After winning a cash award to fund the ultimate excursion into the backcountry, a group of Fort Lewis College students knew they could dream up something big without having to leave their backyard. To them, the perfect outdoor adventure was all about being able to spend as much time in the San Juan Mountains as possible.
The Seek Your Adventure award is a competitive opportunity available through Outdoor Pursuits, a student organization designed to introduce students to outdoor recreation. For the most creative, and feasible, expedition proposal, students can win $500 toward making it a reality. This year’s winners impressed the award committee with their idea for STOUT – the Silverton-Tacoma Outdoor Ultimate Trip, a row and romp through the Animas River watershed and Weminuche Wilderness.
In early August this year, the group put in at Silverton on the Animas River and over the course of seven days ran 24 miles of world class whitewater, pausing at various drainages and side canyons to hike out and climb classic routes in the Vestal and Chicago basins.
“We just grazed the surface in what we could have done,” says Charlie Brockway, an Environmental Studies major. “There are just so many basins we didn’t end up exploring.”
Brockway and his STOUT companions Carly Smith and Carl Schnitker, are each experienced boaters and climbers with the right skills and knowledge to pull off such a technical and remote trip.
“We knew that as soon as the award was announced through OP we wanted to do something with rivers,” says Smith. “Carl has been guiding for a while and Charlie is always researching rivers in his spare time.”
"I think life would be pretty stagnant without adventure. Getting into routines speeds life up, but when you’re experiencing something new every day and every second, and dealing with higher consequences, it slows down time and you can capture it, and get glimpses of moments that really matter in life."
Charlie Brockway, Environmental Studies major
Smith, a geology major, and Schnitker (Adventure Education and Environmental Studies, ’19) rowed a 12-foot raft while Brockway safety kayaked. Both Brockway and Schnitker have worked as commercial river guides on the class IV and V Upper Animas and Schnitker also has experience as a climbing guide. Smith worked the lower Animas River all summer before the trip and had plenty of prior climbing experience as well.
“The group’s Seek Your Adventure application showed that they could take on the trip and manage risks along the way,” says Colt Fetters, operations coordinator for OP. “They showed it was a feasible trip for their skills and the overall thoroughness of the plan and itinerary made it the most whole and complete application.”
The Seek Your Adventure award committee is comprised of legends of OP, including founder John Byrd (Mathematics, ‘77), the program’s longest standing coordinator Walt Walker (Physical Education, ‘78), and a few notable climbers from the area. Byrd and his wife Shere, current FLC Biology professor, are the primary funders of the award.
“We had this amazing group of folks sitting around the table looking at these applications,” says Fetters. “[STOUT] being so close to home is one of the reasons our committee funded that trip. To see them want to do something right in our backyard was really great.”
STOUT’s first stop was at Elk Park, below Snowshed rapid. From there they hiked into Vestal Basin to camp, rising early the next morning for their ascent up Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak.
“That was a pretty big win for us, to get to the top of a pretty technical peak without any issues with weather,” says Smith.
They camped back at the river and then turned their focus to running the class IV and V rapids of the Upper Animas for the next couple of days. Their successful runs through Ten Mile and No Name rapids kept morale high for their next venture off river into Chicago Basin. Met with dozens of tents and Boyscouts, they opted for Pigeon Basin to ascend Ruby Peak and explore a remote high alpine lake. They finished up the trip on the river with clean lines through Broken Bridge rapid down to the Tacoma power plant. Smith, Schnitker, and the raft loaded up on the train, and Brockway continued downstream to kayak the Rockwood Gorge.
“The trip was pretty surreal for me. It taught me a lot about the capabilities of my friends and to trust them, and to trust myself and the skills I’ve gained,” says Smith. “It was an exceptional trip and I can’t thank OP enough.”
The award is part of OP’s annual Celebration of Adventure, an event in the spring to showcase what students are doing outside. Fetters said OP originally had enough funds to bring a film to campus but instead wanted to highlight and celebrate students’ accomplishments in the outdoors. STOUT received the first Seek Your Adventure award at the celebration in April. OP handed out additional cash and raffle prizes to the crowd and brought in a local adventurer to speak to the students, all with the intent to rev up more stoke for getting outside.
“OP’s mission is to make the outdoors as accessible as possible for the students of Fort Lewis College,” says Fetters. “The Celebration of Adventure is an evening to celebrate and for us to facilitate more people getting outside with the award.”
Each FLC student already has access to gear rentals at no charge through OP, subsidized weekend trips with OP guides, a ski and bike shop, and clinics to train up on avalanche safety or learn how to roll a kayak. Fetters said students can outgrow these offerings, once they have the skills and start buying their own equipment, but OP still wants ensure they can get out.
“Students that go on to buy their own equipment and have the education, they have these dreamy trips on their radar, and so where’s our gap here? How do we give them even more access?” he explained. “We want to support them and we want to fund them, so that they can bring back their story and we can celebrate more.”
Fetters said OP will be handing out $500 again for the Seek Your Adventure award and almost $1,000 in prizes for the photo and video contests that also make up the Celebration of Adventure. STOUT used their $500 award to pay for the raft and frame rental, train tickets to get the raft out of the canyon at Tacoma, and a week of food for three people. Brockway said the group wouldn’t have planned this trip if it weren’t for the grant, and that it was eye-opening to see what you can do with a little bit of money and planning.
“I hope this inspires others to dream up more interesting adventures,” says Brockway.
And for those just starting to seek their own adventure?
“Take the risk of trying something new,” Brockway advised. “It’s definitely uncomfortable at first and you’re not good at anything when you start. But I think with outdoor sports, it usually doesn’t take long to realize that you can participate and hang, and so the most important thing is taking the initial risk to say yes and go.”
“I think life would be pretty stagnant without adventure,” he continued. “Getting into routines speeds life up, but when you’re experiencing something new every day and every second, and dealing with higher consequences, it slows down time and you can capture it, and get glimpses of moments that really matter in life."