Trip Report – Newark MBK Adirondack Expedition
Tier 2 Expedition, June 26 – 30, 2023
Written by: Scott Wager
This expedition was a five-day journey, undertaken for the specific purpose of developing a level of self-awareness and self-efficacy that supports making positive choices, and in turn better life outcomes.
In the setting of the Adirondack’s High Peak Region, Carlos, Zavion, Lindsay, Ty, Darien, and Wilson summited mountains to take in the spectacular views and tranquility of a vast wilderness, persevered through rock climbing experiences that shifted their perspective of what they are capable of, played in mountain rivers, and openly engaged in restorative conversations to resolve conflicts that arose throughout the expedition. Each day, our conversations meandered through topics of relationships, college and career choices, training for sports, and some reflection on the negative outcomes experienced by friends making poor choices.
Although there are numerous examples of individual growth, like Lindsay accepting responsibility for a raccoon tearing a hole in his brand new $500 tent, I am going to focus the rest of this report on Zavion’s first experience with Expeditions of Empowerment.
The story of a boy named “Z”
Day 1 (June 26) was planned to be a rather casual day of travel and getting to know each other. I arrived to pick Carlos up at 7:30 and found Zavion sitting on the porch with him. As th
ey entered the van Carlos said, “my boy Zavion showed up at my house at 6, all ready to go!” We all laughed, and Zavion admitted that he was up early, anxious for the trip. Throughout the drive Zavion, Carlos, Lindsay and Ty chatted about music, movies, and sports while Wilson and Darrien caught up on their sleep. Around mid-day we rolled into a gas station in Speculator, NY for a bathroom break and to get a quick bite to eat. I ordered a pizza for the team to share, which initially Zavion was reluctant to eat. I got the sense that he didn’t want me spending money on him, and would rather go hungry. “Food is part of the trip” I explained, “it’s important for you to eat so you have the energy to do all of our adventuring, so please do not be shy.” Zavion conceded, but made sure that everyone else had an opportunity to eat before he did. This was my first insight into just how kind he is.
At around 1:30 p.m. we pulled into the Owl’s Head trailhead. It was hot and humid as we started to hike up the short, but steep,1/2 mile trail. Zavion, thick bodied than the other boys, struggled to keep pace with the others as they raced up the trail. His drive to stay with them quickly led to a racing heart and a panting breathing pattern that gave both he and I pause. “Slow down”, I suggested, “nothing we do this week will be a race, just settle into a pace that is comfortable for you.” As we made our way to the summit, a treeless, weather scoured rock outcropping, Zavion asked: “Are all the hikes gonna be like this one?” “No”, I said, “the others are quite a bit longer, and start more gradually.” “Bro! What did I get myself into?” he muttered.
Day 2 (June 27) started with an 8:00 a.m. wakeup; followed by a few extra shakes of the tent 20 minutes later for Zavion. During breakfast, Stefan and I talked to the group about the importance of listening to your body to manage hydration, nutrition, and fatigue throughout the day. I explained that our hike would be a 5 mile out-and-back hike up Catamount mountain, that would be both challenging and exhilarating. Zavion’s first question was: “How long does this hike take?” “Some groups do it in 3 hours, others take all day; it depends on how fast people hike”, I said. “The point of the hike is to get to the top and back safely, and we have all day to do it so don’t worry about speed!” I added.
Once at the trailhead, Darrien, Ty, Carlos, and Lindsay zoomed off as if they were racing, leaving Wilson and Zavion behind with Stefan and I. Eventually Wilson and Stefan pulled away as well, leaving Zavion and I to slowly plod along at a conversational pace. As we chatted, I learned that he had never before dreamt that he would be sleeping in a tent, and certainly never imagined that he would be hiking up a mountain! When we arrived at the first crux of the day, a 3-sided rock chimney, standing 40ish feet tall, that we had to climb up through, Zavion looked at me and said: “yo, I’m afraid of heights, I’m not sure I can do this.” We talked about how his fear manifested, and what that very powerful emotion was telling him; that he has a strong desire to live! That short conversation allowed Zavion to rationally identify the risky parts, and develop a plan to minimize those risks. Slowly and steadily, with lots of affirmations, we moved up the chimney, and continued clambering our way up the mountain. Before long we had reached a spectacular, but false summit. Zavion looked around for the rest of the team, wondering where they had gone. I pointed to the true summit. As Zavion’s eyes followed my outstretched arm, his shoulders sank into a defeated posture, and he sighed: “way up there? that looks twice as far as we already came!” Clearly Zavion was exhausted so I offered him the option of resting at the false summit as I went up to collect the others. If you want to stay, I will be back here in an hour with the group.” I said. “I’m torn.” he said. “My legs are so tired, but at the same time I don’t want to be the only one who didn’t go the top.” he added. “This part of the trip is about your own personal achievement, not the others, so do what feels right for you.” I encouraged. 30 minutes later we stood atop Catamount Mountain with the full team!
That night, at our fireside chat I asked the boys how they would characterize the day in a song…Zavion responded: “A song that conveys a struggle, with an upbeat, triumphant ending.”My heart swelled with joy hearing that he felt triumphant after such a grueling day.
Day 3 (June 28) was slated to be our day of rock climbing. We woke up early so that we could meet up with a legendary local climber, and guide book author, Don Mellor by 8:30. Zavion was excited, in a curious way, about rock climbing because he had no real concept of what it would be like. As Don was introducing himself to the group and explaining what gear and systems would be used, Zavion was intensely listening to every word; despite the banter of one-upmanship coming from the others. Don explained that we were going to drive to a trailhead, then make a short hike to the rock wall we would climb on. “Bro, this isn’t another hike like yesterday is it?” Zavion exclaimed. Knowing what we had done the day prior, Don chuckled and explained that our hike was only a 15 minute approach.
We arrived at the cliff to find that two other climbing parties had already setup and there was no space for us. “No big deal, we just have to hike a little future and rappel of the next cliff” Don said casually. “What does he mean by rappel?” Zavion asked with a concerned look in his eyes. “Well, that means we are going to slide down a rope from the top of the cliff to the bottom.” I said as casually as I could. “Bro, I don’t know about that, I’m still not cool with heights!” Zavion replied. I explained that the rock climbing adventure was all about trust; trust in himself, and trust in the people and systems supporting him. As Don built the anchor system we would use, Stefan and I showed Zavion (and the others) how the rappel system worked and let them practice on flat ground. By the time Zavion was ready to rappel, a light sprinkle of rain had started to fall, and darker clouds were approaching in the distance. Oblivious to the weather, gripped by a fear of falling, Zavion stood atop the cliff for several minutes verbalizing his fears. Hands clenched on the rope so tightly that his fingers turned a waxy gray color, he every so slowly started to lean back and begin the rappel. I had just finished tying myself into a second rope so I could descend alongside Zavion, when I heard Don say, “okay, your coach is ready so I’m gonna give you a little push now.” I looked over just as Don, gently, but firmly shoved Zavion backwards onto the cliff’s face. Although shocking, this was the most effective way to get Zavion into the proper body position for him to feel the security of the rope and harness system. A few seconds later, Zavion’s eyes had returned to a non-terrified diameter, and we slowly made our way down the cliff. We disconnected from the ropes, just as the storm clouds rolled over and unleashed rain that felt like someone had opened an enormous faucet directly overhead. For a few minutes Zavion and the others tried to build a temporary shelter, hoping the rain would pass as quickly as it came, but upon seeing the ropes retreat back uphill everyone knew we were not going to be climbing. “Now what do we do?” Zavion asked. “Gather up our stuff, start hiking back in the direction we originally came from and look for a way back up,” I calmly said. Within a few, saturating minutes, we found a drainage that led us back up to Don, and the trail back to our vehicles.
Rain was forecasted for the remainder of the day, so we made the best of a bad situation by changing into dry clothes and heading into Lake Placid for a tour of the Olympic Museum.
Day 4 (June 29) was originally planned to be another mountain summit hike, but since we didn’t actually get to do any rock climbing on day 3, Don offered to meet back up with us for a morning climb on a rock slab just minutes from our campsite. This alternate plan, it turns out, was the best for Zavion since his legs were still fatigued from his first mountain summit. As we hiked up another short, steep, bouldery trail, Zavion began to question if he was in for another suffer-fest. At the very moment he verbalized that question, he rounded a corner that revealed the massive slab of rock we were going to climb. “That looks hard” he said, as he pulled the harness and helmet from his backpack. By the time the group had their gear on, Don and Stefan had set three top-rope anchors so that the boys could partner up as climber/belayer teams.
Zavion partnered with Carlos and opted to belay first. Carlos had the mindset of climbing the hardest route first, which set Zavion up to do the same. When it was Zavion’s turn to climb, he openly doubted his ability to climb, but tried the hard route despite his doubts. With Carlos and I cheering him on, Zavion scratched away at the rock, pulling himself up the first several moves. About 5 feet off the ground, a foot popped off it’s hold and he slipped back to the ground. Cajoled by Carlos, and now Lindsay, he stepped up to try again. The tiny, awkward holds on that route worked in favor of Zavion’s fear; again, he fell off and declared the route too difficult for him to climb. Hearing this declaration, and submission to failure, Don sidled up next to Zavion, complimented his willingness to try, and then said, “Now lets try something you can be successful at.” He set Zavion up on a wide, diagonal crack in the rock that traversed 3/4 of the way up the slab. At this point, Carlos, Wilson, Lindsay and I were cheering Zavion on as he nervously climbed upward. Each time he said “I can’t do this” we all shouted “yes you can!” and he would move up another body length or two. Somewhere around 30 feet off the ground his legs began quivering like the needle of a high speed sewing machine. Recognizing this common symptom of muscle fatigue, I anticipated Zavion was going to fall at any moment. To my surprise, and relief, he looked over his shoulder and shouted down: “this is my summit today, I’m proud of my progress and would rather come down now than fall” Down he came, glowing with a mixture of pride and relief.
Zavion, and the rest of the team were physically and mentally frayed by the end of our climbing session. Zavion and Carlos wanted to spend time in the river, and the others wanted an afternoon nap, so they compromised on napping in the van next to the Ausable River. After 30 minutes or so of soaking his tired legs in the cold river water, Zavion asked if it was okay to go in for a swim. Next thing you know, he, Carlos, Stefan and I had stripped down to our underwear and were enjoying the therapeutic effects of swimming in cold river water.
That evening at dinner, as the boys recounted their two climbing experiences, Zavion, with a proud sparkle in his eye said: “that rappelling down a cliff and climbing was the scariest thing ever. I was terrified for a lot of it, but I’m not gonna lie…I kinda want to do it again!” Again I was overtaken with joy from knowing these challenging experiences uplifted him and left him hungry for more.
Day 5 (June 30) was an uneventful day of tearing down camp, and traveling back home to Newark. Stefan and I wished the boys a good summer as we dropped each of them at home, and then high-fived each other for leading such a successful trip. There were so many memorable moments, with each of the boys on this trip, but the one that stands out the most is a message from Zavion’s mom an hour after I dropped him off. She said: “Zavion has not stopped talking about the trip since he walked in the door. Thank you for giving him the opportunity to do things he otherwise never would have had the chance to experience.”
Today, as I reflect back on this story of Zavion’s first experience with Expeditions of Empowerment, I see the markings of great leader; A kind, gentle demeanor, courage to try new, scary things, and a willingness to push into fear and expand personal boundaries.