Oldfields students in select group preparing to attack Andean peak

Trip to South America offered as example of `experiential learning'

April 11, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Dressed in blue, red and orange jackets, the girls stood under a large, ceiling-mounted sprinkler as silver beads of water dripped from their heads and shoulders.

Despite the downpour, the 14 students from Oldfields School emerged from the "rain room" at the W. L. Gore & Associates Inc. plant in Elkton with damp faces but dry shirts and fleece vests.

"That was awesome," said Jennifer Wolf, 16, of Wilmington, Del., a member of a select team from the private girls school in Glencoe that will attempt next month to climb Nevado Chinchey, a 20,400-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes.

Wolf and other team members will use the Gore-Tex jackets they tested in the rain room on their Andean adventure - a trip that would cost about $8,000 per student if not for corporate sponsors such as Gore, a manufacturer of high-tech polymers, outdoor wear and medical implants.

It will be the first time an all-female expedition will attempt to climb a 6,000-meter peak to meet high school graduation requirements, school officials say.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I'll probably remember it for the rest of my life," said Virginia Osborne, 15, of Little Rock, Ark. "I don't have any real expectations about what it will be like in Peru or on the mountain, but I want to learn about native plant life and the people."

Preparation for the expedition, which will be broadcast on the Internet, has included practice with ice picks, camp stoves and tents, as well as with weather gear such as wind-resistant gloves and synthetic long underwear. Their training regimen also features long-distance running, interval training and yoga.

For most, it will be their first trip to South America and their first experience with glaciers, altitude-induced appetite loss, and sun glare so intense it can cause temporary blindness. Sure, they're nervous. But for the most part, they're raring to go.

"I like a challenge, and I think if you go on this type of trip, you have to like a challenge," said Alex Gilman, 17, of Kilmarnock, Va. "My parents said they'd never do it, but told me to go for it. They said they'd just sit at home and worry about me for two weeks."

The expedition was offered as part of Oldfields' May Program - two weeks of specialized course work - at a cost of $1,500 per student. It has been researched by a group of teachers, two of whom traveled to Peru last summer to preview climbing trails and design an academic curriculum that will require students to be physicists, linguists and journalists.

Ret Talbot, who teaches American literature at Oldfields, calls it "experiential learning." Rather than learning physics from a textbook in a classroom, for example, expedition members will build a pulley system with ropes and other climbing tools, he said. "We tell them they need to know how to pull someone out of a crevasse, and that they need to know how to build a 3-to-1 pulley system," he said. "If they learn that, I think they've learned a valuable skill."

Recently, a small group of team members traveled with Talbot and Oldfields teacher Emily Deutschman to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to practice snow camping and ice climbing. Deutschman, who teaches publications design, will also go to Peru.

The girls who went to New Hampshire will teach those who didn't the secret to staying warm in temperatures of about 20 degrees below zero. (Eat well, drink a lot of water and don't get into your sleeping bag with cold feet or hands.) "The first night [of the trip], they heard what I told them, but it didn't really register," Talbot said. "The second night, they went through the same steps, made a few adjustments, and they were toasty all night long."

That kind of learning, amid mountains, streams, trees and rocks, isn't new, but it's gaining popularity, as technological advances make it easier for teachers to transport students and research materials to remote locations around the globe.

Talbot and Brad Bond, who teaches at Wallenberg Traditional High School, a public school in San Francisco, are hoping the Peru trip will help spotlight the experiential learning model. Bond is co-creator with Talbot of the International Non-traditional Teaching Initiative. Bond and two female students from Wallenberg will join the Oldfields group in South America.

The teachers plan to present some of their curriculum, as well as daily updates from Nevado Chinchey, on a Web site managed by a company formed by Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen, who this year became the first women to trek across Antarctica on skis. The female adventurers are providing technical support to the Oldfields group as part of an effort to "tell women's stories." A documentary filmmaker also will record the girls' progress.

As for last-minute jitters, no one has pulled out, said Talbot.

"My biggest concern is the airplane flight or the bus ride from Oldfields to BWI," said Talbot, an experienced mountain climber. "I'm more concerned about getting whacked on [Interstate] 695. I'll be much more comfortable on the mountain."

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