Amid Rugged Mountains
Sixth Former Henry Ley, a Manhattan native and avid adventurer, gave his senior talk earlier this year focused on what his time exploring the mountains has meant to him. Read more about his recent trail accomplishment below.
William Blake: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet; this is not done by jostling in the street.”
In late July of this past summer, Andrew Holland and I found ourselves standing on a grassy overlook in the middle of the Rocky Mountain high country getting soaked by the rain. We had been mountain biking and backcountry camping for fifteen days along the Colorado Trail, but this day was the most dramatic. After summitting the 13,000-foot highpoint and experiencing a hairy encounter with some nearby lightning, we had pushed our bikes up a muddy valley in pouring rain. Andrew and I had intended to pitch camp at the first flat spot we could find over the saddle. But it wasn’t until after we found that beautiful flat overlook that we realized we did not have all of our tent parts, and that we would have to wait for Andrew Tashie and Simon Martin to catch up to us. For the next thirty minutes, all there was to do was look out on the distant mountains, the soaring cliffs, and the pristine alpine lake below—and just take the beating from the wind and the rain.
For most people, this would have been a low point, but somehow in that moment I was having the time of my life. Through the wet and the cold, this was the most memorable moment of the trip for me. And although I think Andrew would have strangled me if I had said it then, I was having fun.
Later that night when I was shivering in my damp sleeping bag, I began to question what was wrong with me. Why was I so drawn to the mountains that I could enjoy a moment like this? Now, I could tell you all some feel-good lies about how the mountains fill my spirit with hope or how they align my chakras. But the reality is that I am drawn to the mountains because they give me an opportunity to find unique experiences that few others are willing to find. I am motivated to complete harder climbs and to finish longer trails because I get to experience something special that fewer people are able or willing to experience.
Still, why do I subject myself to such extreme discomfort in order to find unique experiences? I thought perhaps the answer came from growing up in a big city, because I felt as though the only way to stand out or to find an identity of my own amongst all those people, amongst all those other kids, was to search the mountains for a place no one else was crazy enough to go. Or, perhaps instead, it was having a brother only one year older than me. Sharing a room, a school, and a routine taught me to crave being unique not only from him but from everyone. Or perhaps I was just raised in a family that not only supported but encouraged me to find my own path. After all, my parents are the ones who took my family on a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for Christmas dinner, and they are the ones who have supported all of my adventures and passions, for which I will be forever grateful.
I believe that it is likely due to a combination of these reasons that mountains have had such a strong effect on my life. As for my decision to come to the Asheville School, I told my parents it was for the rigorous academics—and somehow they believed me. But looking back on it now, I know the mountains must have subconsciously persuaded me because truthfully, how could I have gone to a school in New York City when I could come here to a school that was unheard of by my friends at home, to find a high school experience that is truly unique, especially from the New York City perspective; a school where every day I could walk to class under the shadow of Mount Pisgah. In the first quote, William Blake argues that great things can happen in the mountains that cannot in the streets, and throughout my experiences in both Asheville and New York, this has certainly held true.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until I stood on that overlook in the rain with Andrew Holland that I realized that the mountains have given me much more than what I was looking for. They have given me not only unique experiences, but also a much stronger connection with the people I have been lucky enough to share them with. On that overlook, it felt as though Andrew and I had joined an exclusive club in which only the two of us were members.
Although that experience can be characterized by wind, by rain, and by insufferable cold, the only people who really understand what that moment felt like are me and Andrew. Only I can really understand what he felt, just as only I can really understand how strong Andrew, Simon, and Tashie had to be to cross the Colorado Trail finish line.
Only we, in this room, can really understand the unique experience of Asheville School that we all share. When I’m on campus and I see Mount Pisgah and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, they remind me of how grateful I am for the time I have spent at this school, and they have caused me to realize that the reason I have loved this school as much as I have is because my experiences at Asheville School have so closely resembled my experiences in the mountains. Not because of its challenges, but because of how those challenges have brought our community together. Whether it has been studying for a test with a friend, taking down Christ School in baseball, or simply getting enough sleep, the challenges I have shared with you all have brought us together in the same way that the mountains of Colorado brought my friends and me together this summer.
So the next time you walk down to McNaughton field for a Friday night football game, I want you to look up at Mount Pisgah silhouetted against the sunset with its red blinking tower. I don’t want you to see a distant peak merely adding detail to the horizon. I want you to see it as a reminder, or maybe even as a symbol, of the challenges you have faced and will face through your adventure at Asheville School. But more importantly, the people with whom you have shared them.
Conquering the Pisgah Challenge
In 1918, at the height of the Spanish Flu epidemic, an intrepid group of Asheville School students created the “Pisgah Challenge” as a way to challenge themselves during difficult times. When the Flu arrived on campus, classes were cancelled, and the boys were encouraged to disperse into the wilderness around Asheville to limit their exposure. A group of friends set off from campus “on a marathon of sorts” with the summit of Mount Pisgah as their goal. The boys summited the mountain and returned to campus in one day, as noted in a 1918 edition of the Ashnoca. No Asheville School student had attempted this extreme feat (that we could find in the archives!) since 1918—until seniors Henry Ley and Connor Smith achieved this extraordinary feat this year.
“I heard about the Pisgah Challenge when I was a kid,” Smith says. “My mom completed half of the challenge with a group of faculty members in 2009, led by our former Mountaineering Director, Ed Maggart. As a six-year-old, I watched my mom depart on her voyage toward Pisgah, which left a lasting impact on my impressionable brain. As time passed, I aspired to match her feat.”
In November, the two decided to take on the challenge together. Ley prepared himself with a nod to his predecessors. “I remember reading somewhere that in the 1910s, students would eat shredded wheat from the dining hall before attempting the challenge,” he says. “So, I made sure to enjoy a bowl of blueberry mini wheats cereal for breakfast.”
The duo set out from the yellow post at the ATS exit from Asheville School on Smokey Park Highway. “Despite how difficult it was, we were both very committed to finishing and breaking the record, and we fed off each other’s motivation from start to finish,” Ley says. They reached the summit in four hours and thirty-two minutes. “Once there, we tried to look for the Asheville School water tower, which was just behind Little Pisgah’s ridge and out of sight,” Smith says. “After that Henry pulled out a pack of Swedish Fish, which he affectionately calls Summit Fish. As we shared the pack, he explained that he always carries Summit Fish on mountaineering trips for when he reaches the top.”
Their downhill journey called. “We suffered a lot on the way down,” Ley says, “but I don’t think stopping ever crossed my mind.” They finished with an astonishing total time of eight hours, forty-two minutes, and twenty-two seconds across just over forty-two miles. “I hope that other students in the future will find the strength and motivation to take the record and continue the tradition,” Ley says. “It could take 103 years and another pandemic, but hopefully it doesn’t. As for myself, I am already in search of a new challenge to push my limits. If the next school I end up at doesn’t have a long-standing record to take, I might just have to start my own.”