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Walking Through Clouds

How a 17-Year-Old from Southwest D.C. Found Confidence 2,000 Miles from Home and 13,000 Feet in the Air
by Annie Brackemyre Summer 2023
Two people sit at the top of a mountain, above clouds. They wear orange helmets and one curls a bicep
Desahray Johnson (right) at the summit of Grand Teton

Waking up to the sound of rain, Desahray Johnson began her day at Broken Arrow Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was August 7, 2022 and time for Johnson to begin her two-day climb up Grand Teton, a gruelling ascent 2.5 miles above sea level to the tallest peak in the Teton range.

Over the next two days on the mountain, Johnson would face heavy downpours, near freezing temperatures, mud and puddles that obscured the path, boulders so close that she’d turn sideways to slide between them, and vertical ascents that she both climbed up and rappelled back down.

“There were crazy moments,” says Johnson. “We were walking through clouds. And then you were hanging on to a cliff, relying on your fingertips. You're rappelling, holding your own body over the cliff and lower yourself with the rope like you’re a fish on a fishing rod. But you know what you’re doing. You're ready for this.”

A City Kid in Wyoming

17 years old and a native of Southwest D.C., Johnson was a long way from home, but undaunted and well prepared for the trek. She was in Grand Teton National Park as part of City Kids Wilderness Project — a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that provides year-round outdoor programming for D.C. students in grades six through 12. Using wilderness settings to build resiliency, broaden horizons, develop life skills, and cultivate community, City Kids also provides career exploration, job training, and social justice workshops.

Johnson, like all City Kids, joined the program in sixth grade. She first attended a City Kids ziplining event in D.C., without realizing it was an opportunity to apply to the multi-year program. She was surprised when her mom received an email weeks later saying Johnson was invited to officially join the City Kids cohort and fly to Wyoming that summer.

Desahray Johnson hikes Grand Teton
Johnson uses ropes to scale Grand Teton (Photo credit: Billie Henry, City Kids Staff)

At 12 years old, Johnson boarded a plane for the first time and joined her fellow City Kids participants in Wyoming. She would go on to make that flight five more times, once each summer, through middle school and high school.

As part of City Kids, Johnson takes part in hiking, biking, kayaking, and rock-climbing sessions throughout the school year. All of the training, the rock climbing lessons, the survival skills, and the group bonding culminated in this moment — the two-day hike up Grand Teton with a fellow participant, a City Kids staff member, and two guides.

The classic alpine peak has drawn climbers and adventurers for over 100 years and is so iconic that the national park takes its name from the summit. The summit sits at 13,776 feet. But what it lacks in elevation, it makes up for in technical climbing requirements. Ropes are required to scale the nearly vertical ascent at many parts.

“The Grand Climb was something I wasn’t scared to do. I really wanted to do it. I was excited,” says Johnson. “I felt good about doing it because it takes patience. It takes all of the learnings we learned over the years. It felt good putting all of those abilities together and have all of my survival skills come together to take two days to climb a mountain.”

Lessons Learned

Desahray Johnson with City Kids participants sitting in front of a lake in Grand Teton National Park, 2017
Johnson, second from right, with City Kids participants in Grand Teton National Park, 2017 (City Kids Staff)

While Johnson had rock climbed, scaled mountains, and even hiked the Teton Crest trail just days prior to the Grand Climb, the intensity of the Grand brought new challenges. The consistent rain didn’t help either.

It was “really, really, really, really, really, really cold,” says Johnson.

“There was one point on the second day, where I was so tired,” says Johnson. “And there were just straight rocks ahead of me. There was only up to go. Am I too exhausted? Is anyone else this tired? I had two seconds thinking I want to turn around.”

Johnson and fellow City Kid participant at the summit of Grand Teton
Johnson and fellow City Kid participant at the summit of the Grand Climb (Photo credit: Billie Henry, City Kids Staff)

But climbing with fellow City Kids student, Leon, and with City Kids staff, Billie Henry, helped her through.

“When you’re with your team, you’re not in it alone. And I was like, I can’t go back now. We all want to get to the top as a team,” Johnson said.

She recalls moving those “intrusive thoughts” aside and ultimately feeling proud of herself for completing the climb.

“You hear a lot of ‘you can do it, you can do it.’ And I learned that I really could,” says Johnson. “Just looking at the trees and flowers as we came back and walking past everything, was like walking past your enemy you just flexed on — but a beautiful one.”

A person wearing a visor and windbreaker smiles into the camera
We were walking through clouds. And then you were hanging on to a cliff, relying on your fingertips. You're rappelling, holding your own body over the cliff and lower yourself with the rope like you’re a fish on a fishing rod. But you know what you’re doing. You're ready for this.
Desahray Johnson

Johnson’s other moment of self-discovery was an equally important revelation for the teenager— she survived without her phone.

The camp holds the participants’ phones to keep them engaged in the training and camp activities. Even when she tried to sneak phone access, there wasn’t enough cell service to connect, says Johnson.

“You’ve got something to do from the moment you wake up until the moment you close your eyes and go to sleep. I realized that there’s more to life than social media,” said Johnson. “I thought everyone was on social media, but when I got there, I realized lots of people are just living life day-by-day and some people don’t worry about a phone or weren’t raised on a phone. I learned that I can actually live without my cell phone.”

A person, wearing a helmet, holds onto the reins of a horse at a horse ranch
Johnson horseback riding at Broken Arrow Ranch in Jackson Hole Wyoming (City Kids Staff)
A group of people, all wearing hiking gear and sporting backpacks, smile for a picture on a hike
Johnson with fellow City Kids participants in Grand Teton National Park (City Kids Staff)

Without a cell phone, Johnson says she was more in tune with her surroundings.

“I learned I like to sleep outside in a tent, on my back, in my sleeping bag. It sounds not that comfortable, but it’s lovely. A storm is supposed to scare us, but it’s really calming when the rain is hitting the tent tarps,” says Johnson. “I learned I can survive in nature.”

She’s also confident escaping a bear without hurting the bear or herself, “so that’s nice,” Johnson added with a laugh.

The Next Big Climb

Having already climbed multiple mountains, including the Grand, Johnson’s sights are set even higher — college and then law school. She says she’s still figuring out how to incorporate her love for animals, nature, and real estate into a career in law.

Naturally curious, Johnson says she’s excited to learn a “little bit about a lot” throughout her college career. While she might not need mountain survival skills to make it through undergrad and law school, she credits City Kids with broadening her perspective.

Johnson canoeing in Grand Teton National Park
Johnson canoeing in Grand Teton National Park

“With City Kids, I learned how to look at things from a different perspective,” says Johnson. “That’s helped me with my learning when it comes to looking at arguments from different perspectives in terms of studying law."

She says she brings the same attitude to applying to college as she does to climbing now—

“I loved seeing everything that I overcame. It made me feel so accomplished. My biggest takeaway is that I really can do it.”

Thanks to our partners

Generous funding from ParkVentures founding partner Nature Valley supported City Kids programming at Grand Teton National Park. The National Park Foundation has invested more than $1.1 million in ParkVentures grants to date, including support from Outdoor Exploration initiative premier partner Subaru of America and supporting partners Niantic and Sun Outdoors. Additional support is provided by Apple, American Airlines, EVOLVE Plant-Based Protein, Method Products, Kohl’s, and Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold.

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