For the third time in four years, a group of bold Jesuit students headed to the Rocky Mountains during the summer for a phenomenal week-long Wyoming Leadership Retreat.
This time, however, they also got a big dose of desert canyons.
Eleven Jesuit students, along with chaperones Mr. Connor Smith, S.J., Mr. Peter Bell, S.J., and Fr. Michael Wegenka, S.J. participated in the Catholic Outdoor Leadership Program of Wyoming Catholic College (wyomingcatholic.org/cor-expeditions) from June 1-10. (See a photo slideshow of their experience at the bottom of this page, along with a first-person account by Juan Figuera-Parra '23.)
Jesuit has connected with COR Expeditions (Catholic Outdoor Renewal) and their Outdoor Leadership Program for years, with COR representatives coming to Florida and coordinating experiential leadership retreats for Jesuit students. In 2019, and then again last summer, a Jesuit contingent traveled to Wyoming for the week-long experience in the rugged and isolated Wind River Mountain Range, which stretches across the western end of the nation's least-populated state – Wyoming – south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Eleven Jesuit students returned this summer: seniors Figuera-Parra, Luke Lowman, and Nick Rodriguez; juniors Christian Changsut, Sam Jacobs, Aidan Ramos, Brody Sheets, and Gabe Themar; and sophomores Robby Dyer, Nathan Kaminski, and Preston Arndt. They experienced the extraordinary demands and commensurate rewards of a week together in the great outdoors.
The first night and the following day were filled with intensive outdoors wilderness training from the guides with COR Expeditions. They received all their gear, layers of clothing, learned about trail etiquette, what to do about bears, how to cope with lightning, where to take shelter, practiced rock climbing, and more.
The next morning they began their week of trekking through the Rocky Mountains, and, as it would turn out, the desert canyons of Utah. After the COR leaders demonstrated how to lead the group, they turned it over to the students, with different students serving as group leaders each day and responsible for all aspects: waking people up, breaking down the site, navigating, delegating, and reviewing the map for risk assessment of things such as rivers and snow.
The students carried everything in 50-pound backpacks – food, stoves, tents, snowshoes, extra layers, etc. Along the way they had formation sessions, gathered for daily Mass and Adoration, cooked meals, and shared their life story.
It was an unforgettable and formative experience that came with a crazy, dramatic twist. On Day 3, with the forecast calling for extreme sub-zero temperatures in the Wind River Range, the group departed the Rocky Mountains and left Wyoming entirely. They headed south to near Moab, Utah, a warm, dry region famous for its stunning red rock landscape.
The transformational experience for the Jesuit students is captured in the first-person story below by Figuera-Parra. View a fabulous photo slideshow below Parra's story.
I never could have anticipated the challenges of the Wyoming (and Utah) Leadership Retreat. Earlier this month, our group of 11 Jesuit students experienced difficulties beyond anything I expected. But that is what made it all so worthwhile in the end.
We arrived at Jesuit at 4:00am on the day of our departure, June 1, to get a quick overview of the flight plans. There were 10 other students participating, but I only really knew a few of them, as we were divided over three class years: rising sophomores (3), juniors (5), and seniors (me, Nick Rodriguez, and Luke Lowman). I became a little anxious. Here we were heading off to the Rocky Mountain wilderness of Wyoming for a week with a group of guys I was not really all that familiar with, along with the chaperones, Jesuit teachers Mr. Smith and Mr. Bell.
From what I could tell, no one really had any idea what to expect – except for my friend Nick Rodriguez. He had participated last year. From what he was saying, it was going to be huge test for all of us.
We arrived in Denver and took a six-hour van ride to Lander, Wyo., and an endless stream of questions and concerns flowed through my head. However, the beauty of these majestic mountains captivated me, as I had never been so far west during the summer. The very long drive had us a little uncomfortable toward the end, but we were calmed down with some much-needed pizza. I was eager to get to the campsite and learn “the art of survival” from the instructors.
COR Expeditions gave us a warm welcome. They were our information guides and our help guides. But as the days passed, I thought of each instructor as more of a friend than a guide. We attend a school, Jesuit, with very high standards in everything it does, and these COR Expeditions guides – honestly there is no outdoors crew that could have better met the high standards that Jesuit sets as much as they did. They were outstanding in every way. I am so grateful for the hard work and investment that COR Expeditions provided us.
A sudden change in plans after just a couple of days was our biggest challenge. The COR instructors explained that the temperature would reach below zero and we couldn’t stay in the mountains. So, on the third day, we took a long road trip all the way down to Moab, Utah.
We had prepared to backpack through mountain peaks with cool temperatures. Now, suddenly, we were in the desert with boiling temperatures. It was a pretty drastic change.
Our days were packed in a tight schedule. Each morning we started off with a beautiful Mass in the canyons. The amazing natural surroundings helped me gain a closer connection to God, as I could feel him through his creations. Mass allowed me to set forth all my intentions and plan out the day ahead.
The physical struggle of climbing mountains was now a physical struggle of carrying the 50-pound backpack through sandy terrain. The sand and elevation changes of the canyon made each step a struggle, but we each held each other accountable and encouraged each other to keep pushing. The heat made it even worse, as the effort caused profuse sweating. With most of the water in the canyon dried up, we had to ration each sip. This then led to us carrying about five to eight liters of water for each day, which only further increased the weight of the backpack.
After the long and hot days of backpacking for miles, we took time for leadership lessons, testimonies, and various talks that strengthened our bond as Jesuit brothers and with the Lord. As I heard what everyone had to say about their day, I would reflect on my experiences and realize how hard I pushed myself mentally and physically. Our talks helped me learn how to be a leader in various ways. A leader sets an example and pushes his team to their limits, as well as being selfless and respectful to all. These characteristics create a strong leader who guides the team to strive for excellence. Leadership was clearly reflected by the “map guide of the day,” who was the person chosen each day to lead the group through the canyon. There was no room for error in traversing the canyon, and the map guide used the navigation skills we had learned to safely lead us through the seemingly infinite maze.
The most memorable moment was on the third day of backpacking in Utah, when we started singing our favorite songs on the trail, including various tunes by Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift. We sang to keep our spirits up and help those around us. I felt a true brotherhood with everyone. Just a few days prior, I did not even know many of the names of my brothers, but now a short time later we sang and laughed for hours, even when the days got long and our water ran short.
I soon realized that the friends I have made and the brotherhood we shared are a major reason why I wanted to attend Jesuit. The bonds that were created on this trip will last a lifetime. I also strengthened my leadership skills through this incredible retreat, truly reflecting and acknowledging my weaknesses and strengths. The whole experience was everything that I could have hoped for, and I can’t image anything that could have made it better.