Climbing higher, growing stronger

Allison Ahern, article author, headshotAT AN ELEVATION OF 7,290 feet, we – 40-some American high school students – started hiking up the mountain single file, placing one foot in front of the other while we tried to keep pace with the person in front of us.

Around us, the cold, bleak, snow-capped mountains stood on either side of the closed-in valley, with brown grass signaling the approach of winter.

As students occasionally passed each other, I would watch them continue up switchbacks, or trails, that made us doubt whether we would ever reach the top of the 10,825-foot Swiss mountain.

We had to grit our teeth and keep moving, with only our thoughts as company.

The wind whipped through the mountains, gradually growing stronger as we gained altitude. I felt defenseless from the cold, despite donning gloves and a hat, but I also felt determined to finish the hike, joining the others at the top.

My breath was deafening amid the silence of the hike. Behind me, people hiked slowly, heads bowed against the wind, not talking for fear of exerting too much energy that would otherwise be used to hike up the steep switchbacks. The wind soon became unbearable, causing people to stumble and fall on the trail. But we all moved on, strug­gling against the steep grade, some­times slipping on ice but always getting up.

Slipping once, I felt hopeless, won­dering how I would ever make it to the top, but I got up and continued on, struggling against the wind.

One student had to drop out when I was only halfway done, but I continued and tried to keep pace with the other students, my legs and lungs burning, feet hurting.

After several hours, we all gath­ered inside the mountain-top shelter, devoid of people except the 40 of us. Smiling and laughing, we huddled together, detailing our own personal experiences during the hike.

This hike up to Gornergrat – the top of the mountain – was one of many events that our group partici­pated in during our stay in Zermatt, Switzerland, as part of a fall semes­ter abroad. I wanted to use Swiss Semester, sponsored in part by my school, The Blake School, to broaden my horizons as well as to make myself more open.

The hike enabled me to reflect proudly on my physical accomplish­ments as well as realize that I could be more outgoing, both in class and with friends. The experience taught me that whatever I set my mind to, I could accomplish.

Although the hike was difficult, we all grew in our own ways by realiz­ing that we could complete the hike with the many difficulties involved, or by improving our mental strength through overcoming adversity. Looking back, I was pleased with my accomplishments, from the physical to the academic.

The high school sophomores on the trip came from various high schools in the U.S., and we all participated in activities such as hiking, downhill skiing and rock climbing. Our hikes took us all over Switzerland and showed us the many different towns from Lausanne, a part of the French side, to Zermatt, a part of the German side.

The academics, with classes rang­ing from geology to art history, were difficult. We also covered traditional subjects, including math and lan­guage, during the semester abroad.

Besides the tears and laughter at the end of the program, there was a sense of relief due to the end of finals, although students and teach­ers were downcast because it was the last week before everyone went back to their home school.

Now, former students always recommend the program to rising freshmen with a reminiscent smile about their adventures spent in the mountains of Switzerland.