Reaching for the top
For the past 16 years, Crook County High School head cross country coach Tracy Smith has been taking his team on a camping trip just before the season starts.
The trip, which is intended to be both conditioning and a chance for team members to bond, has varied in size during his tenure as head coach, with groups as small as eight to 10 individuals.
Still, Smith has persisted, regardless of the turnout.
For the past several years, the camp has been based at Little Cultus Lake, which is located just off of the Cascade Lakes Highway, west of Bend.
"Last year, we had 12, this year we have 22 campers," Smith said last week. "They just love being together."
The camp includes some trail running, paddle boarding and kayaking, as well as games and other activities. In addition, each year Smith takes the team on a hike to the summit of South Sister.
At an elevation of 10,363 feet, South Sister is the third highest peak in Oregon behind only Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.
However, like most other high peaks, South Sister doesn't involve a technical climb, instead it is just a long, steep hike.
Last Wednesday, the team set off just after 8 a.m. to climb to the summit, a nearly 12-mile round trip that includes nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain. The hike is both long and difficult.
"This is the highlight of the week," Smith said midway through last Wednesday's hike. "That's what gets me. Year after year, they go to the top. I've done it 16 times, and I was just telling Rachel (Rachel Wente-Chaney, a parent who made the hike) that if some of the kids can't make it to the top, I wouldn't mind going down to Moraine Lake and just sitting there, but I think they are all going to go all the way up."
However, that wasn't going to happen as sophomore Miles Chaney quickly pointed out when asked how many of the runners would make it to the summit.
"All of us," he responded. "We are going strong. We had a little snack break, and the hike is going pretty good."
With all 22 high school students summiting, Smith also walked to the top along with two other coaches and a handful of parents and other interested individuals from Prineville.
"This is a great way to get ready for the season," said junior runner Roman Stenbeck, who was the first member of the team to reach tree line on the way to the summit. "This hike is both the low point and the high point of the camp. It's so hard, yet it's awesome."
Stenbeck added that coach Smith had given the team a rather tight timeframe to summit the mountain, giving them just six hours for the entire journey, a trip that is typically expected to take between seven and nine hours.
With the entire team summiting, individuals celebrated the view from the top and posed for pictures.
As the team turned to make the return trip down, at least one team member stopped to take an icy dip in Tear Drop Lake, which sits surrounded by snow just below the summit.
Then, the team scrambled down the hill and returned to the highway for a return trip to Little Cultus Lake for the remainder of camp.
Although the hike up South Sister is intended to be a memory that will last forever for the campers, it is far from the only memorable part of camp.
"I am enjoying camp," said sophomore Zach Mauras. "It's a lot of fun. I think it's a great way to get ready for the season — getting bonded with your team and getting in shape all at the same time."
Smith noted that as the camp has expanded this year. He expected some people to separate from the group and kind of do their own thing.
Instead, he noted that the kids have become a tightknit group and have done everything together.
"We have five kayaks and four paddle boards at camp," he said. "They have been out there 'til dark just kayaking and paddle boarding. I expected some of them to go off on their own, but they have stayed clumped together all in one place. We are so proud of the kids because we try to have a family atmosphere with our team, and this team has just a great attitude. It's just a blessing to have such great kids, and I love watching them be so happy together."
Both runners and the coaching staff expect the camp and all the other efforts that the team has put into the summer to pay big dividends once the season starts.
Last year, both the boys and girls cross country teams qualified for the state championships with the boys just missing earning a trophy.
Although both teams lost key members from last year's squads, both the team and Smith believe that this year's team can be even better.
"It's been great," Smith said. "Last week was the dead week where the coaches can't have anything to do with it. We encourage them to run, but in past years maybe a few of them would do it but even they wouldn't do that much of a workout. I come back this week, and I hear that they are running 11-mile runs, which we haven't even been doing. Eight is about as long as we have gone, so they did a lot of extra work on their own."
Smith noted that competition for this year's varsity team will be intense, especially for the boys, with who gets to run varsity potentially changing from race to race.
"It's probably going to switch around all the time, and even for who is top man," he said. "There are a bunch of them. There is like 10 guys that are going to be unbelievable. They just love being together and that just blesses our coaches' hearts."
And it looks like the team is not just building camaraderie, but talent as well.
"We are going to do it," Maraus added before turning to head on up to the top of South Sister. "We are going to get a trophy at state this year."