Posted December 5th, 2010
In many respects, Gabe Allen is a typical 16-year-old guy. He plays on his school’s soccer team, has been involved in theatrical productions, and plays trombone in a jazz band, all run-of-the-mill activities for kid his age. But when the year comes to a close, the junior at Montpelier High School will have one thing on his resume that most teenagers lack—a semester mountaineering and whitewater rafting in Ecuador.
While his peers are spending their days cooped up in classrooms, Gabe is trekking through Amazonian jungles, climbing peaks in the Andean Highlands, and receiving an eclectic education in topics ranging from knife making to the healing properties of herbs. The five-month trip is sponsored by Kroka Expeditions, a wilderness education program based in New England, and is divided into two parts. The first few weeks are spent on a farm in Marlow, NH, where the students camp outdoors and learn how to live sustainably. The remainder of the trip is spent in South America, where the group learns about indigenous culture and culminates their trip with an attempt to summit Mount Cotopaxi, the world’s largest active volcano.
“Gabe had done a couple summer programs with Kroka before, which included rock climbing in the Adirondacks and saltwater canoeing in Maine,” Stephanie Allen says of her son’s inspiration for enrolling in the semester abroad. “I think he also wanted to do something more challenging,” she adds. “He wanted to see the world and have an adventure.”
A look at the trip’s blog proves that he got just that. Along with 12 other eager teens, Gabe inaugurated his semester of independence on Kroka’s bucolic 75-acre property in Marlow. Besides waking up at 5 a.m. for early-morning jogs and completing a variety of chores, the group spent the first few weeks taking classes on topics such as succession-based forestry and touring local farms, where they sampled homegrown local food. In between their preparations for the trip to Ecuador, the young adventure-seekers satiated their thrill-seeking desires by mountain biking, rock climbing, and navigating class four rapids on the Deerfield River.
As leaves started to cover the ground and the season’s first frosts signaled the impending arrival of winter, the Kroka team left the cold New England weather behind for Ecuador’s tropical climate. Their first weeks were spent touring indigenous communities, learning about Latin American culture, and doing work projects in rural villages. During this time, the kids also got a taste of the land’s challenging terrain. Among the excursions they undertook were 14-mile hikes through the jungle, cata-rafting down the headwaters of the Napo River, and ascending the 13,000-foot Mount Pasochoa. Gabe himself probably summarized the ruggedness of the group’s travels best. In a letter to his parents, he wrote, “I’m sitting here in a hut in Ecuador after hiking for a few days. It feels like a five-star hotel.”
The summit of Mount Cotopaxi will mark the culmination of the group’s immersion in Ecuadorian culture. Although the colossal peak, standing nearly 20,000 feet high, represents a formidable challenge, the teenagers’ most difficult task might be their attempt to climb Antisana, another peak in the Andean highlands. Ecuador’s fifth-highest volcano at 18,875 feet, Antisana is widely regarded as one of the country’s most technically challenging climbs. The group will undergo mountaineering schooling before they ascend the peak to give them the skills necessary to complete their journey.
Gabe has always had an intimate relationship with the outdoors, says his mother. “He’s really a very skilled camper. He can go out and start a fire in any conditions without matches and those kinds of things,” she says. “The confidence of being able to take care of himself outside of civilized life has been really important to him.”
An adventure-filled semester in a foreign country certainly proves that.
Chris Keller is a senior at Montpelier High School. He runs cross-country and track & field and is a member of his school’s outing club. By writing this column, he hopes to share with you stories about teenagers who take their passion for the outdoors to another level. If you have any ideas for potential candidates for this column, feel free to email him at [email protected].