As Colorado Academy Sophomore Logan Day-Richter pulled on his climbing harness and stared up at the 100-foot vertical wall of ice he was about to scale, the moment felt, as he puts it, “surreal.”
“To go from last year, when much of my class was in [COVID-19] quarantine at this time of the year, to standing with a group of people ice climbing means we are really going in the right direction,” he says. “We were so excited to be outside and in each other’s company.”
Standing nearby, Ninth Grader Lucy Nadolink was reminded once again that she had made the right decision when she chose Colorado Academy for high school.
“One of the reasons that I wanted to come to CA was that I really love outdoor adventures,” she says. “This trip was right up my alley.”
Day-Richter and Nadolink were two of 11 Upper School students who spent Presidents Day holiday weekend traveling to Lake City, Colo. to go ice climbing. Masterfully organized by Director of Experiential Education Forbes Cone and led by Upper School English teacher Mike Stanitski and strength and conditioning coach Wes Kirk, this was CA’s second outdoor education trip after a nearly two-year long hiatus during the pandemic. The first was the Eldorado Hut trip in January.
The majority of the students on the trip had never tried ice climbing. Stanitski, who describes himself as “usually one of the worst climbers,” loves taking students ice climbing, not only for the experience students enjoy, but also for what he learns.
“It’s really easy for adult professionals to lose touch with the beginner mindset—that feeling of trying something and not being very good at it,” he says. “We are constantly asking students to do new things, and I think it’s essential for teachers to stay in touch with what that feels like.”
Nadolink can tell you how it feels to be clinging to an ice face with crampons strapped to your boots and using ice tools to pry holds into the ice. “I don’t know how you can not be intimidated,” she says. “But the feeling at the top makes the whole climb worth it.”
Collaborating over dinner and challenging the ice
The group assembled at CA on the Friday before the long holiday weekend. Everyone had to be vaccinated, and the first directive was to administer rapid COVID-19 tests to everyone before getting on the bus. With testing hurdles cleared, they headed to Lake City, which, with its man-made ice park, has quickly become a popular ice-climbing destination.
“Lake City Park is awesome,” says Coulter Perkins, the only Senior on the trip and the most experienced ice climber. “They have expanded it over the years with really nice big walls, so it’s less crowded and easy to get to because it’s in the middle of Lake City.”
On Friday, students had another challenge that could have been even more daunting than climbing. During a stop in Gunnison, they broke into small groups and went grocery shopping for the meals they would prepare for the group. Grocery shopping may not be the point of this trip, but it becomes an educational experience with its own challenges.
“We try to encourage collaboration in our classrooms, but being in a group of four people who have to cook dinner for 15 hungry people, you have to learn to work together,” says Stanitski with a laugh. “There are real and immediate stakes and a genuine payoff!”
On Friday evening, students had their first orientation, learning about the ice climbing gear—crampons and ice tools—that they would be using the next day. Everyone took time to fit their crampons to their specialized climbing boots. By Saturday morning, the students were ready for orientation at the base of the ice wall with their guides, Jason Antin and Joey Thompson, from the Colorado Mountain School.
Both guides have extensive mountaineering skill and experience. Antin has worked with CA students on ice climbing for many years, and Thompson is one of only 100 guides in the U.S. who has certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, which means he has reached the highest level of certification in each of the three disciplines (alpine, rock, and ski) offered by the American Mountain Guides Association.
“In addition to being extraordinary climbers themselves, our guides are tremendous educators,” says Stanitski. “Even if the kids are 50 feet up on the ice wall, the guides approach them with patience, warmth, and encouragement.”
Anchored at the top and belayed by a fellow climber on the ground, the students started their first routes up the ice. For Day-Richter, some of his skills as a competitive climber translated to ice, but there were new challenges.
“You are not bound to specific features in a rock because you can use the ice tools at any point,” he says. “You can move up completely smooth ice, and that would be impossible on a rock using your hands.”
Nadolink is also an experienced climber who found she needed to learn new skills. “It demands a lot more endurance than normal climbing,” she says. “In ice climbing, you have to find the right place to create a hold and then make sure you aren’t tired and cold while you are doing it.”
A life-changing trip
CA’s Outdoor Education trips can be life-changing. Perkins had never climbed ice until he signed up for this same trip in his Freshman year. It was love at first sight.
“You walk up and see this giant wall of ice in front of you, and then you climb your way up and sit at the top and look down,” he says. “I like the challenge of it because you can push yourself.”
Perkins has gone on the ice climbing trip every year it has been offered at CA, and he has ice climbed around Colorado. At Lake City this year, he climbed the 100-foot wall six times in one day, using different routes for each climb, and once ascending with only one ice tool, instead of the usual two. Ice climbing is a passion he discovered on a CA Outdoor Education trip—had he not gone that first year, he admits he may never have discovered his love for the sport.
Stanitski had high praise for the students who went on this trip, and he thanked them all in an email:
“Colorado Academy’s mission statement talks about “curious, kind, courageous, and adventurous learners and leaders.” This weekend, you embodied every word in that mission statement. On the ice wall, you learned new skills, took on daring new challenges, pushed your own mental and physical limits, and looked after your fellow climbers by belaying and cheering each other on.
“But we also saw you demonstrate all those qualities in the mission statement in everything else you did this weekend, from the moment you started loading the bus in the CA parking lot before our departure, to buying a staggering amount of groceries in Gunnison, to unloading and sorting the gear and food at the condos, to cooking dinner and cleaning up, and throughout the rest of the weekend, right up to unloading the bus upon our return to CA. We’ve had great groups of students on this trip in the past, but this year’s group raised the bar to a new level.”