Even though he is an experienced downhill skier, Freshman Clark Akuthota had never been backcountry skiing. But that didn’t stop him from signing up for the three-day Eldorado Hut Trip, Colorado Academy’s first experiential learning venture since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to his sense of adventure, he enjoyed a full Wolf Moon at high altitude, some colorful sunrises, and new friends in the Freshman and Junior classes.
“When you have a mix of classes, you can learn from people who are older than you are,” Akuthota says. “It gets you out of your normal circle of friends and gives you a whole new perspective.”
Junior Ashley Hagen is an experienced cross-country skier with previous trips to backcountry huts with her family and with CA before the pandemic hit. When there was a last-minute opening on the Eldorado trip, she jumped at the chance to go.
“I have always loved hut trips,” Hagen says. “I love being outside in the middle of nowhere when it’s snowy and silent, and the stars come out.”
For the leaders of this trip, Forbes Cone and Ian Marzonie, this trip was a significant step toward a sense of normal times, when CA students took outdoor education experiences for granted.
“Getting trips going again creates a sense of community,” says Cone. “Students connect with each other through shared passions and interests outside academics.”
Conquering the backcountry
Eight Upper School students—four Freshmen and four Juniors—gathered at CA on Saturday of the Martin Luther King Jr. long weekend. The first order of business that morning was rapid testing for COVID-19 before students could even get on the bus. With negative tests, all students could start the journey to Leadville, but COVID-19 precautions remained in place.
“They had to wear masks in the bus and in the hut,” says Cone. “If they were indoors, the only time they could remove the masks was when they were eating or sleeping. Wearing a mask was a condition of going on the trip.”
Once they arrived in Leadville, students took off on alpine touring skis for a five-mile journey to the hut, which is located five miles west of Turquoise Lake. The path winds through pine forest for the first mile and then gradually moves up a ridge on the north side of the lake. Students used skins on their skis to more easily climb both gentle and steep grades.
“On this trip, the more experienced students become leaders,” Cone says. “Charlie Jones and Ezra Goldstein helped the other students put the skins on their skis.”
“It was a strong group, and we kept up a good pace,” says Akuthota. “Everyone was set on one goal.”
That goal was the Eldorado Hut, with spectacular views of Mount Massive (14,421 ft.) and Bald Eagle Mountain (11,899 ft.), a dinner they cooked for themselves, and a good night’s sleep. For Hagen, there was another reward—disconnecting. “Going without texts and calls and emails—it’s nice to get away from all that,” she says. “Taking that kind of break and learning what it can do for you is really valuable.”
Conquering the unnamed mountain
Sunday morning started with Cone explaining some basic avalanche safety skills to the group, including how to use a beacon and probe. Then the group “skinned” up to the top of a nearby unnamed mountain (12,313 ft.).
“Our legs were sore from the day before, but we pushed ourselves, took breaks, and motivated each other,” Hagen says. “At the top, you could take in the view and say, ‘I did it!’”
Then, the group removed the skins from their skis and enjoyed a nice long downhill run. For Hagen, who had done more cross-country and less downhill skiing, this was an experience that made her a little nervous.
“I knew it would be a challenge when I signed up, but I wanted to do it even more because of that,” she says. “The things I have done at CA that I have been most nervous about, I have loved the most, and they have had a significant lasting impact on me.”
Both Hagen and Akuthota talk about how much they have missed going on Interim trips during COVID-19. They have a sense of how significant it is that finally, they could be together with other students and untethered from home and campus, getting opportunities to learn what Hagen calls “the life lessons and skills you need to live in the world.” As for Akuthota, he can’t wait to get outdoors again. He plans to sign up for all of this year’s experiential weekends for more backcountry skiing and some great ice climbing.