Georgia Tech Essay

Prompt: Describe the personal experience that gave you the feeling of greatest achievement or satisfaction because of the challenges you met.

For miles nothing to see but trees, yet here nothing but dirt and rock. Why? It’s the altitude, above the timberline: too cold, too windy, too much direct sunlight. I’m standing at 12,441 feet, 1,961 of which I climbed that morning. A great challenge is often likened to a mountain, mine actually was a mountain.

For many people, the hardest challenges are mental. For me academics are fairly easy, physical tests are more challenging. I’ve stayed active anyway: I have a black belt in Taekwondo, Open Water Certification in scuba diving and I hike a lot. Nothing was like Philmont or the experiences leading to it.

The Philmont Scout Ranch is 137,493 acres in New Mexico held by the Boy Scouts of America. Crisscrossed with trails, filled with beautiful scenery, it is unique and unforgettable. A full narrative of my trek would be too long for this essay, but I will recount a few memories.

I went to Philmont with a contingent selected by the Tidewater Council. I was the youngest member, the minimum age of 14. To prepare for Philmont, where we chose one of the most difficult treks, we took a series of “work-up” hikes. Two are quite memorable. First was False Cape State Park where, after parking at the end of the southernmost paved road in Virginia Beach, we set out for 14 miles on the sand carrying packs weighing 40 pounds. I was out of shape and it took a lot out of me, but I hung in there, determined to make it to Philmont. Little did I know what awaited me.

St. Mary’s Wilderness is a U.S. Wilderness Area adjacent to George Washington National Forest with not much upkeep. We did not know when we started, but the area was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Isabel. Shortly after our last day’s lunch, the trail disappeared.

We were left with one piece of knowledge, the trail was supposed to follow the river. The river was surrounded with dense vegetation, so we made our own trail. Over the ensuing six hours we mostly walked in the river and I lost my footing, tore my hiking pants and gashed my knee. We also “enjoyed” crawling through thorns, walking the sides of rocky slopes at angles seemingly too steep for human passage (not even counting the extra weight of equipment) and, I kid you not, crossing twelve feet above turbid, rocky rapids on a slimy, fallen tree trunk. We were thirsty—out of water and walking in a non-potable river. It is the only time in my life when I truly thought I might die. But we made it—wading across the top of a tall waterfall and free climbing a rock face, we found ourselves at a scenic overlook which was a spur of the main path and thus made it to the cars and home.

Nothing at Philmont itself was as dangerous, but the terrain was steeper, the air thinner and it was a lot longer. For me, twelve days without electricity and internet was a challenge in itself. I did pack two books when most people were cutting their toothbrushes in half to conserve weight. (My crew leader later noted, “I guess it depends on your definition of essential.”) Each night we hoisted our food in “bear bags” in the trees, to not attract wildlife. One day my bag of granola exploded onto the ground, leaving me to eat it off the dirt because leave no trace MEANS leave no trace. Despite these precautions, we had two close encounters with bears.

Still, it was probably the most fulfilling 12 days of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Those 87 miles over 5,941 feet of elevation were worth every step. The trip gave me enough scouting spirit to complete my Eagle rank, of which I am also proud. It gave me self-confidence and a better perspective. I may go back to Philmont and I will face other challenges, but I will never again know the exhilaration of a fourteen year old boy who successfully braved the wilderness and climbed to the top of the world.