Highland News Leader

‘You don't know how small you are until you're on top of a glacier’

HHS senior Elisabeth Meadows and her team return to base camp after a day in the mountains.
HHS senior Elisabeth Meadows and her team return to base camp after a day in the mountains. Courtesy photo

Not everyone would jump at the chance spend nearly two weeks with strangers trekking across inhospitable terrain, but then again, Elisabeth Meadows isn’t just anyone.

“Doug Bradley (a teacher at Highland High School) told me about Girls on Ice two years ago. I applied when I was 16, but didn’t get in,” Meadows said. “I applied for two more years and finally got accepted.”

Girls on Ice is a wilderness science education program for high school girls. Each year, two teams of nine teenage girls and three instructors spend 12 days exploring and learning about mountain glaciers and the alpine landscape through scientific field studies.

One team sleeps under the midnight sun while exploring an Alaskan glacier. The second explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in the North Cascades of Washington state, which was where Meadows had her adventure.

“The whole purpose of the trip is to inspire young women. We had three female leaders. One was a geographer, the second was a mountain guide, and the third was an artist,” Meadows said.

The program is only open to girls between the ages of 16-18, and nearly 2,000 girls applied this year.

“We had this one girl on the trip who had never been in snow before,” Meadows said. “Diversity was a key factor in deciding who goes on the trip. For instance, one of my tentmates was from Chicago and the other was a Navajo Native American. And one girl was from Alaska, and her school only had 23 kids in her class.”

The first two days of the trip were focused on forming bonds and learning the equipment. Even though the program is open to girls from all walks of life, it’s not without its risks.

“We learned how to walk on the glacier. We practiced with ropes, hand signals, and other stuff just to keep us safe,” Meadows said. The major danger of the trip were the snow-covered crevasses, which could be 100 feet deep. “They told us that if we start to slip, we had to throw our pickaxe down to stay safe.”

Meadows said one of the guides told the girls only one person had fallen in a crevasse in the history of the program — it was her.

“We were all tied together with ropes, but I wasn’t very nervous. I’m very adventurous,” Meadows said.

Once she was in the mountains, Meadows’ adventurous nature took over, giving her confidence and deeper connection with nature.

“Our camp was overlooking the glacier. You don’t know how small you are until you’re on top of a glacier,” she said. “You just feel so small surrounded by all the snow.”

While on the trip, each girl was given experiments to perform. Meadows focused on red algae in the mountains.

“My focus was on microorganisms in extreme environments,” she said. “I want to be a surgeon, but I love science and microorganisms. They are so cool.”

Meadows said the program did wonders for her self-confidence, and she’d strongly recommend any girl to apply.

“It was so amazing. I feel like you learn better when you’re out of your comfort zone,” she said. “I definitely had one main goal: gaining confidence. And I did. And if I had rate this on a 10-point scale, I’d give it a 5 million.”

The experience she had was so influential that she and the eight others she bonded with are planning another trip together, likely next summer.

For more information on the Girls on Ice program, check out girlsonice.org.