April 7, 2011 |

Students get a whole new latitude

The Haines Venturer Scouts challenged three Ecuadorean mountains during their two-week trek in South America.

"It was extremely challenging, even though the pace we were going at wasn’t something where you would get tired if you were just walking around town," said Elena Horner, a Haines High School junior. "The oxygen was so thin."

The group returned to Haines on April 4 and included students Horner, Hunter Badgley, Polly Bryant, Chevy Fowler, Jess Giddings, Rin Hamada, Margarette Jones, Zak Little, Teolani Lynch, Teslin Podsiki, Kai Sato-Franks, Jackie St. Clair and Brennon Whitermore, and chaperones Al Giddings, Holly Irwin and Greg Podsiki, and Mike Ferrari and Amy Russell of Ketchikan.

They worked with Tim Benson, Bill Dwyer and Brian Rougeux of Alaska Mountain Guides, plus three mountain guides from Ecuador, to climb Rucu Pichincha, Illiniza Norte and Cotopaxi. All three mountains top 15,000 feet.

Little, Lynch and Teslin Podsiki were the only students to conquer Cotopaxi, at around 19,350 feet, along with Ferrari and Al Giddings.

"About half the kids turned around before they made it halfway up the mountain," said Greg Podsiki, Haines Venturer Scouts director. "… Everything we did was working to getting up to the top of Cotopaxi, because of the high altitude."

Lynch, a junior, said the journey up Cotopaxi was "amazing" and "such a great life experience."

"You were above the clouds," she said. "It was like being in an airplane."

The technical climb was exhausting, Little said, but he endured.

"I wanted to give up lots of times, but I just kept walking and our guide told us that when the sun came out, it would make it that much easier," he said.

Little, a senior, said he was "very proud" of his fellow climbers.

Cotopaxi required an 11 p.m. start time, and those who reached the summit were back at camp about 10 a.m. the following day.

"It was howling wind the entire time, nonstop, about 25 miles an hour, with gusts much higher, so these people marched up in the night, in the dark, single-file, in a group," Podsiki said.

They were equipped with ice axes, crampons, harnesses, headlamps and helmets, and braved several crevices. Students said the hike got scarier after the sunrise, when they could see the steep angle of the terrain they’d been traveling through.

"There was also one crevice where there was a manmade ladder, and they on their hands and knees had to crawl over this crevice that was very, very deep, probably like 100 feet deep or so, and wide," Podsiki said. "Of course, they were all roped in and everything was very safe."

The freshman Fowler said he was less than an hour from the top when he turned around.

"After every corner, you thought that you were there," he said.

Fowler said the climbs were fun but challenging. "They push you to your limit."

The group faced hailstorms and a 3 a.m. wake-up call for the 17,000-foot Illiniza Norte. They loaded up their equipment on horses.

"Despite how tired and hungry and wet and soaked they were, no one ever complained," Podsiki said. "They were always so happy."

The Venturer Scouts started on their trip March 16, and their route included Juneau, Los Angeles, Panama and Quito, Ecuador, the capital city. They hosted fundraisers, such as an auction and Ecuadorean dinner that reeled in more than $8,000.

"I don’t think we can thank everyone enough, just for the miles and money that got donated to the individuals," Horner said. "Pretty much everyone got their plane fare from L.A. paid for, from the generous members of the community."

In Ecuador, the students battled altitude sickness and were advised to drink a gallon of water a day. They tested their Spanish skills by bartering at an open market, and went horseback riding, mountain biking and rafting.

Podsiki provided e-mail updates to parents and described 65-degree weather and "so much vegetation, palm trees, banana trees, flowering trees."

At a later visit to a rural village, Podsiki said "people are often seen riding their horses to work and school, even parking them on the curb in front of the stores," and he noted six homemade bread rolls sold for 72 cents.

Freshman Sato-Franks said the overall trip was "intense" and made him appreciate some of the conveniences of life in Haines.

"The things we’re used to, like water and TV, you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s gone," he said.

Near the end of the trip, the group tasted fresh goat milk and raw sugarcane.

The Venturer Scouts plan for an international trip every three years, Podsiki said. Their previous destination was Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and the young scouts have their sights set on Australia in 2014.