April 26, 2006

Prep: Estes Park, Colorado

Students participating in a preparatory retreat in Estes Park, Colorado in the month of April where they met each other, learned about leadership and practiced many of the techniques that they will be using on the Inca Trail.

Live field report

Group shot of participants at the retreat

Arriving in Estes Park, Colorado from thirteen different states across the country, the Leading the Way program participants were cracking jokes and swapping stories like old friends within hours of meeting each other for the first time at the late-March retreat weekend. Except for a few conference calls prior to this get-together, the retreat was essentially the kick-off celebration for the journey to Peru.

The spirit and energy of the group members became apparent when at the end of a late-night guitar and drum jam session, many of the participants made plans for an early morning run to wake them up before a tightly packed agenda on the second day of the retreat.

Erik Weihenmayer and his longtime climbing partner Eric Alexander joined the group to facilitate a practice hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Before beginning the four mile hike through Moraine Park, Erik set up a human obstacle course where sighted participants had to direct blind participants using only verbal descriptions. Once the hike was underway, pairs of blind and sighted experimented with other guiding techniques such as using the jingle of bells strapped to the guiding person’s pack to indicate direction, pace, and changes in terrain. Erik distributed trekking poles generously donated by LEKI to blind and visually impaired participants and shared valuable advice on techniques for using them on the trail. With all participants successfully navigating rocky and snowy topography, becoming comfortable with the trekking poles and the role of guiding, and refining strategies for both as they went along, the hike served as an important learning experience and a huge confidence booster for everyone involved.

Towards the end of their brief—but intense—time together, the Leading the Way participants engaged in an honest and unguarded discussion about blindness and visual impairments. Sighted students asked questions regarding aspects of blindness that they had been curious about and blind students were able to share their serious opinions on societal perceptions of blindness, as well as some humorous situations through which those perceptions have forced them to navigate. Some participants even chose to share thoughts and information that they had never expressed to others before.

The preparation for the Leading the Way expedition neither began nor ended with the group retreat. The group’s collective travels already span nearly every continent on earth, but for some participants this will be their first experience outside of the United States. While additional fitness training, extensive fundraising, and perhaps some extra attentiveness in Spanish classes, have been incorporated into the participants already busy schedules, the students have really been preparing for this adventure by choices they have made to excel throughout their lives. All participants have unique talents and strengths, but a common goal has brought them together. They are heading into the journey equipped with mental and physical endurance, integrity and maturity beyond their years, and determination to do what they want to do and be who they want to be. They have already demonstrated their willingness to work together, to encourage each other, and in so doing, find success.

During the final preparatory conference call just three weeks before the trip, Erik posed the question of whether what the participants were most looking forward to had changed since they enrolled in the program. There was a common theme in the responses. While the opportunity to experience a new culture and environment were still much anticipated aspects of the trip, making lasting connections and friendships within the group had taken on a new significance.

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