What started as a dream for several staff members of the Ralph Wilson Youth Club led them to the mountains of Bolivia. They quickly discovered just how much adversity must be faced when dreams become reality.
“The idea was to teach the kids at the club, and the staff, about having dreams, setting goals and working toward said goals,” said Jeff Stegall, RWYC club director.
Out of that idea emerged the goal for a group to climb Nevado Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia.
Stegall was joined by assistant club director, Cody Hannon, and counselor, Brett Wilson, as well as Dr. Alan Howell, infectious disease specialist at Baylor Scott & White Health.
In addition to teaching the kids at the club about reaching their goals, the climbers wanted to raise funds to take some of them on their own adventure. Sponsors donated money to the Outdoor Adventure Fund, which will allow the youth club to take the older kids on a trip to Colorado in later this summer. They will also be able to take kids of all ages on several outdoor adventures in the Central Texas area.
“We had the send off where all the kids at the club signed a flag from Ralph Wilson, and knowing that Brett was going to try to bring that to the top of the mountain for them, and so that’s where this all kind of started from, for sure,” Stegall said.
Stegall, Wilson, Hannon and Howell began preparing for the rigorous climb in September 2016 with hours of training, including running up and down the bleachers of Wildcat Stadium.
“We’d run every day, exercise every day, and then every Wednesday we met at Wildcat Stadium, and we’d do stadiums for hours on end,” Stegall said. “We ended up there at the end doing 12 complete stadiums every time, like, the whole home side. So it took about three and a half or four hours every Wednesday.”
Preparations also required finding guides to take them up the mountain, and packing clothing and equipment to help them navigate the terrain and survive the subzero temperatures.
The climbers left Texas Friday, May 19, and arrived in Bolivia the next day. After getting held up at customs for several hours, Wilson said they were finally able to check into their hotel and explore the city of La Paz to help their bodies adjust to the altitude.
On Sunday, May 21, to continue acclimating to the altitude, the men road mountain bikes on the Yungas Road.
“They call it the ‘Death Road’ because it’s the world’s most dangerous road for cars and such,” Stegall said.
“That was real fun,” Wilson said. “Something you can’t really experience here in the United States.”
The next morning, they drove to the village of Sajama, where their journey was supposed to begin. However, when they arrived they were told the weather would make the trek to base camp on Nevado Sajama too dangerous.
“Day one, what we thought we intended to do and we had worked all this time, the guides say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to get to go up.’ That’s the gamble you run into,” Stegall said.
Instead of giving up the dream completely, the group simply made some adjustments.
“So we took a vote, and we decided that we were going to do another mountain in the same area,” Wilson said.
They decided to try Acotango, a peak that straddles the Bolivian-Chilean border, which is about the same height as Nevado Sajama.
Before they began the ascent, Hannon fell ill and couldn’t continue.
Stegall, Wilson and Howell made an attempt, but as they approached the summit they hit white-out conditions with winds exceeding 60 miles per hour. They were forced to turn back.
The guides suggested trying one last mountain: Huayna Potosi. At 19,974 feet, it stands taller than Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States.
They arrived at base camp Tuesday, May 23, and hiked to the high camp Wednesday morning to spend the night.
The guides woke up Stegall, Wilson and Howell at 12:30 a.m. to start the journey to the summit, but there were already complications. The weather was bitterly cold and the snow was deep. On top of that, Wilson hurt his toe during the hike to high camp, and had to decide if he would even attempt the climb.
“I finally get my foot in the boot, and give it a shot,” Wilson said. “I’m tied into one guide and (Stegall and Howell) are tied into another guide, that way if I can’t go anymore, he can just bring me down without bringing them down. So, it’s like one o’clock in the morning and we can’t really see anything, and we start on this trek to the top of the mountain. And as soon as we get outside, it’s snow like I’ve never seen.”
Wilson said the only thing he could see, by the light from his headlamp, was the guide in front of him.
“You just see their feet moving, and you’ve just got to keep your feet moving,” he said. “That’s really the only thing you can see. It was pretty scary at some points.”
Eventually, the injury to Wilson’s toe forced him to turn back, leaving Stegall and Howell to continue up the mountain, one step at a time.
“It is very difficult,” Stegall said. “I would attest the thoughts are not, ‘I’m going to make it to the summit.’ The thoughts are simply, ‘I’d like to make one more step before I quit.’”
Stegall said he told his guide not to let him stop.
Finally, they reached the summit and took out the RWYC flag the kids had signed. Stegall said they only had a few moments at the top before they were swallowed up again by the white-out. And they still had to hike back down the mountain.
“We started that day about 12:30 (a.m.),” he said. “We ended that day about 2 p.m., and went through about every possible bad emotion that you could come across.”
They ended the day back in La Paz, tired and sore. Stegall, Wilson, Hannon and Howell returned to Texas Sunday, May 28. They accomplished their goal, but in a different way than they intended.
“We got to see face to face, it’s one thing to say you have dreams. It’s one thing to prepare for the dreams,” Stegall said. “You have to be prepared for the kick in the stomach of ‘How bad do you really want to keep going?’”
Stegall said the highlight of the ordeal was coming back to the club, seeing the kids and hearing their questions.
“We said we wanted to teach them about dreams, and that was our wish,” Stegall said. “My grandpa always said ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.’ And we got even more than what we thought. We thought we were going to walk up a cool mountain, take a cool picture, and that was great… Dreams are more than that.”
Stegall said he hoped the kids at the club learned two things from their experience. First, that they would learn how big their world is.
“The other thing out of this: the success or failure of a dream, the only failure is not attempting it,” he said. “Whether we made it to the top (of the mountain), that was one thing. It was the journey. And I want them so see that. It’s not the overall end… it’s ‘Did you try?’”