Not everyone who has attended Delta High School has received an invitation to go on Upward Trails, a school-sponsored backpacking trip for students who excelled in their first three years of high school. The program originated in 1975 and was headed by Alvin Williams, a science teacher at Delta High School.
“It seemed like the kids that were doing good in school didn’t really have a reward for their good grades, so I felt like this would be a good reward,” said Al.
The trip takes place above Little Cimarron in the San Juan Mountains, usually during the third week of July. The trek is usually done in 5-7 days. On the five-day trip, the students will go out the same way they came in. The seven-day trip is a 57-mile loop. Students get the privilege to climb the famous Uncompahgre Peak, which is over 14,000 feet in elevation, weather permitting of course. The students go during the summer between their junior and senior year, so when the trip first took place in 1975, it was the Class of 1976 that participated.
Each person carries his own backpack, which typically weighs between 35 and 50 pounds. Everyone has a required list of items to bring which consists of a sleeping bag, clothes, adequate hiking shoes, and other personal items. Everyone carries his own snacks, as well as a group meal. Some meals are larger than others, with dinner meals weighing the most and breakfast and lunch weighing a little less. Cheese and crackers, granola bars, candy bars, and just-add-water meals are the most common foods on the adventure.
The only requirement to be invited is to have a high enough cumulative GPA. That GPA depends on how smart the class is. For example, for anyone to be invited on the first ever trip, which occurred in 1975, his cumulative GPA had to be above a 3.5. Also, while on the trip, each student had to keep a journal to write in every day, and at the end of the trip he could choose a semester of science or English credit, but this only lasted two years because most students didn’t need the extra credits.
Al couldn’t take a big group of kids by himself, so he found a couple more sponsors to help him. Jim Connor, a math teacher, and Earl Monroe, an English teacher, agreed to accompany Al on the trip. The three decided it would be a good idea to take a trip without the kids first to scout the area and “make sure they knew where they were going.”
Once they knew that the trail wouldn’t get them lost, they did the trip with the kids for the first time. Al and Earl were the two sponsors who went on the first trip with the kids; Jim wasn’t able to go. Between 15 and 20 kids went on the first outing, including Yeulin Willet.
This is what Yeulin recalls from the trip: “I went the summer of 1975 on the inaugural trip. It was led by two of my favorite teachers, Al Williams and Earl Monroe. I recall the bonding that took place between all of us who might not have been that close otherwise. The biggest memory for me, however, was the last 24 hours. We were to catch fish in the stream on the way out to eat for dinner the last night. Of course, everyone got skunked, even some of the rather proud fishermen of Delta.
“All we had left to eat were those awful crackers and powdered cheese spread. Talk about some whining thereafter. In desperation, a few of us trapped a chipmunk in a box. I can’t remember if we ate it, or just thought about it. The next day, we finally got out to the bus pick-up and were driven to a little store. We absolutely attacked the shelves and probably set some record of junk food consumption within 15 minutes.”
Through the years, many people who went on the trek had as much fun as Yeulin did. Pam Nicholson from the Class of 1983 said, “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I loved it!” “It was an experience you will never forget for so many reasons,” said Trevor Spika from the Class of 1988.
Al led the Upward Trails program for 19 years and went on 22 trips (some years two separate groups had to be taken because there were so many kids). Earl Monroe and Jim Connor also went on the adventure for several years with Al, and when they couldn’t, a female sponsor would. Female sponsors included Jana Williams, Kari Aune (now Kuta), Linda Sudin, and Kari Olin.
After Al stopped leading the expedition, Thomas Panter headed the program. Tom had gone as an assistant sponsor on several occasions and was thrilled to have the privilege of leading the program. “I had gone for several years with Al, starting in 1988. After Al left in 1994 to teach at Hotchkiss, I decided to be in charge because I didn’t want the program to die,” said Tom.
Tom went a total of 16 times, and on 13 occasions the group was able to climb Uncompahgre Peak. Going on the trip 16 times certainly made a couple of trips really memorable. Tom said, “During the summer of 1994, on one of our shorter trips, the kids were sledding down the snow chute on the way down from Uncompahgre and one girl, Emily Pfalzgraff, got going way too fast, so I had to stop her. When she hit me, it almost knocked me over.”
Imagine the privilege of going on the trip with your daughter. Tom had that experience. “One of my favorite trips was when my daughter Sabrina got to go on the trip, because it was special for a father and daughter to be out there together.”
Tom stopped leading the program after eight years of outstanding dedication. “I stopped going because of my retirement and I felt it was time for someone else to be in charge.” Chris Williams had gone on the trip a few years with Tom as an assistant sponsor. Chris said, “I just kind of fell into the position, but was happy to be in charge.”
Chris still leads the program today and just finished his eighth year in charge. Several female sponsors who have gone with Chris on the trip are Tonya Stites, Amy Gutierrez, Julie Mottern and Kelly Johnson.
This year, I had the privilege of going on Upward Trails with my dad, Chris Williams. The day we left, my grandpa, the founder of the program, Al Williams, saw us off on July 19, 2010 for the 35th year of Upward Trails. This trip was really special to me because I felt that it was in my blood. It gave me a sense of pride that my grandpa had made such an outstanding program and that he had been so dedicated to it.
The fact that my dad led our five-day trip was also really special to me. Only 10 people from the Class of 2011 went on our trip because the GPA requirement was raised to a 3.6. Alli Hellman, Jon Larkin, Jenni Jones, Eli Baier, John Schmalz, Kaci O’Brien, Raveen Mulford, Desiree Decker, Tiffany Schaaf, and myself were those 10 gifted people. We all bonded more than we would have in school, and that was an important part of this trip for all of us. We didn’t get to climb the famous Uncompahgre Peak because of inclement weather, but someday I hope to go and try it again.
All in all, I want to thank those 10 people for going on such an amazing trip, my dad, Chris Williams, and Kelly Johnson for taking us on the trek, and my grandpa, Alvin Williams for founding the program. I also want to thank Darci Hellman for helping me gather key information and Tom Panter for allowing me to interview him.
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