to earn college credit while participating in an outdoor adventure is valuable for students of all majors.

“Anyone would benefit from an experience like this,” Professor Arnold says. “It’s a test of endurance and a great way to find out what you’re made of.”

Although the mountaineering skills performed are physically demanding, Professor Arnold believes the trip goes beyond the sport of mountaineering. “It’s challenging in the most extreme sense -- you’re thrown into this 13-day course with people you don’t know. It’s a physical challenge, a mental challenge, a spiritual challenge -- it’s everything,” she says. “The students who participated last year said they came back completely different people. To have one of those types of experiences is priceless.”

“I think a lot of students just learn better by doing,” says Rob Cook ’07, a graduate of the outdoor adventure leadership program who participated in the trip last summer. “On the mountain, you get out there, you learn all those things, and you put them into practice and keep doing it. I learn a lot better that way, and I think a lot of other people do, too.”

Olson agrees. “Hands-on learning is the best way to understand a subject,” she says. “If I could learn my subjects through experiencing them, I would get more out of them.”

All the students left Washington with newfound independence and a huge sense of accomplishment. “It was especially amazing knowing we had climbed all the way up there by ourselves. Not many people get to see what we saw,” says Olson, who is now considering a double major in legal studies and outdoor adventure leadership. For her, completing the first climb was the most rewarding part of the trip. “At the summit, clouds were rolling over us like water, and the sun was rising; it was one of those rare moments in life that take your breath away.”

Are you climbing the walls thinking of a career path? Then check out Ithaca's Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies for information on career paths and possibilities.



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