Their Stories

Explorers, their Mentors and Explorer Alums explain the impact the Explore Austin program has had on their lives.

Nature Empowers

Seventeen-year-old Explorer Elliott Merryman-Stewart, now in her fourth year of Explore Austin, has learned to face life’s challenges head on. Due to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, Elliott’s muscles are weaker on one side of her body, making many day-to-day tasks difficult, let alone intensive outdoor-adventure activities in the Explore Austin program like rock climbing, canoeing and mountain biking. 

But she hasn’t let this stop her; in fact, from her patience and perseverance has come adaptation and growth, both on her part and Explore Austin’s.

When Elliott joined the program as a sixth grader, there wasn’t yet the breadth of adaptive measures in place for Explorers like her. With the guidance and expertise of the program’s professional Trip Leaders, each discipline has been adapted to enable Elliott’s participation.

“When I think of Elliott, I think about how quickly we learned to change our question from, ‘Do you want to try doing this?’ to, ‘How do you want to do this?’ Because we now know she’ll say yes to every activity and challenge.”

Katie Wilse, Mentor

Early on in the program, Elliott tackled rock climbing using a modified harness to ascend sheer cliff faces. The next year, she trained hard at Saturday Challenges in Central Texas to learn to canoe with an adapted paddle, all in preparation for paddling 50 miles down the Buffalo River in Arkansas during her team’s Summer Wilderness Trip. 

Elliott (center) and her teammates on their Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho.

Emma Herzog, one of Elliott’s five Mentors, describes her as “fearless,” with a “never-give-up attitude that’s contagious. With a near-perfect attendance record with Explore Austin, she is a wonderful member of our team and brings humor, leadership skills and a positive attitude every time she attends an event. We would not be the team we are without her.”  

Most recently, Elliott and her team entered their mountain-biking year. Explore Austin initially borrowed a recumbent bike for Elliott to use during Saturday Challenges from Ghisallo Cycling Initiative, a nonprofit that helps people access the world by bicycle. 

Said Emma, “It was incredible to see Elliott’s skills on the recumbent bike improve with each passing month. Explore Austin did a great job of adding enhancements to the bike, like an electric motor that I like to refer to as ‘turbo power.’ This gave Elliott the flexibility to add some assistance as she peddled, if she wanted to.” 

Elliott ultimately saw the benefit this mode of transportation could bring to her day-to-day life – she lives only minutes away from school yet, due to her disability, was limited to taking a bus that took 20-plus minutes to get her there. As someone who tires from walking long distances, peddling to school with “turbo power” support would allow Elliott to get there efficiently and without exhausting herself. Seeing Elliott’s enthusiasm for biking and its potential to benefit her outside the program, Explore Austin worked with Ghisallo Cycling Initiative to get the recumbent bike permanently donated to her.

Elliott and her team capped their recent mountain-biking year with a weeklong Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho where, said Emma, “Elliott was out on the trails with us every day. On the final optional bike day, she elected to ride the bike again over a nature scavenger hunt. This is just the most recent example of how Elliott takes every opportunity to participate in all that Explore Austin has to offer.”

While she’s never doubted herself, Elliott has accomplished more than she ever could have imagined through the Explore Austin program. She says that when she’s with her team in nature she feels peaceful and confident. Explore Austin has given her a place to push her limits, grow more self-assured and have a respite from everyday life. Trusting her Mentors and learning alongside her teammates, Elliott is ready to tackle any challenge – now and in the future.

Elliott’s Mentors are proud of her “never-give-up attitude.”

Nature Connects

Gemma Galván has felt the ripple effect of Explore Austin. Because the program only served boys at the time, she didn’t have the opportunity to be an Explorer like her brother, Rodolfo Galván; but over the course of his time in the program, Rodolfo shared his newfound love of the outdoors with his family, which Gemma gladly soaked up. 

Gemma and Rodolfo were born in Mexico and grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of east Austin under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, learning English in elementary school. Their father eventually moved back to Mexico to take care of his ailing parents while their mother remained in Austin as a single mother, supporting the family as a breadmaker. 

Brother and sister Rodolfo and Gemma.

“Though it may not be obvious, I owe so much to Explore Austin. Its efforts echo farther than you may ever be able to see. We are changing countless lives – one adventure at a time.”

Gemma Galván

Rodolfo, who has been an alum of the Explore Austin program since 2015, joined as a sixth grader, having never before camped, mountain biked, canoed or rock climbed. He’s now served on the Board of Directors since 2018.

Said Rodolfo, “My first Summer Wilderness Trip was hiking in Colorado. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life, and there was a peak we climbed that gave me a lot of trouble. This happened for a couple more years, but I stuck with the program. Eventually, I found myself at the front, leading the group. I found this new groove, and found so much beauty in everything we were doing.”

Gemma saw Rodolfo’s confidence and resiliency grow – both in the outdoors and otherwise – and came to understand that the outdoors is a space for everyone. Each year, her brother would come home from his Summer Wilderness Trips talking nonstop about his adventures. Descriptions of the “impossibly tall mountains he climbed and treacherous rivers where he white-water rafted” in landscapes he said “looked like paintings” piqued Gemma’s curiosity – she had to see what he was talking about for herself.

“I set off to Colorado as soon as I could. With $200 in my pocket, I drove 16 hours in my friend’s old, beat-up car. I had never driven in snow or put tire chains on a car, and I would soon learn how severely underdressed I was for the weather. But none of that crossed my mind.”

Gemma is now an avid adventurer who summits mountains, camps in extreme weather and has kayaked in Alaska. In addition to being inspired by Rodolfo’s love for nature, Gemma also saw – and herself felt – the impact of Rodolfo’s relationship with his Mentors in the Explore Austin program.

Said Rodolfo, “My relationship with my Mentors was much like a father-son relationship, especially because I didn’t have an active father figure for much of my adolescence. Some of my Mentors were leaders in the tech field, and I realized I wanted to pursue a computer-science degree in college, which they encouraged me to do.”

Today, Rodolfo is a software engineer with IBM and Gemma is a software development and operations senior team lead at Accenture. They balance work with time in nature and know the ripple effect of Explore Austin has only just begun in their lives – and beyond.

Rodolfo began the Explore Austin program as a sixth grader having never camped before.

2023 Summer Wilderness Trip Locations

We could not be more excited to announce the complete list of Explore Austin’s 2023 Summer Wilderness Trip locations. Our staff worked hard to scout trip locations that would afford our Explorers and Mentors a variety of environments for challenge, growth and fun. This summer, our Trip Leaders are guiding Explorers through six unique landscapes across the U.S., including Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, Arkansas and Utah.

In addition to becoming comfortable with new skills and physical challenges, Summer Wilderness Trips afford our Explorers the opportunity for social-emotional learning (SEL). Every day of the trip, Mentors facilitate SEL discussions to pave the way for Explorers to learn self-awareness and interpersonal skills to ultimately become a bonded team. These important “campfire discussions” allow Explorers to be unconditionally accepted just as they are while learning about themselves and their teammates.

And now, a look at our 2023 Summer Wilderness Trip locations!

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

Colorado Bend State Park is home to rugged wilderness just two hours northwest of Austin. In mid June, our ‘29 Explorer teams and their Mentors learned the basics of camping, hiking, paddling and outdoor wilderness safety to get them started in the program, all while camping on the Colorado River. During their trip Explorers and Mentors had the opportunity to:

  • Swim in Spicewood Springs
  • Hike to Gorman Falls 
  • Hike to Gorman Cave along a canopy-covered river trail before exploring the cave
  • Learn canoeing and water safety while playing river games on the Colorado River 
  • Experience 30- to 60-minute “solos” where Explorers spend time alone in nature reflecting, which can include journaling, drawing or simply enjoying “alone time”

Learn more about Colorado Bend State Park, Texas.

Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico 

Our Explorers and Mentors will complete a backpacking loop in the Pecos Wilderness outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. They’ll camp in a high-elevation forested environment (cooler temps!), setting up base camp beside a remote alpine lake from which they’ll explore another two to three nearby lakes. They’ll also hike the Winsor Loop to Stewart Lake. Over the course of the week, teams will:

  • Hike 20-plus miles
  • Camp at 10,000-foot elevation
  • Complete one- to two-hour “solos” around the lake, allowing them time to reflect on their trip

Learn more about the Pecos Wilderness in the Santa Fe National Forest.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho

City of Rocks National Reserve is an internationally renowned spot among climbers. Boasting over 600 routes ranging from easy 5.6’s to difficult 5.14’s, its granite walls offer interesting routes for all levels of climbers. Our Explorers and Mentors will set up camp at the Twin Sisters Group Site before exploring the area to try out different crags (rock walls) each day. They’ll enjoy a morning climbing session, break for lunch, then have an afternoon session of more rock climbing or a fun swimming or exploring activity. During this trip Explorers and Mentors  will have the opportunity to enjoy:

  • Climbing games such as knot-tying races and an introduction to speed climbing 
  • Activities that Explorers get to help choose, such as a visit to Durfee Hot Springs or Caldron Linn Canyon Falls
  • Two- to three-hour “solos”

In addition to the younger teams heading to City of Rocks, the ‘24 Mafia Team chose rock climbing as their Capstone Trip (their final Summer Wilderness Trip with Explore Austin). The Explorers of ‘24 Mafia have had a hand in planning their trip all year and will also take on more involved leadership roles during the Summer Wilderness week including: 

  • Helping grocery shop and prepare meals independently
  • Designing the itinerary and daily schedules, deciding when to push themselves and when to take a rest day and enjoy nature
  • Diving deeper into our rock-climbing curriculum, including learning about gear management and taking turns leading lessons to explain basic concepts to their Mentors and Trip Leaders as a way to review what they’ve learned
  • Completing their longest “solos” yet – overnight

Learn more about City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho.

Buffalo National River, Arkansas 

The Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Teams will canoe 50 miles of this remote river, carrying all supplies with them as they camp along the banks and on sandbar islands en route. With four to six hours on the water each day, Explorers and Mentors will have plenty of time to soak in the cool waters and simply enjoy nature. In addition, teams will:

  • Receive lessons in hydrology, learning how to identify eddies, upstream and downstream Vs and eddy lines
  • Complete the Big Bottom Rapids whitewater section on one of the last days after the team scouts it out together and creates a plan of attack
  • Complete three- to five-hour “solos” (solos get progressively longer as teams get older)

Learn more about the Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

Idaho Falls, Teton Mountains Range, Idaho

Teams can expect stellar views of the Teton Mountains Range throughout this trip. They’ll visit the top-rated mountain biking area in the Big Hole Mountains: the Teton Connector route through Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Each day of the trip will allow Explorers and Mentors to experience elevation gains and varying distances, and different types of track and landscapes, from rugged snow-capped mountains and green meadows to creeks, rivers, and mixed aspen-and-pine forests.

In addition to mountain biking, teams will get to experience:

  • A soak in Heise Hot Springs
  • The 7NRanch Bike Park, which includes a wide array of beginner to advanced trails, pump and obstacle tracks and a teeter totter
  • A variety of campsites while enjoying biking day trips
  • Six- to eight-hour “solos”

Wasatch Mountains Range, Utah

Rugged terrain, crisp mountain air – the ’24 Hermanos team is backpacking the Wasatch Mountains Range, perhaps made most well known by the 2002 Winter Olympics which showcased its natural splendor to a global audience. The range stretches 160 miles from Utah’s northern border with Idaho to Central Utah. At the center of that corridor is Salt Lake City, where the team will fly in. 

This is the team’s Capstone Summer Wilderness Trip, so the ‘24 Hermanos Explorers have played a big role in planning their own adventure. After the first night, the Explorers will essentially “take over” the planning to select daily backpacking mileage and camping spots, and choose when to push themselves or take breaks. In addition to taking the lead for many trip logistics and completing overnight “solos,” the team plans to enjoy the following itinerary on their week-long backpacking trip:

  • Five straight days “off the grid”  – no signs of civilization!
  • Summiting Mount Timpanogos (elevation: 11,753 feet)
  • Taking routes with waterfalls and alpine lakes along the way

Learn more about the Wasatch Mountains Range, Utah.

We wish all of our Explorers and Mentors the best on their 2023 Summer Wilderness Trips! 

Native Women’s Wilderness trek to Everest Base Camp! A Conversation with Explore Austin Mentor, Rocío Villalobos.

2023 Girls “Turtle Squad” Mentor, Rocío Villalobos recently completed an incredible trek to Everest Base Camp alongside a powerful group of women from Native Women’s Wilderness. 

We were fortunate to connect with Rocío and dive into her experience in the Himalayas. 



You recently got back from an expedition to Mt. Everest. How did the trip come about?

I was approached by Jaylyn Gough, who is the founder of Native Women’s Wilderness. She contacted me back in April of 2022 and said, “You know, I’m working on this project, I have this lifelong dream to go to Everest Base Camp and have that experience of trekking in Nepal. Are you interested?”. I had never imagined or dreamed about doing that trek or even getting to see Mt. Everest in person. I immediately knew that I had to say yes. It’s not an opportunity that I wanted to pass up. 

She pitched the idea back in April and had been working on getting a small group of women together that included some of the current ambassadors for Native Women’s Wilderness. I’m also one of the ambassadors for the organization. We didn’t hear a whole lot of updates, and I wasn’t sure if the trip will still happening as of August. So, I sent her a follow up message and at that point, and she said, “Yes, we’re going to go” and took it from there.

Confirming in August for a trip in November? 

November. Yes.

That’s incredible. What did the prep for the trip look like? 

The work that Jaylyn did and the relationships she’s built through Native Women’s Wilderness were meaningful. We were privileged that there were a lot of gear sponsorships that came in for the women participating in the trip. There were certainly some things that we had to purchase out of pocket, but a lot of the bigger gear to make the trip safe and more comfortable was donated by different companies. 

Physically, I was at a good starting point in that I run regularly, I do strength training regularly, and I do hike regularly. In terms of the physical aspect, I had a good foundation. The challenge of doing a trip like the Everest Base Camp trek, being from a place that is relatively flat or at a lower elevation, is that I didn’t really have the ability to train my lungs in the way that some of the other participants did. A few of the women who live in Colorado and New Mexico were able to get some of that higher altitude training. I think for me that was really the biggest challenge, it’s where I struggled the most, but physically the hiking of it, the day-to-day trekking was manageable. It was the altitude that really made me suffer in the end.

Was arriving in Nepal the first time that you all met each other?

In person? Yes. I have been on a few Zoom calls with some of the other women before I connected with Jaylyn through Instagram a number of years ago. So we already had that online, social media relationship. The same was true with a couple of the other women. For me personally, it was the first time getting to meet everybody in person.

After looking at all of your content on Instagram about your trip, the spiritual aspect of the trek really came through. Can you talk about that? 

Going into this trip, I had a specific purpose in mind that was multifold. I was there to build relationships with the other indigenous women that were a part of this trip and to learn more about the areas we were visiting including the country of Nepal.

I also used this as an opportunity to honor my father and his memory since he passed away almost a year ago at the end of February 2022. All of us were showing up with some shared purposes and this bigger recognition or goal of being grateful for all of the people in our lives who have played a role in shaping who we are, supporting us along our different journeys, and the importance of remembering our connectedness to the land as well as our connectedness to this broader vision and work that’s happening around representation and racial equity in these outdoor spaces. 



We each have different stories, but there is definitely a unifying thread for all of us. We all also really recognized the value of this trek and spending time in this space with each other as another vehicle for healing for our own mental health and wellness, but also the ways in which that ultimately also affects our ability to show up for our communities and the relationships that we have with the folks in our communities. Even though we were there as individuals, our collective impact and our goals were really much more far-reaching than just our individual experience.

Can you take us through the trip from arriving to Kathmandu? Did you unexpectedly go whitewater rafting?

Yeah! Everybody arrived at different times. A small group of us arrived about a week before, and others stayed about a week after the trek finished to explore and see more of Nepal. I didn’t expect for my first whitewater rafting experience to happen in Nepal, but some of the other women who arrived early happened to be rafting guides, so I felt like if I’m going to go whitewater rafting, why not go with two experienced guides that do this for a living, are super knowledgeable, and can help reassure me about doing something that is pretty scary for me since I’m not a strong swimmer.



My first full day in Nepal was spent whitewater rafting, which was a beautiful experience. It ended up being a lot of fun and a little scary. The following day, we visited with some of the family members of the owners of the trekking company that we worked with, Trekking Planner Nepal and Adventure Tripper, and they showed us around Kathmandu. They welcomed us into their homes and showed us how they prepare a traditional Nepali meal, Dal Bhat. We were able to get this kind of very personal, intimate cooking lesson and just an opportunity to build relationships with some of the people of Nepal.

The day after that, everybody finally arrived from their different destinations, and we had our first dinner together and got an overview of what to expect for the next few days as we started the trek. The next day, we had to go through the process that those of us who are in Explore go through where you just have to try and weed out all of the unnecessary baggage. You know, the little extra things that you brought just in case. You decide what you’re going to take and what you’re going to leave so that you’re not weighing yourself down.

We did have porters who helped us with carrying some of our equipment. We were able to separate some of our gear into items that we were personally carrying in our daypacks and then items that our porters would carry, so that was a tremendous help. I don’t think we would have been able to do the trek without the help of the porters. They were immensely valuable in our ability to do the trek and not have to worry about carrying some of the heavier items. 

We took it day by day. The entire trek itself is a total of 11 days. The first eight are working toward Everest Base Camp. It’s eight days to get to Everest Base Camp with a few days that are included to help acclimatize if you’re going up higher in elevation. We had two of those days where we stayed in the same location overnight and just did day hikes to go a little bit further up in elevation but still have a little bit extra time to just rest after we did the day hike. This is a little bit easier on the body, and it gave our lungs the chance to adapt. But as I shared, I really struggled a lot with the altitude, so I made the decision the day after we arrived at the Everest Base Camp that I was going to be helicoptered back instead of completing the final three days of the trek.

It sounds really dramatic. I was definitely struggling, and I don’t think I could have made it back down safely because of how I was feeling and the symptoms I was experiencing. The helicopter sounds, again, really dramatic, but it’s really the only way to get people down the mountain and back to the city so that they can get access to medical care. So I ended up having to do that after reaching the base camp, and some of the other women ultimately had to do the same. We started with ten, and of the ten, six completed the entire trek, including the return. All of us made it to base camp, but after base camp a lot of us were struggling and had to make the call to get medical attention.

What was it like coming off the mountain? 

It definitely felt like an adjustment being back in the city of Kathmandu. After we were helicoptered out, we arrived to Kathmandu to get checked into the hospital for an initial observation. That first evening and then the following day, our group missed each other because even though it had been a relatively short amount of time, just those eight days, in some ways it felt like a lot longer than that.

When you’re going through a really difficult time together, again, not uncommon to what some of our Explore Austin teams experience with their Summer Wilderness Trips, you develop a closer bond. You connect with each other in a different way because you get to see each other at your highest highs and your lowest lows. When many of us were struggling at different points along the trek, we showed up for each other in different ways. Because of that, all of us were able to reach the base camp. That’s not the case for many groups that start on this trek in particular.



There are a lot of people who have to turn back because of the altitude or because they’ve developed some other kind of ailment that prevents them from being able to get to the base camp itself, let alone complete the entirety of the trek. We were invested in supporting each other so that we were all able to reach the base camp together. That played a huge role in all of us being able to reach it.

The other women who were helicoptered and I all shared the same thing: we felt alone. We knew that we weren’t of course, the folks from the trekking company and medics were there when we got to the hospital, so we knew that we had others who were checking on us there in Kathmandu, but we were also missing being on the mountain with the other women. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways from the trip?

There were a lot of things that stood out to us from our experiences. One was just commonalities, even in terms of customs and traditions that women in our group carry compared with those we witnessed with the local Nepali people. These were simple things like dress and types of ceremonies. Every morning before setting out, local people would light juniper as a way to offer a blessing to the gods. That was similar to how we would start our treks with sage as a way to ground us and get us to a good mental space to begin the trek. It was a beautiful reminder of the similarities that exist across people. Connections exist between communities that are in very different parts of the country, or of the world, but have many things in common.

Another big piece for me had to do with nourishment. It’s easy to take for granted being able to get drinking water and not having to worry about possible consequences related to water. That’s not to say that it’s not a problem in the US, because we know what happens in the colonias and the US-Mexico border. We know what happened in Flint, Michigan. It was another reminder that we have a lot of privileges living in the US when we were going up the mountain and would see porters that had baskets strapped around their heads and were carrying food to communities that are at a higher altitude who needed food brought in from other parts of the mountain.

Food is something that is labor intensive, and it’s very easy for people to forget that it takes a lot to consume you know, an apple, let alone enjoy meat for a meal. So those are some of the things that really stood out to all of us. We felt really grateful for what we do have and acknowledged that it’s not the same for communities in other parts of the world, let alone other parts of the US.

Any other lessons learned?

I’m constantly being reminded that nothing is impossible. It feels kind of trite or cheesy, but if you had asked me a year ago, before Jaylyn reached out, if I thought I would ever see Mt. Everest or reach Everest base camp, I would have laughed and told you “No,” because it’s not something that I had ever dreamed of for myself. The things I imagine have been shaped by my environment and the people around me. I don’t have other people in my family or close friends who are doing these types of trips.

I’m really grateful for being reminded of how important it is to be able to dream about things that can feel impossible. We need to share these experiences and create opportunities so that people are able to have what feel like impossible dreams come true for them. The more we can share with young people in particular (I’m thinking about the youth who Explore serves), the better because if you’re able to start having these dreams at an early age, who’s to say what else you’re going to be able to dream up for yourself.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

The next big challenge for me related to the outdoors is a lottery I’ve entered for my first 50-mile race. I’m hoping to be able to compete this year. It’s been on my bucket list for a couple of years, but I’ve been struggling on and off with some running related injuries.

I’m starting the year feeling really committed to staying injury free. I think being in Nepal actually helped me to remind myself to go slow and to listen to what my body is telling me so that I am as healthy as I can be and well mentally and emotionally. So that’s really my big goal for this year and hopefully a trip to Mexico with my mom to visit family because it’s been about 15 years since we went.

That’s another piece for me on a more personal level to which I’m really trying to commit. Strengthening and reconnecting with some of our family in Mexico is important because those relationships are really important. I feel myself turning toward this a lot more. I don’t want to lose sight of how important and how crucial it is to hold on to some of those familial and cultural connections. All of that really shapes who we are and the way that we move through the world. So those are the big things for 2023 for me.

Amazing. Thank you for taking the time to visit with us, Rocío!


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Explore Austin Summer Wilderness Trip (aka the hardest week of my life)

By: Hannah Bruno, Explore Austin Marketing and Events Manager


When I joined the Explore Austin Staff team in May 2021, I walked in with the expectation the programming would be very similar to organizations I’ve worked for previously. In my experience, youth-focused programs are often simplified for the kids. So, when I agreed to dive headfirst into an Explore Austin Summer Wilderness trip, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Every Explore Austin staff member gets to choose a Summer Wilderness trip to tag along on each year. It was one of the perks I bragged to my friends about as I shared my new role. Having little outdoor experience (ok, none all), I opted to go with one of the younger teams on a backpacking trip to the Ouachita Forest in Southern Arkansas. It seemed the most logical choice, and to be honest, it seemed the easiest. I knew I wouldn’t have time to properly train; biking, canoeing, and rock climbing were out of the question.

The trip was harder than I could have ever anticipated. It was suffocatingly hot and humid. My hiking boots, which had only been tested on short “hikes” in Austin, produced nasty blisters within the first day. We averaged a pace of less than half a mile an hour, wearing 50-pound packs for 10 hours a day.  I was terrified by the thought of having to pull a tick off my body. Just one day into the week-long trek, I was sore and tired and angry at myself for not doing a trial run with a pack before committing to 7 days.

As we ate dinner that night, I chatted with one of the Explorers. She told me how tough the day had been. She didn’t think she could do it again tomorrow. I felt her pain – literally. I felt it in the stinging blisters on my left big toe and in the deep ache between my shoulders. I knew I should be positive. I racked my mind for standard pep talk material. You can do it! You’re tough! Aren’t you glad you took on the challenge? Instead, what came out of my exhausted brain instead was a defeated,

“I know. Today was hard. I wanted to quit more than once. I’m not excited about tomorrow.”

The Explorer looked at me in total shock.

“Really?”, she asked. “I thought all the adults here love to be outside?”

I realized that this Explorer had been trudging along thinking that the trip was only difficult for her. I took the opportunity to set her mind at ease – no, you are not the only one struggling. For the remainder of the trip, I took every opportunity to remind the worn-down Explorers that the trip was physically and emotionally demanding for me, too. We commiserated together. We celebrated together each evening as we reached our new campsite, dropped our packs, and headed to the refreshing river for a swim.

The Explore Austin program is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not a watered-down outdoor experience designed to keep youth comfortable. It’s true outdoor high adventure. Challenging our youth develops physical and mental resiliency and a willingness to try new things. But, it’s not only our youth who develop from these experiences. As we adults struggle alongside them, admit that we are being challenged, but ultimately continue anyways, we model the kind of adaptability that leads to success in other areas of our lives. That is the kind of experience that leads to authentic and strong relationships.

Will I go on another Summer Wilderness Trip? Absolutely, I will… just maybe not to Arkansas in July.

Like, Why Do We Even Do This?

By Jessica Sager, 2020 Fierce Fancies Mentor


I cried when I reached the top of the mountain.

We had started our hike that morning at 3 am, under the huge expanse of a clear, cold, and starry Colorado sky.

Really, though, we had started 6 years before, a thrown-together group of pre-teens and wannabe (I say that lovingly) mentors, in the HOT summer sun of Texas. On that initial Summer Wilderness Trip – notoriously known as the *hardest* one we ever did, for more stories than I’ll share right now – the longest we hiked as a group was 2 (brutal) miles. Now, it was in the heat of the Texas summer sun, and it was with full packs on, but the fact is – it was 2 miles.

On this particular Thursday morning, we were waking up – dark and early – to complete a 6 mile hike that would take us across creeks in the dark, up snow patches with ice axes and gaiters, over countless rock boulders, and to the top of a mountain, to come back around a valley, and back to camp again. And if we were lucky – all before the afternoon storms were to come in.

(I love nighttime walks, and was *really* excited.)

2020 Fierce Fancies on Summit Morning

If you know me, it probably won’t come as any surprise that I generally like to take the unofficial place as the “caboose” during most of our activities. This is both practical and meaningful.

First – never have I ever been accused of being a fast walker. And, more importantly, I find the conversations with the girls who also find themselves at the end – the ones who struggle, or doubt themselves or question their choice to even be there – to be the kind of rich and real talk that I learn from and love the most.

“But really,” one of the girls – who was also hiking at the back with me – said, “I don’t even know why we hike mountains. Like, why even do this.”

This girl was one of my favorites. I believe you meet people of your “soul tribe” in so many places throughout your life, and this girl was definitely in mine.


Unlike me, however, she was *NOT* enjoying the journey this morning. She was terrified of heights and was hurting physically. While she was generally one of the most upbeat and positive in the group, when it came to heights, she was at her edge, literally and figuratively. She had even talked to each mentor separately the days leading up to this hike, mentioning that she didn’t think she would be able to do it. However, once you are on a mountain, there isn’t really a place you can easily just get off of it. No elevators, escalators, or teleporters on this one, sadly. And my teenage friend was not particularly pleased with that.

“I kinda didn’t even really want to come this year, but my mom told me I had to.”

She continued on like this, as we continued to hike and climb, despite all her resistance and near insistence she couldn’t keep going.

And, as we climbed up the trail and over the boulders, we discovered another important truth: You can hike any far and seemingly impossible distance in 10 step increments. Every time your right foot hits the ground, you get to count. One, two, three, four…. When you reach 10, you get to stop. For a moment, at least. And, then it’s time to keep going. The count begins, again. I don’t actually know how many times we counted to 10, but it was a lot. Sometimes, when the path evened out, we’d just walk and stop counting, and when it got harder, we’d start again.

Miraculously, and after countless counts of 10, the top of the mountain came to us. Or, us to it. Either way, we got there – our whole group was together again at the top of the summit.

As we reached the top, another girl who had been just a few paces ahead hugged a mentor and started to cry.

It was incredible, to see these girls have these emotional moments because of the physical feats they undertook and the natural beauty around them. 

Then, all of a sudden, I was crying. We had reached the summit of a mountain together, and the summit of 6 years of growing, laughing, hair braiding, adventuring, hurting, challenging, and learning together. And I knew in just a short while, we’d back down the mountain and heading home, again.

“This will be a memory too soon,” I thought.

Jessica, 2020 Fierce Fanices Explorer on the Summit of Mt.Baldy

After a few more hours of hiking down the mountain, I was happy to find myself on the final stretch of trail with my young straggler friend again.

I pointed at the mountain that now seemed far away and so high up. I traced in the air the path we had taken that morning, once again it looked like incredible feat: up a wall of snow, across the ridge, to a peak far away, and back down again.

“Can you believe you did that?” I asked. “You asked me why we climb mountains. We climb mountains to learn about who we are. And who we can become, because of them.”

Not going to lie – I still don’t think she was buying it.

Later, in our closing circle, a new truth finally was ready. An Appreciation game called “Spotlight” had become an important part of our closing circle every year.

It is moving beyond words to see young women share with full hearts about how proud they are of each other.

During her time in the spotlight, in between receiving heartfelt acknowledgment for all that she did for the group, my previously struggling young friend thanked the mentors and trip leaders for all their support, especially when she resisted.

“The top of the mountain was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen,” she said.

And later still, as our van pulled up to the airport and we were about to begin the last leg of our last trip home, I heard her say to herself and no one, in particular, a new truth that was just waiting to be seen:

“I’d rather climb another mountain, then have it all be over and be going home.”


I am so thankful for the way these past 6 years held me, grew me and changed me. All the mountains – both real and relational – taught me who I was, and who I could become.

2020 Fierce Fancies Mentors From left: Jessica Sager, Owen O’Brien, Gabrielle Bland, Shannon Messer

Pressing On: Adventures of the Explore Austin 2019 Girls

By: Danielle Krey, 2019 Girls Mentor

Going on my fifth year as a mentor for the 2019 Explore Austin girls team, it’s crazy to think that graduation is around the corner. I am constantly telling my close friends about memories shared with “my girls”, I can’t help but reminisce on our time spent together. As I think about their transition to their new stage of life, I stand in complete awe at how fast it has gone. The adventures have been plentiful, the laughs abundant, and the friendships true. In celebration of their amazing accomplishments, I wish to share a story to illustrate just a glimpse of what it was like to be a mentor for the 2019 girls team.

Sandra, 2019 Explorer with Danielle, 2019 Mentor

The story begins at three in the morning in the middle of the Colorado mountains. The group was going to summit Mt. Baldy at almost 14,000 feet. The days prior, we had been practicing our mountaineering skills nonstop. For those of you who don’t know, mountaineering is a mix between hiking and climbing with an additional friend – snow. Such trekking involves the use of ice axes, crampons, rope teams, and terms like “self-arrest.” This was the day we would be able to show off what we have learned from our beloved trip leaders.

The journey started out smooth with a few hours of night hiking prior to the sunrise. We hiked over a stream and through the woods until we reached our first, steep snow-field. We broke into our rope teams, secured our equipment, and were ready to climb. With one last glance up the daunting mountain, we began the hike up. I was in the middle of the rope team with two girls on either side, one of them being Nayeli. Everyone was inching -and I mean inching- their way up. It seemed way steeper when climbing than it had from the ground. Just as the sun rose over the mountains to hit us in the face, Nayeli looked at me and said, “I don’t think I can do this…”

2019 Girls Practicing Mountaineering in 2018

To be completely honest, I was scared too and my first thought was, “Just don’t look down.” Knowing that this comment wouldn’t be much comfort to her, I opted for, “You can do this. There is no going back” and we pressed on together. It was a slow ascent, to say the least, but we trusted our trip leaders, we trusted our ropes, and we trusted each other. We finally made it to the top, and later summited the mountain. When all was said and done, the day had turned into an 18-hour escapade. The victories were just as frequent as the obstacles, though it would take hindsight to reveal this truth.

I truly can’t find another memory that represents my group of girls more. First, there was a will for adventure, second there was a moment of wondering what we got ourselves into, and finally, there was the inevitable push to reach the goal. This process, in all its hardship and glory, was a repeating cycle; each component cultivating a team environment. Our experience was as real as I have ever experienced: one grand adventure.

Nayeli, 2019 Explorer

Let’s face it though, adventure doesn’t only exist in the outdoors. My girls have shown me their will for adventure in everything they do, including in their plans for the fast-approaching future. They want to be doctors and lawyers and writers and politicians. Their will power to face challenges is inspirational.

Just as I have seen them face challenges, I have seen them question themselves. This is where it gets real. You see, there was one part of the story that I left out: summiting the mountain that day was optional. Nayeli and every other girl in the group made the decision to go. I can’t help but think that in that moment on the snowfield, Nayeli questioned her decision. She is not alone in this experience for it happens to everyone. There were times as a mentor when I wondered what exactly I got myself into, and only half the story would stand if I pretended those moments didn’t happen. I saw hesitation. I saw the self-doubt. I saw questioning. One could even argue that there is no adventure without some level of these setbacks. What truly captured my heart was watching each and every one of them carry on anyway.

2019 Girls After Summiting Medicine Bow Peak in 2017

All 14 girls in my group are graduating the Explore Austin program because each and every one of them was serious about their role as an Explorer. They tried their best even on the days when it was hard. Sometimes, there wasn’t an option to go back, and other times, they made a deliberate decision to press on, to decide that this is what they wanted.

Their graduation is truly an occasion to celebrate. I am their mentor, but often I feel I have learned more from them. Our group was teamwork in its truest form.

2019 Girls After Summiting Mt.Baldy in 2018

To my girls, I will still call you my girls. I don’t know what the future holds for you, but I know that the number of obstacles you face will only be an indication of your countless victories. In my future moments of hesitation and doubt, I’ll remember these treasured memories of pressing on, and press on we shall to another grand adventure.


The First Explorer to Become a Mentor

Guillermo Flores joined Explore Austin as a member of the second class of Explorers in 2007. At that time, the Program was in its infancy, and for Guillermo, he had six years ahead of him. He had first become interested in the Explore Program after seeing his friends who were already in the Program become recognized by his teachers for their growing maturity and confidence.

Every month, Guillermo and his team of Mentors and fellow Explorers would gather for their Saturday Challenge, learning the ins and outs of outdoor adventure while forging bonds with each other. As his outdoor skill-set increased, his worldview expanded. One Saturday after the other, Guillermo learned that his Mentors lived a life he had never seen before. They had different jobs than the adults in his community, especially his parents; jobs he never thought to consider for himself. Guillermo began conversing with his Mentors and shaped his dream of a life that grew from his upbringing and expanded from his experiences as an Explorer. He dreamed of a life that included college, a stable job, and maintaining relationships with key Mentors.

“Most of our parents that have jobs work service jobs or construction. Explore Austin gives minority kids, just like me, the opportunity to take the blinders off the dream higher than what’s expected of them.”

This dream carried him through the Explore Austin Program and into college–a place he never thought he would be.

Today, Guillermo is currently finishing up his degree in Construction Science at Austin Community College while simultaneously working as a project manager for a local construction company, Joe Bland Construction. After originally working day and night shifts in the field, Guillermo realized through the model ship of his Mentors that there were other possibilities too. From there, Guillermo took the confidence his Mentors and Explore Austin helped him find and asked his supervisor to shift into office work so that he could begin to learn the skills to become a project manager. Not long after that, Guillermo was promoted.

“Never be scared of any challenges. Explore Austin challenges are different from life challenges but they help you find the inner confidence that you need to succeed in life.”

At the end of 2017, Guillermo was selected to be an Explore Austin Mentor, becoming the first Explorer to ever return as a Mentor. When asked why he applied to become a Mentor, he simply replied, “It is the ultimate way I can help prove the impact of the Explore Austin Program. My Explorers will see somebody who has made it through the program, benefited tremendously, and then know that they too can make it in life. It will really bring it home when they see someone who looks like them succeeding.”

Explore Austin Girls are a “Force of Nature”

Written by Explore Austin Trip Leader: Lydia Huelskamp

Edited by Explore Austin Development Intern: Sophia Cantor


“I’d like to try to get back on the bike today,” Keren told me quietly, but hopeful. She was one of 15 ninth-grade girls who spent the entire school year learning to ride a bike in preparation for their five-day mountain bike trip. On the merely the second day, Keren took a nasty fall while cruising down the Colorado mountain. The stitches in her face and her bruises were still fresh as she told me she was ready to get back on her bike; I couldn’t help but smile.

Keren is a Force of Nature; a force to be reckoned with. Keren is a strong female conquering her fears by exploring the great outdoors.

She does not stand alone. REI’s Force of Nature campaign is encouraging females to get outdoors and go as far as they can; far enough to where the stereotypes and barriers of society can no longer reach them. REI “believes the outdoors is—and should always be—the world’s largest level playing field,” (Force of Nature: Let’s Level the Playing Field).

Being a Force of Nature takes on many definitions, shapes, and sizes. The young ladies of Explore Austin are the next generation of #forceofnature. These forces are the group of eighth-grade girls who carried backpacks bigger than themselves through pouring rain and swarming mosquitoes, conquering hills and blisters, spending 11 hours on the trail one day, but stopped at nothing until they reached their final destination. These forces are the group of eleventh graders who were the first girl’s group to summit snow-covered Mount Baldy and in record time. These forces are Keren, Perla, Jennifer, Maddie, Eloise, Tanya, and more. I consider myself so lucky to know and mentor these incredible Forces of Nature.

Explore Austin did not always have the privilege of inspiring young ladies like Keren. Explore Austin only began accepting girls in 2009, three years after establishment. Today, guiding these young, female explorers is an honor. I could go on and on about their perseverance, grit, and echoing laughter, but, I don’t need to. These young ladies don’t have to prove anything to earn their spot in the outdoors; they’re out getting dirty and having a good time, just like the boys.

Thank you REI for choosing Explore Austin as one of 26 grant recipients among the 560 applications (REI Announces Force of Nature Fund Recipients). Thank you REI for believing in the explorers and giving us the opportunity to lead and guide them to conquer their fears, find their passions and be inspired by the great outdoors.

Ten Things You Learn as an Explore Austin Trip Leader

By: Explore Austin Trip Leader Extraordinaire, Lydia Huelskamp


1.“ Almost there” doesn’t really mean almost there

The Explorers will ask you over and over if you’re almost there. Unless the campsite is within the next 20 feet, don’t you dare tell them “yes.”  Even though you may think “almost there” means within 1-5 miles, to them “almost there” actually means “we’re here”.

2. Trip Leader is actually code for chauffeur and pack mule

No really. You’ll spend as much time driving others (or just the gear) around, as you will in the woods. And suddenly, your pack goes from 30 lbs to 50 to “if this comes off I won’t get it back on”.

3. The mailman has nothing on us

They may deliver in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, but we’ve got all of that plus bears, water shortage, hail, lightning storms, other crazy campers, sick students, ticks, snakes, and more. We’re out there in the elements loving every minute of it (for the most part).

4. No excuse goes untried

Seriously, the students will try every excuse in the book, plus a few in the second edition. Sometimes, you just have to applaud their creativity. Then you’ll have the kid that breaks his elbow on a downhill ride but still manages to help gather firewood with merely one functional arm. Even those with the excuses find it in themselves to finish strong.

5. Surprises happen every day

After taking an hour to fill their water bottles one day, the students will wake up and pack everything up before you even get outside of your tent. They will get lost and find their way back onto the trail without your help. They’ll finish every single mile even if it takes them hours to do so. They won’t hate you for pushing them past what they thought was their limit. Or they’ll tickle the back of your neck with a piece of grass so you think it’s a bug. It’s great to be surprised!

6. Food is food

Lentils have never tasted so good. Day three of oatmeal for breakfast has you wanting more. After a few weeks out in the wilderness, you’re just excited to have fuel to keep your energy up. Who cares if you just dropped all your trail mix on the ground, the dirt adds a little something- yeah?

7. You’re Spanish isn’t as good as you thought

A lot of the kids in Explore Austin know Spanish and they know it well. However great you think you are at speaking the language, they’ll still laugh at you. But the good news is they find it entertaining and fun to teach you new words and how to say them properly! So, ¡Vamanos!

8. People won’t understand your job

You’ll get asked how your vacation was and how you can afford to go on so many trips. Then when you inform them it wasn’t vacation, it’s your job, they’ll laugh and give ya the ol’ “oh yeah your ‘job’ *wink, wink*”. We are very lucky to have this great opportunity for work, but it still is work. Let the haters hate, though – you don’t have time to try to explain to them how a week in the mountains is work, you’ve got a trip to pack for!

9. Your coworkers are your friends and your friends are your coworkers

I mean if you think about it y’all already have the same interest and passion. Then, throw in spending three weeks in the woods together (guiding a group of course), and you’re destined to be best friends. How do people even make friends outside of guiding?

10. This program will have more of an impact on you than you could ever think

I could write a whole ten page paper on the impact of this program, these kids, and the mentors have had on me. You’ll see their perseverance, their grit, their good times, their low times, their bonding, their support of each other, their growth, their jokes with you (and about you), and so much more. Some will fall in love with the outdoors and adventure and others will simply be proud to have made it through the week. However, all of them will teach you something. It may sound cheesy, but it’s true. Guiding for Explore Austin is a one of a kind experience. It is totally worth the excuses, questions, not ideal weather, and long nights. ACES (Action Oriented, Courage, Excellent Teammate, Strong Communicator) shout out to Explore Austin!

Interested in becoming an Explore Austin Trip Leader? Click HERE to learn more!