Feb 12, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Lorea Zabaleta | Illustration by Bibi Powers

Outdoor expeditions already have a level of risk that cannot be eliminated, merely mitigated. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly increased that risk, as well as the consequences of injuries and accidents. Still, it’s nothing Colorado College students can’t handle.

The Ritt Kellogg Expedition Grant gives a sum of money annually to groups of CC students (or graduates of that year) who have intensely researched and planned a multi-week expedition somewhere in North America. However, in 2020, like everything else, the 13 trip proposals that had already been accepted were canceled.

On Feb. 3, 2021, six groups, a little less than half of the previous year’s number, submitted their pandemic revised proposals for the grant, hoping that the cancellations would not occur this year.

Colorado College Outdoor Education (CCOE) and Kate Macklin, the Ritt Memorial Fund Manager, worked tirelessly to modify this year’s proposal requirements to ensure that the students whose proposals are approved will be able to enter the field, even with the presence of COVID-19.

Macklin said some of the changes are “inconvenient and sometimes a bit of a bummer,” but that the goal is to get as many students out into the field as possible without canceling their trips again. One of those changes is the restriction of expeditions to within the contiguous U.S., as opposed to normal years when students may plan to go to Canada, Alaska, or Hawaii. She added that this restriction gave students “the opportunity to look a little closer to home.”

Another restriction for this year is limiting travel to personal vehicles to significantly reduce the possibility of someone contracting COVID on their way to or from the expedition.

Macklin recognized that not all students have access to a personal vehicle, so the school is funding rental cars from companies that allow people under 25 to rent. U-Haul, for example, will rent to anyone over 18 with a valid driver’s license.

“Our goal is always just to get as many students outside as we can, regardless of their financial and life situations,” Macklin said.

In terms of the application itself, Macklin said only one new section was added – COVID-19 preparedness and risk mitigation. Students are already asked to evaluate objective risks they may encounter in the field on their application, and the virus is “just an additional objective risk,” she said. This section also included a COVID-19 location assessment which groups filled out at the time of application and will do so again three weeks before they go into the field.

“The hope here is that students are tracking that location to see how states and regions are handling their response, what ICU capacity is looking like. And so, when they decide to go into the field as we get closer to the trip, they’re sure it’s an appropriate decision to make,” Macklin said.

Beyond regional COVID-19 situations, the section included questions about how the teams planned to protect themselves from the virus before and in the field. For ‘before each trip,’ plans may include testing, appropriate quarantines, or even vaccines if some students have received them by the start-date of their trip. For ‘in the field,’ students submitted plans to protect themselves and anyone they may encounter, such as community members of areas they travel through, as well as what to do if someone develops symptoms.

Students planning more extended expeditions also had to tackle the food resupply question. Macklin said it is easier in some areas than others, and that this year more students are considering options like horse-packing services.

“They drop their food off with the horse-packers beforehand, and those horse-packers meet them at a certain lake in the backcountry at a certain day, and they get their food that way,” she said. “So there’s definitely more creativity. I think that’s coming out in both resupplies and routes, in general, this year.”

Due to the unpredictability of COVID, Macklin said that while normally they are strict about ensuring the proposal that is approved is the proposal that goes into the field, there will be a little more flexibility this year. She said that small changes may be made “on a case-by-case basis.”

Macklin said that a goal of hers for this year, her second year at CC, even before knowing how much the pandemic would change things, was to “ramp” up her support for students. Throughout the Ritt process, she has been making herself more available via Zoom for teams, and helped host the grant writing clinics held over J Block. She said that making herself more available digitally was to make up for students’ former ability to “drop by.”

Looking forward, hopefully to a COVID-free future, Macklin is thinking of innovative ways to get students involved, including a “speed-dating” event to help students find expedition teammates. “Even beyond just the pandemic life, we’re always trying to remove barriers towards participation in this sort of thing,” she said.

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