One step forward, two lunges upward. The cool mountain breeze reminds you of how hard you’ve worked to get to this point. You’re almost at your goal, at the top. And as the sun peeks over the last rock in your way, you’re rewarded with watching the sunrise create a mosaic before your eyes.
If this sounds appealing to you, you’re in luck. One of the latest clubs to debut at UNLV is the appropriately titled UNLV Mountain Club, led by third-year graduate student April Contreras and psychology researcher Dustin Hines. Created last year amid a backdrop of pandemic weariness and social unrest, the group blends mental health with physical activity and camaraderie while also focusing on breaking down socioeconomic and racial barriers to outdoor sports.
“The Mountain Club is really about giving people a sense of empowerment in the outdoors,” Contreras said.
Contreras, the club’s president, credited where she is now — and the beginnings of the club — to an introductory neuroscience course.
“That's when I started learning more about the brain and behavior, how we interact with our environment; our environment affects us,” Contreras said. Eventually, that led her to forming a mentorship bond with Hines, and later starting the club together.
The club began as a combination of her and Hines’ love for the outdoors and psychology. On the environmental side of things, the club offers a variety of outdoor expeditions ranging from beginner- to advanced-level trips. Activities include everything from rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, and backpacking to a good old-fashioned hike. But the trips are more than just opportunities to get some exercise.
Beyond the Fun, Student Organizations Encourage Leadership and Inclusion
There’s a mental health component too.
“A lot of the outdoors involves going out and facing your fears,” Contreras said.
At the same time, club activities open the opportunity for members to build up psychological skills, including confidence, teamwork, and leadership.
In fact, a recent study by the University of Michigan supported the idea that spending time in nature has positive effects on mental health, especially for young adults who spend a lot of time around technology. Researchers found that 52% of participants said they felt calm while out in nature. Another 22% said that it relieved stress or reduced anxiety, while 17% said that they felt that being in nature positively affected their physical health and made them feel more active, Futurity reported.
As the pandemic drags on, the Mountain Club provides a much-needed outlet for some participants, Hines added.
“Most people have this idea that to climb a big mountain you need muscles and all these other things,” he said. “It's your internal muscle - your psyche - that you're challenging continually, which keeps you going, brings you up.”
Mental relief aside, the club encourages self-growth as well. Contreras noted that the club has motivated members to step into leadership roles they wouldn’t have otherwise taken on.
As members continue to improve their climbing, they learn more advanced skills like anchor building and rope management, which challenges them to push themselves and, eventually, more experienced members take the lead on expeditions and mentor new members.
Among them is the club’s vice president, Paola Davila. She said being a member of the club enhanced her confidence by pushing her to reach her potential as an explorer of the outdoors.
“While it was challenging and my first climbs outside were terrifying, the feeling of reaching the top while trying to grasp what I had just done has been one of the most empowering moments of my life,” said Davila, who graduated last year with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and minors in Biology and French, but remains a dedicated member of the group. “I am certain that the confidence I have gained through the club has encouraged me to grow in all other aspects of my life.”
Davila also credits the sense of community within the club as a large part of what helped her overcome her fear of heights. Similarly, Hines noted that as he watched the club grow, it was also like watching a family grow.
“There's these bonds that are formed that are amazing. There's this family, really, that gets created out of those trips,” he said.
Another huge goal of the club? Inclusivity.
Contreras explained that the club aims to combat the barriers people of color have faced in their relationship to outdoor activities.
“People of color have been historically underrepresented in these disciplines and outdoor spaces in general. We want to empower our members to have epic adventures without the socioeconomic hurdles which might prevent them from exploring the outdoors,” she said.
Contreras speaks about this from experience. It wasn’t until she began working on her Ph.D. that she experienced the outdoors for herself. She said that this first time was an enriching experience that added value to multiple aspects of her life. Since then, she has been captivated by nature and its potential to bring out the best in people.
“Our motto, ‘inclusivity on the incline,’ captures our mission to mentor club members from our diverse community and provide them with technical rock climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking skills,” Contreras said.
Davila added that the club’s inclusivity and welcoming environment is what makes the club feel like a big success to her.
“UNLV Mountain Club never measures its success by how well we can perform at different outdoor activities. Instead, we measure our success by how many people are with us,” she said.
If you think you’re up for the challenge, they’re ready for you.
“Every trip that we go out on, it's really a new experience for somebody,” Contreras said. “And it's life-changing.”
Learn more about clubs and organizations through the UNLV Involvement Center.