March 18, 2019

UMPI president lives for adventure in, out of classroom

PRESQUE ISLE – There’s a stylized graphic of a compass in the corner of Nancy Hensel’s business card.

The compass is the symbol of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, a campus where intellectual, cultural and outdoor adventure is stressed. It also may be the perfect symbol for a campus president who could add “explorer” to her resume.

After all, this is an administrator who spent her winter break on the frozen 19,340-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the latest in a series of high-altitude adventures that have taken the 58-year-old Hensel around the world.

“As a little girl, I always wanted to see the world,” Hensel said recently from her office, surrounded by photos and artifacts from numerous trips abroad. “I would go with my aunt from Minneapolis to La Crosse [Wisconsin] on the train and I always thought that was so exciting.”

Hensel since has logged numerous trips around North America and to Europe. But in the early 1990s, her direction changed.

“I was ready for a different kind of traveling,” she said. “The sense of adventure can come different ways at different times.”

In 1991, she and her son traveled to Australia to attend a conference and took a side trip to New Zealand to ski the famed Tasman Glacier.

No ski lifts or trails there. Skiers are taken by helicopter to the top of the glacier and dropped off to ski down with a guide through fresh powder, avoiding crevasses and avalanches along the way.

“It was the most fantastic skiing I have ever done in my life,” Hensel said. “All around you there is fresh snow and no one else. You get the feeling of what it would be like to be in an unexplored land. There is no place left unexplored – but you can explore in different ways.”

While Down Under, the pair also visited an exhibit of Antarctica at a museum. “I decided right then and there I wanted to go to Antarctica, so I did,” she said.

Next it was off to South America in 1999 to hike the Inca Trail to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu – elevation 12,000 feet – where Hensel had an introduction to high-altitude trekking.

“I flew into La Paz [Bolivia] and you are plunked down at 16,000 feet,” she said.

In 2000, Hensel had another taste of altitude when she trekked the Himalayas in Nepal to 10,000 feet.

“I didn’t do this kind of travel at all when I was younger,” Hensel said. “People who knew me 15 years ago would have said I’m not the kind of person to have done these sorts of things.”

Talking to her now, it’s hard to imagine her not doing them.

As a warm-up to Kilimanjaro, last summer Hensel climbed to the 14,500-foot peak of Mount Whitney in California, the highest peak in the continental United States.

“I knew I would have two challenges on Kilimanjaro,” Hensel said. “Endurance and altitude. The endurance you can prepare for, but altitude and how it will affect you is unknown.”

It turns out that other than a slight headache, Hensel was unaffected by the altitude and the thin atmosphere, which can cause mild to severe lung and brain damage in even the most physically fit climbers.

The plan to conquer the mountain made famous by Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway, among others, began in Nepal where Hensel met a couple who had made the climb when they were 58 years old.

“I thought, ‘If they could do it, so could I,'” she said.

The trip to Kilimanjaro differed from previous treks where Hensel said she normally lets the trip unfold as it happens.

“This time, I had a definite goal in mind – the summit,” she said. “I knew if I could make it to 18,500 feet, I could make it the rest of the way.”

Hensel and her five climbing companions spent the final night 800 feet from the summit and rose early to complete the climb at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 2.

“Up on the summit we had great weather and we all felt great,” she said. “Coming down was another matter.”

The group made the descent in two days over a route covered with loose volcanic ash.

“You would take a step and your foot would go out from under you,” Hensel said. “I really had to use my skiing skills.”

At the final base camp, weary, sore, and with a cold soda in hand, Hensel said it was easy to reflect on the accomplishment. At the same time, she knows gaining the summit was not the most important aspect of the trip.

“What if I didn’t make it?” she said. “I still tried it [and] there is a real sense of accomplishment with anything you try that is challenging and new.”

That’s the lesson she wants to pass on to students, and the idea is at the center of UMPI’s philosophy on adventure learning in which emphasis is placed on pushing intellectual and physical limits.

“I am a firm believer in the concept of adventurous learning,” Hensel said. “In my own life, I have found that I have gained confidence from the challenges and calculated risks I have assumed.”

Hensel hopes students take advantage of the opportunities that come along during and after their college careers, whether it’s climbing a mountain, experiencing a different culture or speaking out with new ideas.

“I want all of our students to gain confidence, to take appropriate risks in their learning and in their careers, and in doing so I believe they will accomplish things they didn’t think they could,” she said. “Challenge and adventure can be found in many different ways and differ for every individual. Each challenge forces personal growth and prepares us to thrive in a changing and highly competitive world.”

As for Hensel, she is planning a trip to the Arctic, if she doesn’t go dog sledding instead.

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