Photo of group exercise

From left, Paige Flentge of Glenwood Springs, Jackson Houston of Dillon, Mackenzie Cagle and McAllister Glynn of Rifle, Tyler Miller of Parachute, Karuna Owens of Carbondale and Elizabeth Darst of Frisco work together to move marbles along tubing during a trust-building group exercise during First Ascent Youth Leadership at CMC Leadville.

By Carrie Click

LEADVILLE – Executives on corporate outdoor retreats spend a lot of money to climb mountains together while learning to improve their leadership and communication skills. For a group of regional middle and high school students, though, it’s all part of a free, weeklong, college-preparatory summer program called First Ascent Youth Leadership.

Based at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, First Ascent is now in its 23rd year. From July 8 to 13 this summer, 33 students from the college’s six-county district participated, traveling from Carbondale, Parachute, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, New Castle, Steamboat Springs, Summit County and Vail to take part in the program.

The J. Robert Young Foundation sees to it that First Ascent continues to provide these secondary-school students with unforgettable life lessons. A longtime corporate sponsor, the foundation helps make it possible to provide the program free of charge to attendees.

“We truly appreciate their sponsorship and continued support,” said Carolyn Larsen, First Ascent’s program manager, who, like all First Ascent staff, came up through the ranks, initially as a student participant, then as lead counselor.

Stepping up and leading

“My whole purpose in doing First Ascent is to learn about leadership so I can make the world better and improve civilization,” said Sophia Henry, who in August will enter 10th grade at Summit High School in Frisco. “Today we need people who know what they’re doing to step up and help lead.”

Counselors and staff break students into teams and guide them through their paces – from hiking Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, to rock climbing near Camp Hale and rafting down the Arkansas River. All activities are designed to teach team-building skills and increase self-esteem.

“I didn’t know if I could do all these things,” said Allyson Murray, a Rifle High School student entering 10th grade, “but my team supported me. When I was rock climbing, I only thought I could make it halfway, but my team supported me to the top.”

‘Open-minded to everybody’

Integrated into the program are group dynamic exercises promoting problem solving, consensus-building and conflict resolution. Personality and career assessments help students get a sense of who they are.

“In our society, we learn it’s all about the individual,” said Ethan Gamburg, who will be in 10th grade at Summit High School in Frisco this August. “But First Ascent has helped me realize you have to be open-minded to everybody. It’s not just about me helping myself. It’s about helping my community.”

Gaining First Ascent insights has other benefits, too.

“I had so many new experiences and learned new skills,” said Mack Henry, who is entering ninth grade at Summit High School. “And that all looks good on a college application. I’m really thrilled.”

“Everybody should have the opportunity to do this,” said Zoe Welch, who will be a 10th-grader at Steamboat Springs High School. “Culturally, I met so many new friends. All different types of people came to First Ascent and we all blended.”