Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
Ty Donaldson is often asked if he should be hiking up steep mountains. “Why can’t I?” he responds. “I show people I can do it.”
He broke his back in high school. You’re always recovering, he said. Pain comes in the morning some days. You deal with it and go on.
Donaldson takes strong, easy strides up the rocky Piestewa Peak path, a mountain in the middle of Phoenix that seems to go straight up. He and seven other Grand Canyon University students are on a stairclimbing machine with a view. It’s heavy breaths and footfalls and chatter as the sun rises and warms the cool January air.
“I document the trips on Instagram, I try to portray it, capture it, make a story out of it,” he says of the GCU Outdoor Recreation adventure trips so popular with students.
The groups have paddled down rivers, hiked through canyons, skied down snowy mountains and climbed up cliff faces with ropes in every nook and cranny of God’s creation within 500 miles of campus.
“You see people super tired and never quitting. You see them keep climbing to get up,” Donaldson said. “I remember one guy on Humphreys (the tallest peak in Arizona). The guy did it, and I loved just seeing him so happy and enjoying it.”
That’s what makes it for him.
One student, Kenzie Pellerin, asks for a break. Everyone stops, hands on hips, drinking water. It’s 1,162 feet of elevation in a little over a mile, but it’s straight up to heaven.
“I tried this once before but only made it a fourth of the way,” Pellerin said.
The group is a third of the way up, and she contemplates retreat.
The students nod, talk, encourage. In the outdoors, everyone is one. Outdoor Recreation Manager Chad Schlundt considers that one of these trips’ many values.
“You are all on the same playing field. You eliminate those walls up on campus,” he said. “You are the smallest thing in nature. So there is this instant connection in nature and you start forming bonds.”
The march continues, up. Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Cole Hanson is near the back, softly talking with the hikers, but the trip is led by students, as are all 100 adventures planned for this year in a program that expects to have 2,000 participants by year’s end.
It’s student Maddy Romine’s first time in charge, as one of 24 student leaders who are trained over the summer in wilderness skills, first responder medical aid and trip planning.
The brow of the fresh-faced Colorado student is a bit creased – it’s a lot of responsibility. But she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. She grew up outdoors with her family and races in competitive paddleboard for fun.
“Nature reflects God,” she said. “You get a glimpse of Him in the outdoors.”
They are more than halfway to the top now and get to know one another, talking through heavy inhales.
Sophomore Ben Kock is a former cross country runner from Iowa who says he is “into hard” and looks as if he could run up the mountain. Emma Martinez wears a ballcap that reads “Love One Another” and marvels at her first time on this mountain.
“It’s surreal,” she said, “looking up at God’s creation.”
They talked of camping and paddling and classes and favorite ice cream. Most didn’t know each other, had never met, but were brought together by signing up for the trip.
The participation numbers have more than doubled in the last five years. The groups have stood in silence before majestic waterfalls in northern Arizona, stared into campfires in the forest and down sheer drops on Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park.
“But a cool group makes the trip,” says Hanson, “and those times when students met the challenge with the help of a caring group urging them on.”
The climb gets steeper. Talk is minimal now. It’s heavy breathing.
“This is the end, right?” asks one.
“Yeah,” says another. “Is it?”
Laughter. A few more steps, straight up. The top. Everyone looks around. Far below, the city unfolds. To the west, GCU’s campus looks like a tiny model city in the distance. The mountains ring the Valley to the east, big peaks they may one day climb.
Pellerin can’t wait to tackle them. Her parents from Oregon and four sisters don’t share her need to be outdoors, her desire to keep reaching for this new experience. She said she almost quit this one “15 times.”
“It was hard,” she said. “It was worth it. … To see what it’s all about.”
What it’s about.
Donaldson will remember, as he recalls the hiker in the Grand Canyon who had an unsure standing with his faith.
“He told us he made a connection to Christ in the outdoors,” he said.
Sitting on the rocks at the peak, they talk about classes, issues, life down the mountain. Megan Nolby, an environmental science major, says people are destroying God’s creation. Communications major Bella Quaranta says she watched a documentary that examined why people are always looking down, especially at social media, on phones.
“People don’t look up and see what’s actually here,” she said. “Look around, appreciate it, take care of it.”
Everyone looks around once more before rising, then looks out for one another on the descent to the city below.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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