When they talk about their adventures hiking in the Adirondacks, the eyes of Ryan Wichens, 18, and Gabe Messercola, 17, light right up. One can almost smell the crackling campfire, see the thousands of stars strewn across the night sky and hear the call of the loons.
“It is a beauty beyond description,” said Messercola. “It becomes a part of you.”
“There are times when we’re camping, and we don’t want to go into our lean to,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.”
The duo have spent a good deal of their lives in the outdoors, but they realize their experiences are ones many youngsters never have. They’re looking to change that by organizing an ambitious summer hike through the Adirondacks that will raise awareness of and benefit the Colorado-based charity Big City Mountaineers, which gives west-coast inner city youths the chance to have outdoor experiences.
In June, Wichens and Messercola will step off on a 200-mile “blue line to blue line” journey (from the northmost to southernmost points of the Adirondack Park). They expect it to take 21 days, via canoe, bike and foot. They hope their fundraising through the trip will qualify them for Big City Mountaineers’ Summit for Someone — a program that provides guided trips in exchange for a large donation. They each must raise $4,000 to tackle Washington’s Mount Rainier, which would not only take their journey to the next level, but give someone else the opportunity to start their own.
A cause worth hiking for
Big City Mountaineers caught the teens’ attention because of its mission. The group uses the money raised for outdoor and mentoring programs that teach valuable life skills to children that have never had the chance. The teenagers have immense respect for the foundation and what they do for underprivileged kids.
They told a story of one mentor who was taking some kids on a hiking trip and one of the kids asked what the things in the night sky were.
“This kid had never seen stars before,” said Gabe. “Living in his whole life, the kid had never been outside the lights of the city.”
That thought sparked a fire for both hikers.
“One of our realizations was how much we’ve been affected by outdoors,” said Wichens. “If it affects us that much, how much more would it affect kids who have never seen the outdoors? That’s what I want these kids to experience.”
Both of them hope to continue an involvement with Big City Mountaineers, eventually becoming mentors themselves or bringing a similar project to the Adirondack region.
“We would like to bring it more localized,” said Messercola. “We hope this is the first project of many.”
A lasting friendship
For Wichens and Messercola, Adirondack Traverse 2013, as they’re calling the big trip, is a culmination of sorts. The teenagers are lifelong residents of Stillwater, and met on a school bus when Gabe was 5 and Ryan was 6. They’ve been friends ever since, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents.
“It is sometimes unsettling and nerve wracking, the things they come up with,” said Gene Messercola, Gabe’s father. “They’ve been hiking on their own for three years now and the elements don’t bother them.”
Nancy Messercola, Gabe’s mother, said the two have remained friends in spite of a separation when Gabe started going to Christian Brothers Academy and Ryan started college this past fall.
“They have always been thinkers and planners,” she said. “They come up with things unusual for their age.”
Staying together was important to both.
“We don’t like to hike without each other,” said Messercola. “Now that Ryan’s in college, we don’t get out enough. Whenever he comes home, it’s go, go, go. We’ve remained really close friends. He’s stayed through it all.”
Deep roots in the woods
It was Ryan Wichens’ father, Chuck, who introduced the two to hiking.
“I started taking them geo-caching when Ryan was thirteen,” said Chuck Wichens. “It was an instant love for both of them and they took off running.”
Lisa Wichens, Ryan’s mother, also finds her son’s ever-escalating outdoor challenges to be a challenge for her, as well.
“It makes me nervous, but I know it’s what he loves to do. I hold my breath and wait for them to come back. … “If I was in the mountains, there is no one else I would like to be with. There is no one more experienced that I know of,” she said.
Once they got a taste of the outdoors, Wichens and Messercola dug in with vigor. Their first goal was to climb Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak, and they trained by climbing in the High Peaks.
“It became an addiction,” Messercola said. “Our goal was to get to the top.”
The two quickly became interested in ice climbing as well as mountaineering. They enlisted the help of Jay Harrison, a skilled ice climber and founder of Adirondack Adventure Club.
“They wanted to understand the technical aspects of ice climbing,” said Harrison. “I took them up Cascade Falls, one of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.”
The casual way Harrison described the climb up the frozen falls is a reflection of the boys’ attitude towards hiking and mountaineering.
“It’s not about the summit, it’s the experience getting there,” said Wichens. ”Sometimes we have to turn around. It’s extremely important to have the ability to say OK, that’s enough.”
Ryan Wichens and Gabe Messercola shared their adventures during a recent fundraising dinner for Adirondack Traverse 2013 held at Stillwater United Church on Saturday, Jan. 19. For more information on their trip and cause or to make a donation, visit adirondacktraverse.org.