Featured Ritt Kellogg Expedition: Arctic Dreams and the Gates to Paradise

As a tribute to Colorado College alumnus Ritt Kellogg ’90, a skilled outdoorsman who tragically died in an avalanche, the Kellogg family established the Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund in 1993. Each year, this fund provides students with the means to carry out incredible backcountry trips in the U.S. or Canada for 12 days or more. Through a rigorous application process, students may propose virtually any trip they can dream up — from rock climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in northeastern Canada, to sea kayaking off the coast of Alaska. This semester, the Active Life section will feature a group of fund recipients and their journey every week.

In late July, Sophie Redpath ’19, Rachel Fitch ’19, Nora Holmes ’18, and Caleigh Smith ’18 began their 15-day expedition in the Brooks Mountain Range in the North of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The group was advised to be conservative with their planned hiking route, so they originally intended to hike about 80 miles; after discovering that the ground was made of what they affectionately referred to as “applesauce,” they actually ended up hiking around 35 miles in total. Despite walking on mush, the cancellation of their bush plane on the way out, and the air consisting of mostly mosquitos, these ladies had a killer time in the Arctic and experienced quality bonding while surrounded by gorgeous views.

Photo Courtesy of Sophie Redpath

The Catalyst: What inspired the trip?

Caleigh Smith: Last fall when we first met to collaborate on ideas for a grand Ritt trip, we all had differing dreams of what our ideal adventures would look like. Some wanted horses, some wanted Alaska, but we all wanted to do it together, so deliberations centered on how we could compromise everyone’s ideals into one overarching goal. This is what we got!

Sophie Redpath: I had been planning a trip to Gates of the Arctic for basically the entire summer, and I just needed a group to go with me. After living in southeast Alaska for the summer, my interest was piqued about the rest of the state. The group shifted around a bit but eventually I convinced everyone to abandon all other plans and head north.

TC:  What was the most challenging aspect? Most rewarding?

SR: The biggest challenge was definitely the terrain.  We were told while planning the trip to be conservative in our mileage, but even with our low estimate we were high. The ground was marsh — if not full pond — and tussocks never fell the way you expected them to. Also the stove breaking … A personal challenge for me was figuring out how to fall asleep in a land where the sun never set — turns out it’s not as easy as just imagining that it’s night time. But we all had very stylish sleep masks.

It’s hard to pick a “most rewarding” point, as it kinda feels like the whole trip was its own reward. We had to adapt to adversity at almost every turn, but just being out there was as much a prize as anything. 

Nora Holmes: The most challenging part for me was definitely hiking in such complicated, unsteady terrain with a healing broken ankle. I sprained my non-broken ankle on day three out of 15 — two sad ankles and unstable ground don’t exactly pair well together. This was certainly a physical issue, but for me it was also a significant mental challenge. I’m pretty used to being fit and capable in the outdoors, so navigating a backpacking trip while having to hike at a slower and more painful pace was really frustrating for me. Luckily, my expedition mates were great about it and very supportive without me even saying anything. When I was particularly upset about it one day, Caleigh whipped out some peanut M&Ms — my favorite snack ever — to cheer me up.

The whole trip was really rewarding! Even though so many things went awry and so many of our plans had to change, living in and walking through the Arctic mountains and river valleys was an unreal experience. We had to adapt and change our plans so frequently (namely being forced to switch route plans approximately 11 times), which was sometimes a hard conversation or hard to let go of a goal, but I’m proud of all of us for making those decisions and still having an incredible time on the expedition.

TC: Do you have any personal highlights?

Rachel Fitch: There were many highlights, but one sticks out particularly. We had a night where we camped on a huge lump that overlooked two river confluences nuzzled into the mountain behind us. The sun never set but it had rotated so that it dipped behind a mountain and the light was more golden. We walked up the hill to our tent and the wind picked up. The wind was elusive and vital to our existence because it blew away the mosquitoes. I can confirm the rumor that there are mosquitos in Alaska. We wore hooded bug shirts whenever we were out of the tent and the noise from their buzzing often sounded like a highway. We dubbed them Satan’s Spawn and killed approximately 2,000 a day without making a dent in the population. The coming of the wind was a special treat because it was the only time when we didn’t have to wear our bug hoods.

That day, the wind came. We hiked up to our tent overlooking all the majesty and started running in circles around the tent. The wind picked up. We took off not only the bug shirts but all our clothing. We nudely frolicked around until we came together in a group hug, still laughing. Sophie yelled, “Not today, Satan!” at the mosquitos … we all sprinted around in circles once more. It ended with the wind dying and all of us diving nakedly into the tent.

TC: Do you have any funny stories orcamping mishaps?

RF: It was on day four, so our packs were still pretty heavy at that point. We had a pretty long day, and I was in the front of our hiking line. We weaved in and out to avoid large marsh puddles. We came upon a stream and pond. I looked across and it was just far enough that you could not step over. It was mud on the other side. I thought there were two options: One, it would be solid and I could safely make it across. Two, it was the knee-deep sinking mud. I looked behind me at Sophie, Nora, and Caleigh and mumbled, “Moment of truth.” Then I leaped. Now there was a third option that I didn’t foresee: the mud was solid enough, but the top of my foot slipped, drawing a perfect line as my backpack pulled me back into the water. The water sinks into my bug net, and all I hear is silence behind me. Sophie barely gets out a “You okay?” — I realize they laughed themselves into silence. 

CS: Some of the funniest moments consisted of pure delirious laughter and disbelief that the trip actually happened. We have a theory that the blueberries we found and ate on day two just took us out, and we’ll wake up on day three in the arctic any day now.

SR: My personal one came from trying to jump across a small pond and not realizing that the “solid grass covered ground” on the other side was actually just floating moss and did not hold the weight of a human.   

TC: Do you have advice for those applying for a Ritt Kellogg Expedition?

NH: Just do it. Seriously, I wish I’d had the foresight to apply for one every year. It is an insane opportunity that we are able to access. If people considering the Ritt Grant are worried that it might interfere with summer jobs or internships, I’d say ignore those (if it’s financially possible for them) in favor of doing the expedition. There aren’t many other times in your life that you’ll be able to do an extended wilderness trip like this again, and these trips will give you really valuable skills and teach you a ton about yourself and your abilities.

TC: If you could do it again, would you do anything differently?

CS: Bring tent stakes and a working, extra stove.

SR: And more Nutella.

NH: Don’t buy dried beans ever, buy dehydrated beans. Game-changer. Review my Whisperlite repair skills extensively before the trip.

Be sure to catch the presentations of all Ritt grant recipients on Oct. 9, 7 p.m. in the Cornerstone Screening Room!

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