McKenzie Piehl ’19, the Perry S. Levy ’85 Outward Bound Fellowship scholar, participated in an eight-day course of rock climbing and hiking with a 40-pound backpack in the Sawatch Range in Colorado in early June with eight other students from around the country.
Knowing that the trip would test her physical limits, Piehl ran three to five miles several times a week to build her endurance, took spin and CrossFit classes to strengthen her leg muscles and upper body prior to the hike. During a two-day orientation at base camp, the instructors gently broke the group in with icebreaker activities and basic rock climbing techniques. Piehl and her team slept under tarps, making sure that the terrain was clear of rocks and melting water from the still-snowy mountains. None of the hikers were permitted to carry any form of technology which Piehl considered a tremendous advantage. “Without technology, I made some of my closest friends there. You can have the most authentic and real conversations without any distraction.” After each day, the team reviewed the pros and cons of the day and discussed how they could improve themselves.
On the third day, the group tested their rock climbing prowess. Piehl said of rock climbing, “It’s more of a mental than physical challenge. You are always thinking through where to put your hands and feet. You talk to yourself, “It’s time to go.” You need to be confident, and you can’t hesitate.” To survive the daily hikes at high altitudes, the group constantly hydrated. In one instance, Piehl and her group obtained lake water in which they added drops of iodine to make it potable. “You definitely had to develop trust, and we bonded as a group very quickly.You’re learning how to survive with barely anything so in order to succeed we had to trust one another.” Another day, waking up at 2:00 a.m. to avoid avalanches, the group wore headlamps to ascend a peak. Piehl went on to climb the second peak at 13,000 feet which she noted was “incredibly peaceful.”
One trying aspect of the trip was the seven-hour, non-speaking solo experience where the group dispersed and were given individual locations. As the instructors dropped Piehl off at her ruggedly beautiful area, they handed her a note which brought her to tears: “You are an amazing young woman and one of our best students. We trust you very much and wanted you to get a lot out of the solo experience, hence the distance away from us and the view.” Piel said, “There was a lot of self-reflection during that time, and I wrote about my experience and how I wanted to move forward after the trip. I grew so much as a person. I was mentally stronger. I felt like I was capable of so much more than I thought I was. When you set your mind to it, you can do anything.”
As if the experience didn’t challenge Piehl’s inner reserves enough, the final downhill six-mile push to base camp through ice and snow from 8:30 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. was daunting. Piehl said, “It was very scary. One false step could be a disaster. That night was a complete roller coaster.You had to put aside the fear, especially since I was the lead crossing these fast-moving rivers. It was exhausting. I didn't think I was going to make it, but you still have so much more in you.” Although each day brought new trials, Piehl now understands how to live self-sufficiently and independently.
Perry S. Levy ’85 Outward Bound Fellowship was named in memory of a KO student who embraced the outdoors and lived life to the fullest. Next semester, Piehl will attend the Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki. She’s ready.