Outing Club Expedition Grant: A Summer of Van Living, Rock Climbing, and SLU Grads | St. Lawrence University

Outing Club Expedition Grant: A Summer of Van Living, Rock Climbing, and SLU Grads

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

This past summer began with two things: an idea and stubbornness. The idea, to live in a van converted into a camper and travel the West Coast seeking the best in rock climbing, was the brainchild of Jace Mullen ’17. The stubbornness was all on my end in insisting that he bring me, his girlfriend, along for the adventure. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

When spring semester rolled around, we started planning. Jace bought a small notebook, printed out a picture of a cargo van and pasted it to the front cover. In the notebook, he sketched ideas for the layout of the van. Today, searching #vanlife on Instagram pulls up nearly 800,000 posts. The idea of a simple life on the road with few possessions, and best of all no rent, is appealing to this generation. It’s a great way to not only explore, but also seek a life of independence. On TV you can find a number of shows dedicated to living in tiny houses, and to live in a van is to live in the tiniest of tiny houses, and better yet it’s on wheels. Outdoor enthusiasts may choose to live in a van because it allows them to access wild places easily and with a few creature comforts. Jace and I, like many others, were hooked on the idea.

We planned out our route in advance. We would begin in Oceanside, California, Jace’s hometown, and drive north to Smith Rock, Oregon. After a week or so, we would keep heading north, past Portland and Seattle to a small town north of Vancouver, British Columbia called Squamish (close to Whistler for any ski enthusiasts). Squamish, with its gorgeous and extensive granite, would be a place we would want to stay for a while. We would have about a month there before heading to Lander in central Wyoming for the International Climbers’ Festival and to climb at Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon. Next, we would maybe go to Ten Sleep, another climbing area in Wyoming, or even Jackson. The plan sounded perfect, a semi-triangle of some of the best climbing in North America. We were only missing two things: funding and a van.

Every year, the St. Lawrence Outing Club offers expedition grants to students seeking adventure over the summer. Two summers ago, Jace had received a grant to climb the famous El Capitan in Yosemite and he suggested that the two of us apply for a grant for our climbing road trip. We filled out the application outlining our route, how much we would spend on food and gas, our personal goals for the summer, and why our trip was going to be rad. To our great excitement, we received a grant for half of the money we would need for the trip. It didn’t hit me until we received the grant that this was really happening. I was going to live in a van and climb every day all summer long. 

Jace found a good deal on a 2001 Dodge RAM van in Los Angeles, and his dad was kind enough to pick it up while we were still in school. Jace sent me a picture and it looked, well, rough. It was white and had a damaged bumper and a few paint chips missing. This was the kind of van that parents tell their kids not to go near. To make it less creepy, we gave our van an endearing name: Vincent the Van that Goghs, but Vince for short.

In the first two weeks of summer, I stopped home to visit my parents and Jace got to work on the van. He cut a hole in the roof to put in a fan for ventilation. Next, he installed a solar panel so we could charge our phones and have indoor lighting. In the interior, he built a queen sized bedframe with storage underneath that we could access from the back doors for our climbing gear, and shelves on the inside for our clothes. He put in laminate floors, bookshelves, paneled ceilings, light switches, a kitchen attached to the side door, and a counter inside complete with a granite counter top (a left over from his dad’s construction company). I flew out to California at the end of May and was blown away when I finally met Vince. He looked rougher that the pictures on the outside, but on the inside it looked like a beautiful little apartment.

On July first, we woke up early, said goodbye to Jace’s dog, Sierra, and started out on our big adventure. We knew we would see beautiful places, try hard on amazing climbs, and meet new people, but we didn’t realize that along the way we would reconnect with so many St. Lawrence alumni. They were everywhere. Really.

Part 1: Mammoth Lakes, California

We were thankful to be past the LA traffic and continuing north toward our first climbing destination, Smith Rock, but we couldn’t make it there in one day. The first day of driving would put us in the Sierra by the time we were ready to sleep. We texted our friend, Paxton '15, who we knew was living in Mammoth Lakes, a ski town south east of Yosemite Valley. He gave us his address and we drove up to the house where four St. Lawrence grads were living. Most of them didn’t know we were coming, but nonetheless they invited us in. We spent some time catching up, and then headed out to get some climbing in at a local boulder. They were so excited to show us around Mammoth Lakes, and that night they took us on an adventure to a hot spring where we soaked until the sun was long down. It was a better first night than we could have imagined, all thanks to our St. Lawrence friends.

Part 2: Oregon

Climbing in Smith Rock, Oregon was hot. Really hot. We were waking up at 5 a.m. to beat the heat. In the climbing world, this is called an “alpine start”, usually reserved for when you’re climbing long days in the alpine, not short sport climbs like they have in Smith Rock. By 11 a.m. most days, we would be ready to quit. We still had a great time though, and Jace celebrated his 22nd birthday by climbing 22 pitches (about half a rope length each) in one day. After about a week and a half, we were ready to continue north, away from the high desert, to cooler temperatures. The plan was to leave Smith Rock, and spend the night at Jace’s grandparents house near Seattle. Looking at the map, I noticed we would be driving through Portland right about lunchtime. I texted my former housemate Evelyn '16, a Portland native who had just graduated from St. Lawrence a few weeks before, to see if she was home. She was indeed home, and only for one last day before heading to Italy for a summer program. We met up in downtown and she showed us the ropes, even picking out a famous sandwich place for lunch. It was a short visit, but it felt comforting to see another familiar face.

Part 3: Squamish, British Columbia

The British Columbia license plate boasts “Beautiful British Columbia” and it could not be more accurate. We pulled up to the campground at Stawamus Chief Provincial Park nestled under its namesake, a gorgeous granite dome, and below us was the sparkling Howe Sound. To our excitement, we weren’t the only ones living in our vans. There were a few girls from Quebec living in minivans, a couple from California living in their van lovingly called “Janky Jankinson”, a guy from Alberta, a guy from Connecticut, and a guy from New Zealand to name a few. And, of course, there was someone from St. Lawrence. There, living under the Stawamus Chief in his Toyota Prius, as a last hurrah before employment in the fall, was our friend Mitch '15. For the next three and a half weeks, we became part of a close-knit community of van-dwellers. Every morning, we would greet each other and chat as we made breakfast and coffee. We would lend each other gear, try new climbs, have potluck dinners, take group rest days, and every night we would make a “court-yard” between two vans with a tarp over-top and listen to music and talk all night. Being in one place for such a long time, and with a supportive community, I was able to test my limits as a climber. After three weeks in Squamish, I was stronger than I had ever been and more confident as well.

Part 4: Lander, Wyoming

It was hard to leave Squamish and the friends we had made there, but we knew good things lay ahead in Lander. Lander is a small, rural town in the middle of Wyoming in the Wind River Range. Outdoorsy folk might recognize the name because it is the location of the headquarters of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Jeff '16 was working there and we were excited to meet up with him. Not surprisingly, he was also living in a cargo van converted into a nice little apartment. We parked Vince next to his van in the Lander City Park where overnight parking and camping are legal. Most days, we would wake up and spend the day climbing (and I would usually spend the day panicking about rattle snakes) then we would come back “home” to our St. Lawrence friend. In our second week there, the International Climbers’ Festival began and the small town was suddenly bubbling with energy. There were climbing clinics, games, free food, and prizes galore. Jace was doing really well on some hard climbs that week, but at one point he tried a little too hard and hurt a tendon in his finger and needed to take a few weeks off climbing. That meant no Ten Sleep, and essentially that our trip would be over early…or so we thought. We found a clinic with an alpine guide out of Jackson, Wyoming. Jace had done a fair amount of alpine climbing, but I was clueless. The guide gave us tips and taught us techniques for moving fast in the alpine and suggested we climb the Grand Teton as it would be little to no stress on Jace’s finger. We would think about it and make our way to Jackson, but not, of course, without seeing Gigi '16, another St. Lawrence grad. She was leading a hiking trip through a camp out of Minnesota in the Winds and camping in the city park before bringing them back to camp, then heading to grad school.

The Final Climb: Jackson, Wyoming

We drove west from Lander to Jackson and as we entered town I asked Jace, “Do we know where we’re going?” We didn’t. We had driven there with no plans, but knowing that Jackson is a mecca for St. Lawrence alumni we knew someone would help us out. That’s just what St. Lawrence students do. I texted a friend to see who was in Jackson and she responded with a long list of names. We called Claire Longcope ’17 who was working in Jackson for a few weeks after finishing a 700-mile bike trip in the Rockies. She invited us over to the house she was staying at with a former St. Lawrence student and we were given permission to park Vince there overnight. The next morning, we drove Claire to work and made the final decision to climb the Grant Teton, a beautiful peak at 13,775 feet. We bought some sandwiches, granola bars, and a new pair of shoes for me, then found a camping spot close to Grand Teton National Park. We made dinner around 4 p.m. and tried to get to bed shortly after. We were going to do a real alpine start, waking up at 3 a.m. to begin the adventure.

The majority of the day was spent hiking up, up, up into the alpine. We hiked through boulder fields, scree fields, and some snow. We drank from ice-cold streams and made friends with some marmots. The views were breathtaking, but I did have my fair share of suffering from the altitude and lack of sleep. Around 10 a.m. we brought out the rope and harnesses we had carried up in our daypacks and started the climbing portion, which took us up to the summit. The exposure was extreme, and falling was not an option, but after a summer of climbing I felt confident. We made it to the summit at the perfect time for lunch. There was a couple from the Czech Republic at the summit as well, and I made friends with them by speaking the slight amount of Czech I remembered from my semester abroad in Prague. “Mluvim trochu cesky”, or “I speak a little bit of Czech.” They were impressed and we ended up becoming a team of four most of the way down the mountain. Seventeen hours of hiking and climbing after our early morning start we were beyond enthusiastic to be reunited with our faithful van, Vince.

After pizza and a good night’s sleep, we had to come to terms with the fact that it was the last day of our seven-week climbing trip. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, and neither was Jace. We had started our trip surrounded by St. Lawrence grads showing us a good time, so what better way to end it than with more St. Lawrence grads. Claire told us to meet her at Teton Gravity Research, an extreme sports media company, where she had just finished watching a movie with a group of St. Lawrence alumni. The whole group headed down the street for a “disco night” and danced the evening away. It was a perfect end to a perfect trip that just wouldn’t have been the same without the support of St. Lawrence and the wonderful people that go here.