May 13, 2020
Years ago on my own Wilderness Adventures trip, our group was set to climb the Grand Teton. We had spent the prior two and half weeks preparing for the summit: backpacking, getting to know the strengths of our group and learning the skills that would be necessary on this peak attempt. The morning finally arrived, and with it came all the emotions that mark any great summit attempt.
In addition to those emotions came early morning clouds and the forecast of less than ideal weather. I remember being a teenager and watching the climbing guides and our trip leaders conferring about the game plan. I overheard them weighing our options, and debating whether we should try and go for it. It was 4 am, and I nervously ate my oatmeal as clouds blocked out the stars and our group wondered about the plan. I also remember our leaders saying ‘we would probably be just fine, but this incoming weather was giving us pause.’ As we watched small groups of 2 or 3 climbers head out for their own push towards the summit, we sat and waited for our leaders to give us the go ahead.
In that moment, I headed over to our leaders to say that I knew our group could do it: We could make it to the summit. We were all charged to do so, we had the energy, drive and willingness and we had been looking forward to this the entire year. We knew that if we did not go this morning, we would not have another chance on that trip. Our dreams and our hopes would be deferred, and everything we had worked for would be put on hold.
Our trip leaders and climbing guides heard me out. They then took some more time to confer, and eventually came back to share with us that we would not be attempting the summit of the Grand that day.
I was devastated. The chances of success seemed so high, those clouds were so far off and I could almost visualize us all on top. It was so disappointing.
In the recent weeks and months, I have been thinking a lot about that experience. In fact, at Wilderness Adventures, we are always thinking about that moment as it presents itself to us in various ways, shapes and forms every summer. However, this year, I have looked at it in a new light as we have pondered running our trips this summer. Now the hovering clouds is the pandemic that has changed so many things about our life, and the summit is the fun, joy and adventure of all of our WA trips.
We know the need for our programs is at an all-time high. We know that by not running our programs, we will disappoint many and our business and personal lives will be profoundly impacted. We plan and prepare for each of these experiences for over a year, and we are, as always, excited to get out on the trail. This momentum has guided us as we thought that we could maybe, just maybe, thread the needle, and run our programs and everything would be fine. We are aware that the clouds could lift, and we might have been able to sneak in that adventure we all need and will remember forever.
The forty-seven year history and the community of Wilderness Adventures has guided us as we surveyed this new summit. We have spent time with many of our partners, our founders, Mike and Helen Cottingham, and our alumni as we have tried to determine the best course of action. As the former CEO of the American Camp Association, I also constantly sought that organization’s input and the input of other leaders in the youth outdoor space to inform our decision. We have also heard from so many of our families, encouraging us while also trusting our thought process as we considered the logistics, risk mitigation and trip planning of our trips this summer.
Ultimately, we have assessed this new peak and the cloud cover that hangs over it and decided today is not the day to go for the summit. We have decided to cancel all our planned trips for the summer of 2020. It is with sadness that we come to this decision. We all want to adventure this summer. We all want to feel some sense of normalcy. We all want to click our heals and go back to the way things were. As a dad, I really want these things for my kids more than myself. They are hungry to hit the trail and make new friends from around the globe. But today is not our day, the risks are too high and we know there will be other days for us.
WA has put thousands of youth on the tops of mountains all over the world. We will continue to help kids achieve new heights through great programming next summer, and for many summers to come. Nevertheless, the quality of the experience our kids and families come to expect from our company comes also with a calculation of what risks we can take on and which ones we cannot.
Back on the Grand that day, one of my WA trip leaders, who I greatly admired, pulled me aside and said, ‘I know it’s tough to understand now, but someday you will.’ Moments later, we quickly regrouped, and went for an alternative peak, the Enclosure. There we shared our joy and our sadness and we took what silver linings we could from the tough situation. We descended and ended up donning our rain gear as we headed back to the trailhead. I will never know if we could have made it to the top that day or not, but a few short years later, I once again tried for the summit, and made it.
I do understand now. Maybe now, more than ever.
The Grand will continue to be there for us, and Wilderness Adventures will continue to be there for you. We want to thank all who have supported us and reached out to us to offer their love during this time. We won’t forget it as we regroup and ready ourselves for the next climb.