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! 

Trip Leader Tuesday: Henry Adamson is here for the Mission

This piece is the second in a 2023 summer series, “Trip Leader Tuesday,” that highlights the Trip Leaders who make Explore Austin’s programming possible

Henry Adamson has lead canoeing, rock climbing and mountain biking Saturday Challenges for Explore Austin since 2021.

Henry Adamson can take the heat of the lowlands – they grew up in Florida, hiking its swamps and kayaking through the mangroves with their father. It wasn’t until they were 25 that they discovered climbing. They’d taken an outdoor-education job in Hong Kong, where their coworkers taught them outdoor climbing skills on their off days.

“I used to travel and work as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states, so when I settled in Austin, I was looking for a position I was familiar with and found Explore Austin,” explained Henry, adding: “I was drawn to the fact that Explore Austin combines the outdoor-recreation aspect with conservation education and social-emotional learning.”

An Explore Austin Trip Leader since 2021, Henry has since added mountain biking to their rolodex, which has become their favorite Saturday Challenge to lead Explorers and Mentors on because “there is a steep growth curve with the activity in as little as a day – from Explorers and Mentors who have never mountain biked before and are hesitant, to zipping through the trail by the end of the day and wanting to go again.”

Henry learned to rock climb at 25 years old in Hong Kong, where they’d taken an outdoor-education job.

Henry also leads canoeing and rock-climbing Saturday Challenges. Now, a couple years into their tenure, they can truly appreciate both the long-term nature of Explore Austin’s six-year program and its unique pairing of mentorship with free outdoor adventure experiences for kids who would otherwise not have access.

“The other companies and organizations I have worked for serve clients or students for short periods, from one day to a few months, at most. It is neat that through Explore Austin, one can observe an extended period of personal development in the community. The relationships that evolve between the Mentors and Explorers is also special because generally there is more of an instructor-student dynamic with outdoor programs, and Explore Austin’s approach is more holistic and interpersonal.”

Henry has taken inspiration from the Explorer-Mentor relationship and credits the Mentors of the Lost Boys and Adventure Seekers teams in particular with smoothing the trail for these deep bonds to form. Said Henry:

Henry has loved outdoor adventure for as long as they can remember.

“They are both very supportive groups, which is a community culture facilitated by their Mentors. It is inspiring to see the Explorers hold each other up and empower one another. They also step up to tasks when something needs doing. It has impacted me as a Trip Leader because it is a reminder that Trip Leaders can also be an integral part of contributing to the culture and modeling leadership. All of the Mentors of the Adventure Seekers and the Lost Boys have advocated for their Explorers and made thoughtful decisions on behalf of the group. They inspire me to be a more conscientious leader.”

Henry worked as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states before settling in Austin.

Although the great outdoors has been a major part of Henry’s life for as long as they can remember, what keeps them returning to Explore Austin as a Trip Leader is its people who live out the program’s mission of empowering young people from economically disadvantaged communities:

“I keep coming back because I enjoy leading with my coworkers, the activities we provide, and seeing familiar faces year after year. I also believe in Explore Austin’s mission, and there is no other organization like it in Austin.”

Trip Leader Tuesday: Mollie Binion knows resilience

This piece is the first in a 2023 summer series, “Trip Leader Tuesday,” that highlights the Trip Leaders who make Explore Austin’s programming possible.

Trip Leader Mollie Binion has led paddling, mountain biking and backpacking trips for Explore Austin since 2016.

Mollie Binion knows resilience. She’s seen it in herself as a long-time paddler, mountain biker and backpacker, but also in Explore Austin’s youth since 2016. As a Trip Leader, she routinely guides EA’s Explorers and Mentors on Saturday Challenges during the school year and every June and July on Summer Wilderness Trips for miles down rivers and trails. She knows what she asks of these rising-seventh through twelfth graders isn’t easy – but she also knows the payoff.

“My friend, Holly Orr, introduced me to Explore Austin as a canoe guide,” said Mollie. “After learning about the program’s mission and goals, I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of. Getting to expose others to a hobby and sport that I hold dear was also exciting. If you can show others how to access parts of the outdoors that didn’t seem possible, it can be life changing.”

Mollie recalls leading her first-ever canoeing Summer Wilderness Trip. There was an Explorer who’d experienced a particularly difficult first few days and was distancing herself from the team. The symptoms?

“Not wanting to complete assigned job tasks and an impressive eye roll that spoke volumes,” said Mollie.

However, by the end of the third day, something had shifted.

“At the campfire that evening, she apologized to the whole group and took responsibility for not really being part of the team. She verbalized why she was struggling, and opened the floor to not only feedback, but that she wanted to do better and be part of the group.”

Right then, EA’s impact became tangible for Mollie.

Mollie’s (foreground) favorite Summer Wilderness Trip to lead is on the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas.

“I think it took the week, the vulnerability that the outdoors makes us feel, and, most importantly, the feeling of safety and being supported for her to open up. The Explorers who had really been leaders that week were the first ones to speak up and tell her that they understood, and ask how they could support her. To watch the young group show that type of grace and understanding was profound.”

Mollie’s first canoe trip was when she was only three years old; she grew up exploring the Brazos and San Marcos rivers with her family. Paddling is her favorite outdoor skill to teach Explorers and Mentors, and maps to her favorite Summer Wilderness Trip to lead: Canoeing 50 miles down the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas.

“The Buffalo River trip is great to lead, in my opinion, because the Explorers have started to hit their stride on these week-long trips and get to really enjoy the activity and their environment. You can start to see during campfires and downtime that the conversations have started to become really meaningful, and the bonds and relationships have grown closer.”

Declared America’s first national river by Congress in 1972, the Buffalo National River is truly special because of how much public land can be accessed along both banks of the river, thereby allowing Explore Austin’s multi-day Summer Wilderness Trip. Explorers and Mentors carry all camping gear with them in their canoes, setting up camp each night further downstream as they make their way to the take-out point.

Mollie is a Trip Leader for Explore Austin’s Saturday Challenges throughout the school year and for week-long Summer Wilderness Trips.

Explained Mollie, “Once we leave the vans behind we are on the river for five days, and on the last three days it’s very rare we see another soul on the river or banks. The river is clear and runs slow and steady. If we need to cool off we can float in the river alongside our canoes. It has a few challenging rapids that help keep it exciting and on our toes. We camp on large gravel bars that have amazing views of tall, rocky bluffs. At night, the fireflies light up the banks and bluffs like tiny blinking stars. We often see bald eagles and golden eagles the last couple of days – my record so far is six!”

Mollie prepares Explorers and Mentors for the challenge of the Buffalo River with Saturday Challenges that begin with canoeing on Lady Bird Lake in the heart of downtown Austin. Paddling to Barton Springs, Longhorn Dam and other picnic spots allows them to become familiar with the basic skills and safety protocols. Then, they graduate to moving water on the Colorado River:

“This is when it starts to get more exciting for the Mentors and Explorers. We get to go down river for a six-mile trip and have lunch along the way. The river isn’t busy and you really get a feeling of being in the wilderness. Our last Saturday Challenge, focused on canoeing, is one of my absolute favorites. We take a trip to San Marcos and get to play on the spring-fed San Marcos River. The river has crystal clear water where you can see the fish, turtles, wild rice and rocky bottom. We paddle down to Rio Vista Rapids, a man-made dam, have lunch, talk about different river features, and, if the weather is good, swim or paddle down some fun rapids.”

Mollie also enjoys leading Capstone trips – Summer Wilderness Trips for Explorers and Mentors entering their final year in the program. Distinctively, the Explorers play a big part in the planning and execution of their final summer trip, drawing on their experiences and skill sets acquired during their first five years in the program.

In addition to canoeing, Mollie is a Trip Leader for backpacking and mountain biking trips.

Mollie led her first Capstone last summer in California for a team that wanted a multi-skill trip incorporating paddling:

“We camped out in the Desolation Wilderness the first couple of days and then made our way to Emerald Bay State Park for canoeing and hiking. I had led this group of Explorers and Mentors on two other Summer Wilderness trips and had the privilege of watching them grow in many different areas; leadership, communication and problem-solving skills were just a few of them. It is hard to describe how meaningful the last few days are between the Mentors and Explorers, and getting to be a small part of it will always be something I am proud of and thankful for.”

This July, Mollie is leading the 2025 F.O.X. team mountain biking in Idaho Falls, which features stellar views of the Teton Range, part of the Rocky Mountains. They’ll visit the top-rated mountain-bike area in the Big Hole Mountains, with each day allowing Explorers and Mentors to experience different types of track and distances, elevation gains, and a variety of nature, from rugged snow-capped mountains to peaceful meadows, and from creeks and rivers to mixed aspen-and-pine forests.

Resilience, through all seasons – it can be uncommon to come across in everyday life, but out in the wilderness with Explore Austin’s teams, Mollie sees it regularly.

“My favorite, most common memories, are the ones when you can see that an Explorer or Mentor is almost defeated or frustrated and then the whole team comes alongside them and encourages and supports the person to be successful. At the ‘circle time’ in the evening, the person who overcame the challenge not only gives themselves a shoutout, but the whole team does as well.”

And Mollie can’t wait for another summer of memories.

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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The ABC’s of Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the first outdoor activities our Explorers tackle in the Explore Austin program. While it may seem simple – put on your pack and hit the trail – you may be surprised to learn there’s a science behind filling the perfect backpack. Our expert trip leaders teach our Explorers the ABC’s of backpacking, and now you can learn the basics, as well.

When packing, think about your stuff and ask yourself these questions: What will I need today? What don’t I need?
You can make your life easier by placing the items you need in an easy to reach location. Items like a raincoat, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and snacks should live at the top of your pack, or in a separate, convenient pocket. Items like pajamas, dirty clothes and a sleeping bag should be packed at the bottom. You won’t need these items until the evening; plus, you won’t have to dig through your dirty clothes for that raincoat in a downpour.

Balancing a pack is important. Imagine having 30 lbs in your pack. Where would you want that weight? All on one side, at the top or at the bottom? The correct answer is all of the above. The weight of your gear should be distributed so that your pack is an extension of your body. The key is placing heavy items in the middle of the pack, closest to your own back. Imagine the area above your hips and below your shoulder blades; that is where you want your heaviest items. If you have too much weight toward the top, you will be top-heavy, and your shoulders will hurt more.

Keep your gear tight and compressed in your bag. If you have straps, tighten them down. This keep everything in a nice, neat, manageable bundle. Your center of gravity will thank you for the extra effort to keep things compact.

Every space in your pack should be utilized. If you see a small deformity, a little hole of space, fill that hole. Stuff some socks in there, maybe even a shirt or two. This is not the time to fold nicely; stuff it all and make sure all that space is used. Space is limited and we want to be efficient.

We know – in the movies the hikers always have stuff hanging off their packs. It looks so cool and totally rugged! But, according to the experts, you want to make sure to pack all your gear inside your pack. That Nalgene strapped to the outside will fall off and that wet towel tied on might not make the trip. If you are packing smart, then every piece of gear has a purpose and loosing that piece of gear will create problems.

If you are traveling with food and fuel (like a canister of propane for a camp stove), make sure the fuel is packed below the food. Why? If that fuel leaks and gravity takes it down into some food, that awesome dinner you were looking forward to all day is no good to eat. This is also a good rule for items like shampoo and sunscreen.

There you have it! The ABC’s of Backpacking! While these rules are a good place to start, there are many ways to pack and everyone should develop their own systems. Play around. Practice packing. Take many trips. If you have any tried-and-true tips, drop a comment and share your expertise with us!