Into The Low Oxygen Zone

Climbing Photos

I climbed Quandary Peak on Saturday with a group of young people from our church. There are tremendous lessons to be learned from an outing like this, and not just for the kids. A significant amount of planning goes into taking a group of kids out into the wilderness so I hope to pass along some of those lessons to you in case you want to try it. First, you need to get to know your kids. There were three leaders along on the hike, myself, my wife Cheryl, and Amy, one of the Youth Leaders who has worked the hardest over this past year with the kids.

Amy brought her two daughters along, Katrina and Annika. Then, they brought one of their friends along, Vicky. We also had three boys along, Widy (pronounced Weedy), Austin and Bryce. So, it worked out that we had 3 boys and 3 girls. The night before the hike we had thought we were only going to have 5 kids, but one of the boys asked to go at the last minute (Friday night) and his mom said he could go, his best friend already was going with us.

My wife and I have experience as Youth Leaders in our church, and other churches, and I was a Boy Scout Assistant Scoutmaster with my son’s Boy Scout troop in years past. I’ve also climbed a number of peaks, including several volcanoes in Washington and other of the 14ers in Colorado. Amy also is an experienced climber, having climbed some of the 14ers in Colorado, ascending some on other than normal hiking routes. When it all comes down to it, there’s no substitute for experience.

The thing you have to watch out for when you’re operating in the low oxygen zone (anywhere generally above 10,000 feet or so) is altitude sickness. The sickness itself can take any of the forms of dehydration, hypoxia, or overexertion. Any one of those or any combination can wipe out a person of any age, so it becomes critical to gauge the climber’s abilities accurately. Having done pretty extensive climbing, I know my own abilities, and I’ve never had any problems above even 14,000 feet, but I still have to work hard to keep in shape to be able to operate well at that altitude. Amy and Cheryl decided not to go to the top of the mountain and so were already settled on the fact they’d be available to “camp out” with kids on the trail and / or take them back down if they had problems.

We started hiking around 6:30am and proceeded for the first hour through the trees up to the tree line. The tree line on this particular peak is somewhere around 12,000-12,300 feet. It starts to become high alpine meadow, and the meadows are quite extensive, relatively flat, and plentiful. The flowers were in full bloom too, so I knew it would not be hard duty for Cheryl or Amy to stop at lower elevations and wait for any who went on to the top of the mountain.

It turned out that I got to hike with three of the kids who wanted to keep going for the top. I was careful never to set their expectations that we would “get to the top” or that we “must get to the top” or that we must hurry or anything. The weather was fine, and all we had to contend with was sun, and heat. I kept them drinking, and I kept myself hydrated as well, and I kept asking questions of them at each break to determine their condition. I kept my questions as light as possible, to keep their level of apprehension to a minimum. The one thing you don’t want to do with anybody at high elevations is start them into a panic – especially if they’re getting altitude sickness. On careful observation, they all were in good shape, and in fact, after every break they kept themselves going upwards. I was duly impressed by their spirit, their attitudes, and their motivation. Each was determined to make it up that mountain!

So, we took frequent breaks, and that really slowed us down, but as we were having fine weather, I didn’t worry much. At first, I tried keeping in contact with Cheryl via telephone, but eventually we resorted to texting, as that was much more reliable. We both had good signal on our phones up there, but for some reason calls would not go through to each other’s phones, we kept getting voicemail. So, texting it was, and I kept Cheryl, and eventually both Cheryl and Amy informed as to our position, attitude and such.

There was a large amount of folks on the mountain that day, as the weather was so fine, and this particular mountain is also quite popular both due to its accessibility (location) and its degree of difficulty: Quandary is a beginner climb (Class I) and parking is ample. So, I would estimate easily 500 folks were on the mountain on July 17 with us. The logistics of negotiating a pass on some sections of the trail were pretty interesting, but we made it without any knockdowns or “take downs.”

The three teens who went to the top pretty much all got there. Vicky made it to above 13,800 feet, Austin made it to 14,000 feet, and Katrina went all the way up to the top (14,265 feet), and we threw snowballs at each other from the snow in the snowfields at the top. I also danced for her (I always dance on top of mountains, it’s just what I do). The hike back down the mountain was the most demanding challenge of the day however.

It turns out that going down is relatively easy – if you’re not tired. I was tired, but not overly so. But, being 50 years old now means that my bones and muscles and ligaments and tendons aren’t what they were 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. So, I started feeling some pretty intense pain in my left ACL (behind the knee) after about the first mile down the mountain. I had to stop and take some Advil to alleviate the pain. Katrina had a pretty bad headache, so she asked for and I gave her one Advil. The others were doing OK, but Vicky was moving very slowly. She moved slowly enough, that after one of those breaks on the way down, Katrina and Austin got ahead of us, and soon were out of sight.

No need to panic, there’s only one big parking lot down at the bottom (a road) and all trails lead to that road. Finding your car is not always easy, but as we were parked at the middle of the road, I knew if they went to the bottom they’d figure out they needed to come back up the road to our cars to find Cheryl and Amy – and they did. They made it to the car about an hour and a half before Vicky and I! Near the bottom, I was carrying Vicky’s water pack (a Camelbak) and we had semi-frequent stops. Once we got into the trees, her spirits visibly picked up, and her pace did too. I knew she was exhausted, but it’s extremely important to make it down under your own power, so I let her keep going. She never complained, in fact none of the kids (in the “summit group”) ever complained or said anything negative. I was very impressed with all of them.

Anyhow, Vicky kept going, and going, and the only time she spoke was when I asked her questions. I kept up the compliments to her as well, because, as I said, I was very impressed with her’s, and all her friend’s attitudes and performances on “The mountain.” When we finally got down the mountain, we missed our trail cutoff as well (I saw it, but we could not find the trail down from a camp site it went through) and so had to proceed down the main trail to the bottom of the parking area (the road). So, we got to the bottom and started up the road, and we had walked about 200 yards up the road when along comes Cheryl in our Tahoe to pick us up! Her timing was GREAT!

The kids were tired, and so were the adults, so we left the mountain and headed back through Breckenridge (which was PACKED with people) and avoided the crowds there in favor of the A&W in Frisco which is run by a Christian family. They always have scripture on their board out front, and Saturday was no exception: “Blessed is the nation whose God is The Lord…” (Psalm 33:12). How cool is that? But, it gets better. While we were there, a Christian Motorcycle group rode in (Christian Motorcycle Association). In with them comes this fellow who has a WWII Veteran hat on, and I went to thank him for his service, and he tells us he’s a Normandy survivor, one of the few who stormed the beaches at Omaha! Dang!

So, the day ended well. All our training, praying, coaching, teaching, encouraging and so on paid off with the kids. They all learned something too. Each learned about limitations, both personal limitations, and the limitations of a group. They all learned the importance of discipline, staying with the group, relying on your leaders and they learned a bit about the outdoors. Oh, and Cheryl saw something very rare: She got to see a momma Black Bear with her cub. They crossed the trail right in front of her, but she was so astounded that they were gone before anyone else could get a look! Isn’t that amazing?

I hope you get a chance to do some amazing things like this. Further, if you want to be a leader with kids doing these types of outdoor activities then I hope this has helped you think about some things you’ll need to plan in order to make your trip a success. Always remember the most important person who needs to be with you on your climb: Jesus! Our record: 6 kids, 3 adults, no injuries, no altitude sickness, 4 summiters, 9 exhausted people and lots of fun! Praise The Lord! When do we go again?

God bless you!


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