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Learning leadership from outside in

Locations: News Published

By Carrie Click
Special to The Sopris Sun

First Ascent, an annual outdoor youth leadership program held each summer at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, is teaching teenagers lessons learned by climbing mountains and running rivers.  

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The program is the brainchild of Mariana Velasquez-Schmahl, the college’s former youth outreach coordinator. She has served as First Ascent’s program manager since it began in 1995.

Velasquez-Schmahl is stepping down this year, passing responsibilities to Carolyn Larsen, who, like all First Ascent leaders, first joined the program as a student. Larsen climbed the ranks of student counselor, lead counselor and lead facilitator to her new role as program director.

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Velasquez-Schmahl is confident in passing the baton, even after two decades. “The program’s sustainable,” she said. “The seeds have been planted.”

Part of that sustainability comes from Alpine Bank and its founder, Bob Young. The J. Robert Young Foundation supports the annual summer program, which is free for all participating students.

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This year, 40 students who will enter either the eighth or ninth grade this coming fall participated, coming from a total of 12 middle and high schools from Steamboat Springs, Frisco, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Rifle.

After being selected through an application process, students attended First Ascent for five days at the end of June. The students slept in the residence hall at Colorado Mountain College Leadville when they weren’t tackling an onsite ropes course; summiting Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado; rafting the Arkansas River; rock climbing at Camp Hale; or hiking area trails – all the while learning how to build teams, problem solve, resolve conflicts and gain confidence. Evenings were spent orienteering, learning about land and water conservation, and preparing for outdoor activities.

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For instance, on one evening the students learned about rock climbing from a recent CMC outdoor recreation leadership graduate, Harrison Briscoe. He led the students through choosing correctly sized climbing harnesses and shoes, and instructed them on safety issues, knot tying and proper rope handling. The students also learned climbing terminology in anticipation of climbing at Camp Hale the next day.

Although nearly everyone in class had previous experience wearing a harness and climbing at an indoor climbing wall at a community recreation center or gym, only a few had ever been rock climbing outdoors on a natural rock face.

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“We’re not just teaching rock climbing here,” said Velasquez-Schmahl. “We’re teaching core values for this age group. What can they learn here about communication? What can they learn about conflict? We are teaching the whole concept.”

Each spring middle and high school counselors throughout most of Colorado Mountain College’s service area coordinate applications for eighth- and ninth-grade students. For more information about First Ascent, contact school counselors in Chaffee, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Lake, Pitkin, Routt and Summit counties, or visit

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