Deer Hill Expeditions Heart of the Rockies backpacking colorado

Last summer, we asked Deer Hill field staff and community members to write a little bit about what keeps them coming back year after year. The following story is a response to that request, as told by Ilona Carlson, Deer Hill Field Staff.

I wonder if you are having the same year I am. This year has brought unprecedented uncertainty and adversity. I have learned and unlearned. I have stood in solidarity and cried in the fetal position. I have been grateful in the darkest moments to remember the lessons my students have taught me during my time working at Deer Hill Expeditions.

I have been an instructor with Deer Hill Expeditions since 2015. During this wild and uncertain year, I have often reflected upon the first summer program I helped to lead with DHE: Heart of the Rockies. Heart of the Rockies is a beautifully challenging program. Students spend the entire program in the Weminuche Wilderness, the ancestral homeland of the Weminuche Ute. The Weminuche is a rugged landscape, filled with rocky fourteeners, bitterly cold alpine lakes, and medicinal wildflower meadows. It is a truly sacred part of the Rocky Mountains, and it offers a tremendous classroom into the heart and soul of things.

Our group came together, as happens with many Deer Hill programs, from all corners of the country and world. We prepared our gear, and we headed to the trailhead. We were full of cautious laughter as we drove to the point where the Los Pinos is impounded by the Vallecito Reservoir. As soon as we exited the van to begin our journey, we saw and heard what would become commonplace during our 17-day trek. Tall, dark clouds were building over the continental divide and lightning shook the ground around us. I felt my heartbeat rise for the first of many times in the coming weeks. I gripped my trekking pole a little tighter, and my pace quickened as we organized students into their first lightning drill of the trip. As I squatted uncomfortably while we waited for the lightning to pass, I wondered what could have compelled me to sign-up to lead this trip. Lightning has always been one of my biggest fears. I looked around at my students, and I was surprised to see smiles and hear exhilarated songs and laughter. I felt my tension ease.

So it was for the next many days of the trip. We hiked up mountains, only to run back down to our starting point when the lightning came. We endured stinging hail as we crossed freezing creeks. We cried with the exhaustion and tumult. We three instructors learned a lot about each other as we lay huddled under our tarps in the valley near Moon Lake. We planned and re-routed and often wondered how our students were still giggling and laughing, even among the cold and discomfort.

We formulated a new strategy. We would resupply our rations below Sunlight Basin and climb up and over into the highly-trafficked Chicago Basin. Perhaps the weather would ease on the other side of the stunning fourteeners that line the basin. We gathered our students, and we did our best to boost spirits. Truly, though, nothing boosted spirits more than the singing and joy that these students created in their own community and connection. We made our way up to the final pass that separated us from clearer skies. The excitement was palpable. Just as we reached the tree line, we heard thunder reverberating off the granite peaks. We separated into our now well-known lightning drill and watched to see if the storm would move away from us. It appeared to move just to the North, and we made our move.

I led the group past Columbine Lake, slowly up the 13,000 ft pass. We did not talk, everyone knew the seriousness of efficient movement. I saw clouds building out of the corner of my eye, and calculated the safest descent if lightning were to strike. As we drew close to the summit of the pass, everyone began to giggle and laugh, and our pace quickened. I remember that by the top, we were nearly running with sheer joy! We had made it! As we looked down upon the route we had taken to get to this place, and then down to the beauty of Chicago Basin, we felt the weight of the past week and a half fall off our shoulders. Then, as was all too frequent during this trip, we saw lightning strike the peak directly to the North of us, and we began a quick descent down into Chicago Basin. We laughed and sang in gleeful jubilee.

The first half of this trip felt like the perfect metaphor for this year. I made many plans and contingency plans, to have them struck down out of a necessity for safety. But, why am I telling you this story? It was the final moment of that day that comes back to me in times of hardship. The whole group made it safely to camp. We made our dinners, chased off mountain goats, and lay exhausted giggling together. As night began to close in, we looked up at the first clear star-filled sky of the trip. We joined together, shoulder to shoulder, and ended our day with what can often be the most powerful part of a Deer Hill trip: Open Circle.

One of our students had grown up in a big city, and she had never seen a sky full of stars. She crooked her head back and looked up to the stars as she shared. She shared that there had been a great deal of uncertainty in her life. She did not always know where she and her family would sleep week to week. That part of her life felt a lot like our trip. But, here we were, we had braved uncertainty and made it up and over the pass. We were safe now, looking up at a sky full of stars. She shared that this trip had put everything into perspective. She now knew that she could overcome all of the lightning, hail, and freezing creek crossings in her life. She did it during this trip, and she now knew her own strength. This young woman’s wisdom is inspiring. The next day she summited a 14,000 ft mountain with true grace.

The experiences provided by Deer Hill are challenging and spiritually profound. The backcountry has a way of holding a mirror before us so we may see our own capabilities. The moment in which each student (and instructor, for that matter) sees their full potential is strikingly powerful. When the group moves collectively toward a mutual and necessary goal, it reveals the power of belonging in community.

And that’s life-changing.


By Ilona Carlson

Ilona has been working as an instructor at Deer Hill since 2015. She loves sharing the rich history and beauty of the Colorado Plateau with Deer Hill students every season. She is currently living on the Big Island of Hawai’i, where you can find her exploring both themountains and the ocean with her husband, Taylor.