A Mountain for All Ages

Mount Rainier is truly a mountain that everyone can enjoy. If you don't believe me, read some of the first-hand accounts in this story by our youth participants.
Becca Polglase Becca Polglase
Education Director
January 31, 2017
A Mountain for All Ages
By Becca Polglase, Mountaineers Director of Education

As a group of 6-year-old Junior Mountaineers campers was walking toward the waterfront at Magnuson Park, the volunteer counselor pointed out, “Look! There’s Mount Rainier!” To which one camper replied, “Hey that’s like us! We’re the Junior MountRainiers!” It was a cute play on words and a great metaphor for the awe the mountain inspires and the way our volunteers can use it to encourage kids to dream of big goals.

In mid-July, our Explorers (a program for kids ages 10-13 and their parents) spent two nights camping at Cougar Rock in Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP). This group does activities together once a month throughout the year from skiing to kayaking to climbing, and most of these are single day events. Camping at Cougar Rock, the kids got to experience changing weather patterns, the stillness of the night, the mind-blowing effect of the Mountain staring you in the face and the joy of spending time together outside. The kids hiked to a waterfall and to a lookout, and at camp, spent hours in imaginary play – an important developmental need that is lacking in most kids’ busy lives. 

“The best part,” according to Caitlin O’Brien, Youth Education Manager at the time, “was watching the kids look up and dream of someday climbing the mountain.”

On July 26, five members of our teen Mountaineers Adventure Club attempted a summit of Mt. Rainier for the first time, along with three volunteer leaders and one parent. Three of the kids had been training and practicing skills for four years leading up to this opportunity. Two had been training for two years. The youth, ages 16-18, had all summited other peaks, had practiced crevasse rescue and snow travel so much they now teach it to others, had slept in snow caves, and went on a training hike to Camp Muir with the leaders in preparation for this. In the end, six of the party summited, three turned back. One of the kids turned back to accompany a team member suffering from altitude sickness. 

I asked the kids and volunteers what the climb was like for them. Here are some of their answers:

"It was amazing to watch the sunrise and realize how far up we had come even though in the dark it was hard to tell if we had actually made any progress. I brought all of my warm clothes layers like the gear list said, but I wasn’t really anticipating using all of them. I was totally wrong! I learned that in the future an alpine harness would be beneficial, I should get up earlier, I need a way to keep dehydrated dinners warm while they rehydrate, pump water filters are better than squeeze ones in this situation, regular tent stakes don’t work in the snow, having a down jacket/puffy makes it way easier to stay warm during breaks, gummy bears are awesome, and you can get a GPS app for your iPhone which does elevation and has all of the USGS maps on it. Overall this climb was a great learning experience because the leaders were open to teaching us new skills and giving us tips throughout the climb." (Youth Participant)

"Climbing Mt. Rainier helps you realize how small you are and is very humbling which I think more young people need these days." (Youth Participant)

"The kids were able to see defeat and victory and came to realize that sometimes reaching the summit isn't always the mark of a successful climb, it is what you do leading up to the attempt that matters. These kids were extremely competent and diligent in their preparation for the climb, both mentally and physically. I came away from the climb hoping I would see any of them in a leadership role someday." (Volunteer Leader)

"I hope they learned how fun and challenging climbing can be. I'm sure they feel more confident in themselves and their skills. They all did extremely well." (Volunteer Leader)

As Education Director, the most inspiring part of all of these stories is that these are not simply isolated experiences. What The Mountaineers provides are skills – both technical and life skills – that will benefit youth throughout their lives. In an email to the climb leader, one of the kids’ fathers who was on the Rainier Climb shared this: “One of the really fun conversations I got to overhear in the car was the discussion about the impact that activities like this have on young women. They talked with great passion about the personal confidence and emotional strength that is developed in girls through experiences like this — and how shallow girl’s lives can be when they are molded by Barbie, teen romance book/movies, painted nails, gossip, and fashion pressure. The time you spent with them on this climb helped to develop a lot more than just physical endurance.” This is the beauty of outdoor education. Kids and Adults have the space to learn skills, experientially, in a supportive and inspiring setting, that will transfer to the rest of their lives.

All of these experiences are made possible through the generosity and passion of our volunteers who pass on their wisdom to others and give the invaluable gift of time. There may be no greater reward than to see that gift passed on by those you’ve mentored. While two of the five youths on the Rainier climb have graduated and are moving on the college, the other three have been elected by their peers and are volunteering their time as officers for 2014 - 2015 Mountaineers Adventure Club. In their roles as officers, they will be teaching skills to new members, organizing trips and helping to ensure that each member has an opportunity to reach their goals, learn leadership and become a valued member of a community of outdoor enthusiasts.

This article originally appeared in our September/October 2014 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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