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Mountain leadership in Olympic NP: Pemi West

In 1997, when I was 18, I traveled out to Crested Butte, Colorado, to take part in Pemi West’s inaugural season. We had a base camp at 10,000 feet in the Maroon Bells, and spent almost a month living in the mountains. I still have vivid images in my mind from that summer—the tall conifers that surrounded the base camp, the fields of wildflowers we hiked through, the drama of the vast, snowy mountains that were our home. And the Pemi spirit, so distinctive in New Hampshire, was with us out in the Rockies.

The next summer, after my first year of college, I returned to Pemi in New Hampshire and worked as a trip counselor for the summer in the White Mountains. (We’ll have more about the trip program at Pemi in New Hampshire in a forthcoming item here.) Then, in the summer of 1999, I traveled back out to Colorado to work as a staff trip leader for Pemi West, co-leading a group with Scott Morgan.

Pemi West in 2006.
Pemi West in 2006.

My two summers out in Colorado built upon a love of hiking and the outdoors that I’d been nurturing for a long time, and vastly improved my technical skills and sense of confidence and independence in the wilderness, to boot. In college, I was a Mountain Club guide, and later, the president of the Mountain Club, and the fact that I arrived at Middlebury and felt ready to tackle anything in the outdoors has a lot to do with my training both at Pemi West and with Pemi in New Hampshire.

Since 2005, Pemi West has been located in Olympic National Park in Washington State. When I asked Pemi West Director Tim Billo to tell me some about the current program, he wrote:

“This setting offers all the challenge and beauty of Colorado, but also offers a superior wilderness experience. With one million contiguous acres of federally designated wilderness, Olympic National Park is one of the largest road-less areas in the Lower 48. It offers an unparalleled trail system, as well as extremely remote and challenging off-trail travel. Though the elevations are less lofty than Colorado, the Olympic Mountains have all the characteristics of some of the world’s highest peaks, including some of the largest ice fields in the Lower 48. Lower elevations have the added advantage of eliminating time spent for acclimatization. Pemi West is a great place to join your old Pemi friends on an adventure that will teach you how to become completely self-sufficient in any rugged mountain wilderness. The trip traverses some of the many distinct ecosystems that Olympic National Park encompasses, from temperate rainforest, to ocean beach, to alpine meadow, and glaciated peaks. Glacier travel is an awesome bonus experience in the Olympics that was not available in Colorado. Navigating the rivers of ice on Olympus, while roped to your teammates, is an unforgettable experience, and a skill needed for mountaineering in all of the world’s great ranges. To prevent the need for returning to civilization, and to lighten packs for a day or two, Pemi West in the Olympics also takes advantage of a backcountry re-supply by llama.”

(That last detail makes me jealous. We didn’t have llamas in Colorado.)

Find more information on the features and history of Pemi West, and information on how to apply. (Note that this year’s program is a two-week course, as opposed to the usual three weeks. The shorter course will cover all of the same skills in a more compact, but equally intense wilderness experience.)

The ranks of Pemi West alumni are constantly getting bigger, and there is usually a good number of people who participate in Pemi West as a camper or leader and then migrate back to Pemi in New Hampshire, their teeth cut on the bigger mountains out west. Some have moved on to work for other organizations, or have led gnarly personal trips of their own. If you’ve been a part of Pemi West, either in Colorado or Washington, what was the experience like? Did you come back to Pemi in New Hampshire and join the trip program, or was it “just” a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you?

Rob Verger