Mt. Abe student spends last semester in Ecuador

BRISTOL — On a dismally cold morning this past fall, Spencer Norland watched the sunrise from the side of an active volcano high in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. For the Mount Abe Union High School senior, it wasn’t a bad way to finish his high school career.
Norland, 17, participated in a semester abroad program sponsored by Kroka Expeditions, an outdoor education company based in Marlow, N.H.
“I would strongly recommend it to other students,” Norland said. “It was an amazing experience.”
After one month of outdoor training in New Hampshire, Norland and his classmates flew to Ecuador for 11 weeks. There were 14 students in Norland’s group — most from New England, including five Vermonters.
Norland first got the idea to do a semester abroad after his sister, Nicole, went on the same trip last year.
“She came back a totally different person,” the Bristol resident said. “It was incredible to see the change in her, how happy she was with herself.”
According to Kroka, the goal of the trips are for participants to learn how to live with the smallest carbon footprint, and to contrast the environments and culture of New England and Ecuador. Kroka Expeditions offers several programs in Vermont and Ecuador in the spring, summer and fall.
Tuition for the semester-long Ecuador program runs between $10,000-14,000, depending on the financial need of a family, Misha Golfman of Kroka Expeditions said.
Norland said a typical day started before dawn, when the students would get up at 5:30 a.m. The group would exercise for an hour, then do chores.
“We would work on things around the farm, cook meals and clean the communal areas,” he said.
After breakfast, Norland and the other students would work on crafts, including metal work and building a composting toilet. Each evening, the group would eat together.
“Once a week we’d meet with just us students, to discuss if we had any problems with each other, just to put things on the table,” Norland said.
For much of the time, his group was alone in the wilderness, he said.
“Our farm was next to the city of Pifo, but where we were was more or less rural,” Norland said. “When we’re on expedition we’re in the middle of nowhere — on our second we were in a national park and only saw one house in a 16-day period.”
Norland estimated the group was on an expedition for about half the time. The first expedition was just under a month, while the second was one week long.
Norland said it was a jarring change to suddenly live in another country.
“The whole time I felt culture shock; so many things were foreign to me — the landscape is drastically different, and people are interacting in totally different ways,” Norland said. “But it still worked well for me; it wasn’t a bad thing.”
The students took Spanish classes, but by his own admission, Norland didn’t pick up the language as quickly as some others.
“I’ve never been a strong foreign language learner,” he said. “But I was still able to interact with the natives by sounding things out and using the basic Spanish I knew.”
In addition, each of the students adopted a Spanish name. Since “Spencer” does not translate easily, Norland’s classmates decided on “Ignacio” for him — the nickname for which is “Nacho.”
“It stuck — it just became my name for three and a half months,” Norland said. “I liked it; it was interesting to be known as something other than Spencer.”
Norland said his favorite part of the experience was the group’s second expedition, a journey to Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth-highest volcano.
“It took us four days to hike across the highlands,” Norland said. “At the glacier school we learned how to hike the terrain.”
At 18,714 feet, the summit of Antisana is more than four times higher than Vermont’s highest point, Mount Mansfield. Despite the fact that the equator runs through the country (Ecuador literally translates as “Republic of the Equator”), the top of Antisana, like many in the Northern Andes, is covered with snow.
Norland and his classmates attempted to summit the peak, but were unsuccessful.
“There’s a giant crevasse that a school bus could fit in, and we’d have to cross a snow bridge,” Norland said. “Twenty of us tried to summit, but our guide didn’t feel confident in the snow bridge.”
The group did successfully summit Cotopaxi, a peak to the southwest of Antisana, and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
“It was something I’ll never forget because we woke up, after sleeping for four hours, around 10 p.m.,” Norland said. “It was totally pitch black when we got ready, and we were already at 16,000 or 17,000 feet.”
SPENCER NORLAND AND his fellow students explored the Northern Andes range of Ecuador. At more than 18,000 feet, these peaks are six times higher than Vermont’s highest point, Mt. Mansfield.
Norland said that the group shared a jar of Nutella his father had sent him before beginning the hike. The students strapped on harnesses and crampons and were each equipped with ice axes.
“We roped up in teams and started up,” Norland said. “You get tired so fast, moving slowly just to keep from getting exhausted.”
Norland said the route consisted of a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain.
“It’s monotonous — taking two steps, putting the ice axe in, and stepping over the rope,” Norland said. “You repeated that for hours.”
They crested the summit at 5:30 a.m., when it was still completely dark. The group waited for daylight.
“Soon the horizon was beginning to light up, and I got to watch the sun rise from the top of the mountain,” Norland recalled. “It was the most gorgeous sun I’ve ever seen — it was freezing cold but so amazing.”
Norland said the students who completed the trek were so happy they hugged each other at the top. The summit of Cotapaxi is one of the closest points to the sun on Earth. Though the mountains in Ecuador are not among the tallest in the world, they are further from the Earth’s core, as the Earth bulges slightly around the equator. Thus, the summit of Cotapaxi — 19,347 feet (the second-highest in Ecuador) — is further from the center of the Earth than Mount Everest in Nepal.
“Making it to the top was the biggest achievement of my life,” Norland said. “I made a lot of friends up there; it was an amazing experience.”
Since Norland completed his degree in the fall, he is taking the spring to work and prepare for college. He will soon hear what colleges have accepted him, and he will head off to school in the fall.
He used the experience to write his college application essay. He applied to two schools in Maine and three in North Carolina. He said his top choice is Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
“I want to have healthy plans for my future, and figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Norland said. “I realized a lot of the things I idealized before don’t matter as much — like that it is better to enjoy a career and not make a lot of money, than to hate a job but make a lot of money.”

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