KEEN Connects Mount Whitney

KEEN’s Environmental Education Director, Carlyn Saunders, enjoys her moment atop Mount Whitney.

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Here is something personal: I am hiking over 100 miles through the remote Sierra Nevada mountains, having dreamed of this since I moved west in 2011. The Sierra Nevada is a barren landscape of unforgiving rock and ice, craggy peaks and frigid lakes, blazing hot summer days and near freezing nights. Every day on trail is a test on my body and my mind as I trek further into the remote mountains.

On the first day, I curse every step of these 10 miles, questioning why I believed carrying nine days of food was the wisest choice. On the second day, I break a trekking pole and a stick jabs the top of my foot, causing me to bleed for over 20 minutes. On the third day, I climb from morning until dark over 15 miles and over 5,000 feet of elevation gain. On the fourth day, I crest my first pass at over 12,000 feet above sea level and feel the strain in my lungs with every breath. On the fifth day, I stumble down 4,000 feet of treeless trail feeling my knees cry out and the backs of my legs redden from the sun. On the sixth day, I stand on top of another 12,000 foot pass at dusk, completely alone, and scream into the void. On day seven, I weep as I trace the line of never-ending switchbacks I have yet to traverse. On day eight, I sleep with my water filter inside my sleeping bag so it won’t freeze as the summit camp temperatures drop swiftly into the low 30s. On day nine, I crawl my way across rocks that has seen a millennium of sunrises. I inch myself over 12,000 feet … 13,000 fee t… 14,000 feet … Until my shoes rest next to a bronze USGS survey marker reading, “Mt Whitney, 14,508 feet”.

Reaching my final destination, I sit down on a large, flat boulder and gaze out at the horizon. There are small brown birds hopping from rock to rock, looking for crumbs dropped by exhausted hikers. Vibrant yellow lichen is growing in the dark nooks of the immense stones. It seems impossible that anything could flourish at this altitude, but not far below me I can see green meadows surrounding creek drainages. Over these past nine days, I did not allow the physical strain of my hike prevent me from slowing down and noticing, observing the vast world around me. I watched trout dart around the alpine lakes, stooped low to smell the aroma of wildflowers, giggled at the chubby marmots scurrying over cliffs, shooed daring chipmunks away from my lunch, basked with the lizards in the sunshine during my breaks, grew cautious upon seeing large piles of berry-filled bear scat, and constantly marveled at the craftsmanship of the trails, painstakingly built by hand.

There are things every person thinks about when they have completed something momentous; I am no exception. Sitting atop the highest peak in the lower 48 states, I silently thank my family for always supporting my passions and pursuits, no matter how crazy. My smile exudes gratitude towards my partner, who always encourages me to dream big. I think about my career, ticking off all the things I’ve created and all the things I’m dreaming of creating. I consider all the experiences and opportunities I’ve had that empower me to do hard things. I appreciate the years of education I’ve received from childhood that fostered a love of our natural world, a desire for exploration.

I honestly believe that I would not be where I am today (KEEN’s Environmental Education Director) if I had not been given many avenues to explore and learn about the world in my childhood. Because my family, teachers, and community members encouraged me to learn, seek, and grow, I’ve remained curious and adventurous, now in my 30s.

Through programs like KEEN’s Earth Explorers and Mountaineers, kids of all ages are encouraged to learn new skills, seek out unique solutions to a multitude of scenarios, and grow in courage, friendship, and stewardship.

Earth Explorers’ takes kids out of the four-walled classroom and into a forest one. After-school programming is student-centered and place-based with a focus on natural exploration. Mountaineers shows teens that its cool to be adventurous. Weekly gatherings present themes through group discussion and expert-led activities, building skills that will be used during monthly adventures. Camping, snowshoeing, paddle-boarding… the sky is the limit! It’s never too late to discover a passion for our beloved outdoor spaces; but why wait? Sign up for all K-10 programming at ycic.org.

Carlyn Saunders is KEEN’s Environmental Education Director.

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