The Summit Daily News published a version of this story in its Aug. 7, 2016 edition.  

A photo of First Ascent campers' hands as they balance through a tricky ropes course on the CMC Leadville campus.

Eighth- and ninth-grade campers at First Ascent, held at Colorado Mountain College Leadville each summer, learn to trust each other – and balance – on a ropes course. Photo Matt Lit

Eigth and ninth graders spend a week at Colorado Mountain College Leadville pursuing outdoor activities while learning leadership concepts – and all for free

By Carrie Click

LEADVILLE – A group of First Ascent students is perplexed, standing around a life-sized puzzle. It’s part of Colorado Mountain College Leadville’s ropes course tucked into the woods adjacent to the campus.

These eighth- and ninth-grade students are trying to figure out how to get their team of 10 to cross a difficult combination of tree stumps and moveable, unstable wood planks.

After the students try, and fall off – several times – their counselor, Kristen Sidor, circles them up.

“Before you started here, did you have a plan?” asks Sidor as the students’ heads collectively shake “no.”

“Start over,” she says. “Ask questions. Make a plan this time.”

After a brief discussion, the group tries again. They are much more methodical in their approach, slowly moving one student at a time. This time, they succeed.

“This helps you get to know everyone really well,” says Karla Gamez, a student from Carbondale, after making it through the gauntlet.

Leadership training at 10,000 feet

Ropes course problem-solving was one of many leadership and team-building activities 39 students took part in July 10-15 at First Ascent, a week-long, residential camp offered at Colorado Mountain College Leadville. Now in its 22nd year, the program is held each summer for students living in most of CMC’s service area: Chaffee, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Lake, Pitkin, Routt and Summit counties.

A photo of First Ascent campers balancing on a thin wire on the ropes course at the CMC Leadville campus.

Far left, Austin Rickstrew, a counselor at First Ascent, watches as Morgan Geiger, center, from Oak Creek balances on a cable with her fellow campers, from left, Esteban Magana from Silt, Arleth Chavez Martinez from New Castle, Ian Anderson from Dillon and Cassidy Lawson from Frisco. Photo Matt Litt

Besides solving challenges on the ropes course, campers rock climbed at Camp Hale north of Leadville; summited nearby Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak; and rafted the Arkansas River, all while immersing themselves in an intensive leadership curriculum.

Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl, Colorado Mountain College’s former youth outreach coordinator, created First Ascent, and now serves as the program’s manager.

“Our curriculum has evolved through the years,” Velasquez-Schmahl said, as it strives to inspire students to pursue postsecondary education. “It’s more than just coming here and climbing. These students leave with lifelong leadership skills to initiate positive civic change.”

The program is absolutely free to its participants, thanks to Colorado Mountain College and the program’s sponsor, the J. Robert Young Foundation/Alpine Bank. Because of CMC and this sponsorship, this summer students from a diverse range of backgrounds were able to come, at no charge, from 10 schools in the Roaring Fork and Vail valleys, western Garfield County, Summit County and Oak Creek. Kids from the same school who had never talked to each other finally did, and strangers became friends.

Sponsors support innovative program

A photo of campers balancing on planks, part of the ropes course at First Ascent at CMC Leadville.

Maggie Friemel, in pink T-shirt, passes a plank to Spencer Ellsperman, far right, as their teammates balance on narrow boards, as part of First Ascent’s team-building activities at Colorado Mountain College Leadville’s ropes course. Photo Matt Lit

Ronaldo Lopez, 14, from Edwards experienced a lot of “firsts” at this year’s program. It was the first time he’d ever rafted, and the first time he’d climbed a mountain – in the United States, that is.

“I used to climb a mountain in Mexico to get to my village, but I hadn’t done it here,” he said. “Plus it’s good to come here and meet new people.”

Silverthorne’s Ali Clarke, 15, said she’d already checked off Mount Elbert on her bucket list but she was still excited to climb the peak again. “I didn’t really know what to expect [at First Ascent],” she said. “It’s interesting. And it’s fun. We’re trying to figure out things together.”

Counselors and facilitators, such as Junior Ortega, are former First Ascent students – and dedicated First Ascent alumni. First a camper in 2007, this summer Ortega was a facilitator in this, his ninth, year. Sidor, too, like many of her fellow camp staff, is a longtime counselor. This summer’s program marked her seventh year at First Ascent.

Velasquez-Schmahl knows that the teamwork – from Colorado Mountain College, the J. Robert Young Foundation/Alpine Bank, the staff and the students – which surrounds First Ascent is what makes it effective, well-attended and enduring.

“This is a one-of-a-kind program,” she said. “These eighth- and ninth-graders are at such an opportune age to learn leadership concepts. They are the seeds that are being planted now to flourish into leaders.”