PRESQUE ISLE – For many in northern Maine, winter break means travel south, sunny beaches and cool drinks poolside. But for Stephanie Speicher, one out of three is just perfect.
On Saturday, the University of Maine at Presque Isle instructor of recreation and a group of students will travel more than 2,000 miles to the Southern Hemisphere in the hope of joining an elite club of outdoor adventurers.
“I want to expose the students to the world of mountaineering,” Speicher said from her office on the UMPI campus during a recent interview. “I remember my first mountaineering experience; it was so amazing from so many domains – cognitively, spiritually and physically. It really changed my life.”
Speicher, together with a team of guides from Earth Treks – a company specializing in outdoor adventures around the world – is taking the students for a 12-day cultural and physical trip through Ecuador, culminating with a midnight climb up 19,348-foot Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano.
“I wanted to take the students to a different country where they could experience a whole other culture,” Speicher said. “This can only make them richer people and they will be able to share some amazing stories.”
While in Ecuador, where it is now summer, the students will climb two smaller mountains – Pinchincha and Cayambe – to hone their mountaineering skills, and soak up plenty of Latin American culture. A two-day trip is planned to the village of Otovalo, a center of traditional fiber arts and home to a world-famous weaver. Time will also be spent exploring small villages and the sights of Quito, the country’s capital.
All activities and scheduled rest days are designed to prepare the students’ minds and bodies for the rigors of high-altitude climbing. The group will begin the Cotopaxi climb from a climbers’ hut at 15,744 feet. At those altitudes, oxygen becomes very thin and every breath becomes a laborious exercise.
For some, the preparation began long before the snow flew in northern Maine.
“I’ve been hiking like crazy to get my heart muscles in shape,” Priscilla Potter, said. “I have been hiking with a loaded backpack for the past month, running at night and riding stationary bikes at the gym.”
Lana McNamara, along with aerobic activities, took another approach. “I attended yoga four times a week during the semester,” she said.
Both see the trip as an opportunity to grow mentally and physically. “I am looking forward to learning more about myself,” Potter said. “I want to know what is out there, to broaden my horizons and set realistic goals for myself in the future.”
This will be McNamara’s first trip out of the country. “I’m so excited to see the Andes Mountains,” she said. “The culture change will be drastic and a wonderful learning experience.”
That’s all part of the trip’s goals, Speicher said. “They will be able to push and challenge themselves in a situation where they are not sure if they can succeed. That is where they will grow,” she said.
Along with facing their own challenges, the students are expected to assist each other in meeting those challenges. “They will have to pull for each other more than they realize,” Speicher said. “I’m not sure if they really know what it means to be on a rope team with five other people.”
It’s all going to come down to attitude.
“I want to push myself to limits that I don’t think I have had to in the past,” Lisa Davis, said. “I want to say I made it to the top because I wanted it bad enough.”
For Christopher Smith, the trip is a dream come true. “I hope to get a whole new perspective on big mountains,” he said. “I’ve grown up with a fascination with climbing Mt. Everest and this trip is one of the building blocks to get to that goal.”
On the practical side, Dave Carrier said he hopes to apply what he learns in Ecuador to his pursuit of a recreational program degree at UMPI. “Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy a lot of gear.”
For her part, Speicher admits to having a few butterflies over taking a group of students into South America. “I’m nervous and excited,” she said. “I just want to get them on a plane in Maine and off a plane in Quito.”
While reaching the summit at sunrise is the anticipated highlight of the trip, Speicher said she has been realistic with the students. “Weather or other conditions could keep us off the mountain,” she said.
With her feet still planted firmly near sea level, Speicher is already looking ahead to next year. “I’m thinking about a student trip to Peru,” she said. “There’s a mountain there over 22,000 feet.”