Finding Confidence and Community in the Mountains

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, read how the Conditioning Hiking Series community instilled gratitude and courage in course graduate Amy Carlsen.
Amy Carlsen Amy Carlsen
2023 Conditioning Hiking Series Graduate
June 11, 2024
Finding Confidence and Community in the Mountains
Amy at Ptarmigan Ridge. Photo courtesy of Amy Carlsen.

I’m standing on the Ptarmigan Ridge trail – a nine-mile day hike in the North Cascades lined with lupine, sedges, and patches of blueberries – seriously questioning my sanity. We’ve been hiking for over ten hours in the hot September sun. To make this route qualify as a Conditioning Hiking Series (CHS) graduation hike, we added the Chain Lakes Loop, another six miles through lush forests and alpine lakes. Coleman Pinnacle, Mt. Baker, and Goat Lake are just some of the incredible views we’ve observed so far.

The trail is rocky and steep, but seeing our cars a half-mile away gives me a small burst of energy. The only problem is that the trail in front of us is blocked. Dinner at the lodge will be served in less than 30 minutes. Daylight is waning. Dirty, chaffed, and hungry, I’m in no state of mind to make rational decisions.

None of us like the idea of hiking several more miles on a dusty trail to go around the roadblock, but the idea of scrambling up a rocky hillside isn’t attractive either. As Mountaineers, we stay with our group. We’ve supported each other the last six months building up to this graduation hike and here we stand, exhausted, trying to collectively come to a decision.

Conditioning with community

My hiking journey began two decades earlier as a way to spend time with my son who has autism. Being in nature calmed him and allowed us to connect in a way that we couldn’t anywhere else. Over the years, he grew up and lost interest in hiking with his mom. The pandemic left me lonely, isolated, and deeply craving the calmness and connection found only in nature. In a leap of faith, I signed up for the Seattle CHS course. This course is not for the faint of heart. For those who finish, it is life-changing.

confidence-Grand View Peak 1. Photo by Sheila Reynolds 9.23.2017 (1).jpgGrand View Peak. Photo by Sheila Reynolds.

CHS is a volunteer-run course, founded in 2005 by Kelly and Matt Cleman as a way to safely train for long hikes as part of a community. Hiking enthusiasts commit to a minimum of two hikes per month from April through August in preparation for a graduation hike of 15-20 miles in September. The six-month timeframe allows for hikers to get to know people, make friends, and learn The Mountaineers culture. “You spend a lot of time together hiking on the trail,” said Kelly Cleman. “Most of my friends I met through CHS. We continue to do things together.” The bonding that happens through hiking together in the wilderness, and often sharing a meal together afterward, is the secret sauce of CHS.

In its first year, Seattle CHS registered 25 hikers and six leaders. In 2024, 120 hikers and over 60 leaders enrolled. A similar growth can be seen across branches. In 2015, Donna Kreuger established CHS in Olympia and its registration continues to fill every year. Carlanna Livingstone started CHS in Tacoma in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, and the Tacoma Branch now offers three seasonal series of hikes. About two-thirds of the hikers who sign up for CHS, graduate from the course. Graduates often stay involved after the course to become future advocates, volunteers, and CHS hike leaders.

Reaching new heights

Although I had been hiking for some time, CHS gave me the confidence to try longer and harder hikes. This confidence also came with some challenges. My first CHS hike in April left me with black, bruised toenails from ill-fitting hiking boots. My irrational fear of heights prompted many fellow hikers to lend a hand as I tiptoed through Kendall Katwalk, Tunnel Falls, and the narrow ridges of Norse Peak. Over halfway through the course, I rescued my best friend when she had a seizure on our vacation in Yellowstone National Park. Traumatized from the experience, I was terrified to hike at all, but the graciousness and support of my fellow CHS hikers propelled me forward. Overwhelmed with gratitude and courage, I kept hiking.

CHS provided me with the opportunity to hike in many incredible places. Some of my favorites include the granite spires of Dragontrail and Colchuck Peaks, the stark moon-like landscape of Navaho Pass, and the multitude of waterfalls along the trail to Tunnel Falls in the Columbia River Gorge of Northern Oregon. I also found some lesser-known local hikes in Issaquah that offer year-round forest solitude, such as Margaret’s Way to Debbie’s View and May Valley Loop.

Of all the inspiring views, alpine lakes were my favorite. I saw several during this final graduation hike while walking around Chain Lakes. Our group was too tired to talk, and instead spent quiet time together basking in the grandeur of nature, enjoying the coolness of the lakes and their refreshing, filtered turquoise water.

confidence-Ptarmigan Ridge.jpgPtarmigan Ridge. Photo courtesy of Amy Carlsen.

Celebrating 20 years of CHS

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of CHS. Alumni will gather in Seattle on June 21 to reconnect with each other and celebrate the friendships formed through 20 years of hiking. We will also remember the hikers who are no longer with us, such as Karen Sykes, one of the first CHS hike leaders. She passed away hiking Mt. Ranier in June of 2014.

Time moves on, but memories are lasting.

What will the future 20 years hold for CHS? “I hope the program continues to be personally meaningful for both volunteers and participants,” Kelly said. Olympia CHS Co-Chair Terry Pressly’s vision is “for future outdoor generations to get excited by advocating for our lands, and getting to places where the price of admission is physical health and well-being.” For me, CHS instilled confidence to try my next grand adventure: two weeks of hiking Finland’s national parks this summer with Global Adventures.

Crossing the finish line together

On the trail from Ptarmigan Ridge, we gather together, dusty and worn, to face the roadblock ahead. After five minutes of deliberation, our stomachs win. We take a deep breath, then band together to navigate the steep and rocky hill.

Standing safely at my car, I pause to take in the incredible view. I am overwhelmed with emotion as I ponder the past seven months. I’ve crossed rivers and snow fields, scrambled up steep mountains and scooted over rocky ledges, observed a Carnivorous Sundew wildflower, and learned the value of drinking electrolytes. Through it all, I experienced the incredible beauty of nature and the power of community.

Doing CHS will always be one of the best decisions of my life. I am forever grateful for the administrators and leaders who had a vision for CHS and continue to volunteer their time to keep it vibrant and alive. I am also thankful for my fellow hikers who stuck with me as we finished our journey together. I hope to meet you again in the mountains.

This article originally appeared in our summer 2024 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.