C.O.R., or the Freshman Expedition, is an intensive three week leadership and backpacking course which begins the freshman year for each Wyoming Catholic College student.
I participated in C.O.R. this past August, and had a quite unexpected experience on what was supposed to be our last full day.
Here's what happened (in the form of our first paper)
“I have you,” my friend shouted. “I’m right behind you. If you fall, I fall with you!” The wind whistled as rocks slid away from every footfall, slipping down the briefest of slopes before plummeting far away down the cliff just to my left. I stepped forward. Once, twice, more rocks moved. I slipped, I caught my balance, and moved onwards. On this, our second-to-last day of twenty-one spent in the Teton Wilderness of Wyoming, myself and seven others had met surprise―and danger. Everything had been fine for the first four hours of our day, or so we had thought. We had climbed a mountain and were on the final stretch of our journey. And then, we were trapped. Suddenly imprisoned in fear, we were also enclosed in the rocky and speckled bowl of a mountain drainage, a diagonal rip or valley in the side of a mountain, an almost vertical barrier to cross. Rock slopes lay steeply upward to our right, trimmed with only the barest of vegetation, while we stood, crawled, or slid on a steep and narrow rock ledge, with a cliff, feet, even inches to our left. It was a treacherous place, a valley of fear, and I was exhausted. Lost mentally in fear, lunging for an escape, I wondered: “Will we ever make it out?”I had an unwillingness to believe what was taking place. I wanted to snap out of it, to find myself in safety, rather than the reality of facing seemingly innumerable drainages, a situation where crossing them was the only way to reach safety amidst the endless labyrinth of our mountain valley. Many in our group had only barely escaped death scouting for a path forward down cliff walls and up steep canyons in this maze. Shaking from fear of all this, I stepped forward again, slipped while grabbing for support from a flower stem that stuck out of the rocks and gravel of the mountainside, and continued. Terrified, I was almost like one without reason. Fear! I had never felt it in this manner before that day. Quivering inwardly, throbbing with fear as I was, my compatriots had to encourage and assist me.To our right, we passed a wall of ice dripping water slowly onto our path. It was beautiful to look at, but there seemed no way forward. Our ledge seemed to all but disappear into a precipice, leaving a path almost impassable, only a single branch offered a handhold, while sheer cliffs leered on either side, and the footing was incredibly slippery. Anselm, the strongest member of our group, took our lead and quickly resolved, however, “Come on, I have you!” Taking hold of the branch in one hand, keeping as sturdy footing as possible, he grabbed each of us with his second hand, flinging us over the abyss. We continued, cautiously, carefully, although cautiousness could do little for our situation. After another harrowing twenty minutes we found a somewhat safe place to stop. Although it was steep, impossible to camp, and we were still lost, the rest was calming. And then… We found a pass through the mountain a few hundred feet above us. On the other side of the mountain lay, we hoped, a camp where we could be safe.We climbed up to the pass, a short yet steep distance, the wind howling and pushing, threatening to dislodge and tumble us off yet another cliff, but we had a path, we had a way. Ascending, ascending, cresting the path, and then we saw the beauty of a verdant valley beneath us, the valley where we had begun our day and camped the night before. In the darkening light it had the power, the color, and the smell of peace and safety. We were nearly out of food, we were exhausted, and we were still lost, but we had hope for the future. I found―and felt―peace. Freed from fear by this faith and hope in safety, we flew down the mountain, moving with joy from the valley of fear to the valley of safety.Against the terror of the day we had escaped a situation, a feeling, an adventure. Passing the climax of peril, feeling like a character from one of the many adventure novels I have read, I was changed, realizing how blessed and peaceful everyday life is in comparison. Reading about fear, hearing of dangerous exploits, or watching destruction is one thing, but the experience of raw fear and terror, of not knowing if you will be able to escape safely, is another. Just as our experience was unexpected, and fear unwelcomingly arose from what I thought would be easy, fear will come in life, and someone around the world now and at all times is in a similar terrifying experience. I had never felt fear, true fear, in the intensity of this day before, and I hope to never have to again, but the truth is, I, we, nobody can choose to avoid fear. Having at least experienced true and lasting terror, I feel a new and deep closeness with the heroes and victims of the past and present, through a shared experience of a real, raw, and unsheltered moment of reality. Although fear comes suddenly and is unavoidable, peace and safety can come just as fast, bringing relief and joy. I found that peace in the verdant valley in which we had begun the day and were now to end it. Thankful for our safety, for each other, and for the unifying effect of our common experience; the moment of our reaching safety was among the most joyous and blessed of life for myself and my companions. While I do not hope for others to experience danger, when it happens, everyone can have the same experience of joy and relief when returning to safety.
For more information about WCC and the C.O.R. Freshman Expedition: see here