“Seeing is believing,” says Garry Zabel, long-time Professor of Geology at Colorado Mountain College. His students have had many opportunities to see.
“We are so lucky to live in this place. The whole CMC district is located in such amazing geology,” he says. In nearby Glenwood Canyon, students can put their hands on rocks that are 1.7 billion years old.
As an undergrad, Garry decided to switch majors from math to geology partly because of a field trip he took as a student. “On a field trip,” he explains, “you can get so much more than you can out of a textbook…Most students get excited about a subject because of field trips.”
It’s no surprise then that Garry jumped at the chance to lead his first field trip at CMC in 1979, aboard a Winnebago driving over Independence Pass toward the mining town of Leadville and then to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Since then, he’s led more than 120 trips, from the Great Sand Dunes, to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands, and to the incomparable Grand Canyon.
The veteran geologist taught full time at CMC for 29 years. After his retirement, Garry earned the distinction of Professor Emeritus and continues to teach courses, including the annual field trip to the Grand Canyon.
His 12-day Grand Canyon trip includes stops in Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion National Parks, and culminates in a five-day, rim-to-rim backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon. Of all the places to study geology, this trip, he says “is the best in the world.” Students can walk down and up through layer upon layer of geologic time, seeing it with their own eyes. “There’s no other place so representative of Earth’s history,” he says.
Garry’s Grand Canyon course participants have ranged in age from teen to octogenarian. Some take the course for credit, others want the thrill of completing the rim-to-rim hike, some just want to learn more about the natural world, and some are inspired to become geologists. As for the hike, he says, “A lot of emotions come up, ranging from excitement to ‘It’s too big, I can’t do this!’” Each group has supported each other along the way, becoming like a family, and celebrating the big accomplishment when reaching the rim at the other side.
At CMC, Garry says he’s been lucky to have the support to do these kinds of excursions. “A lot of schools cut back on their field trips, but we didn’t have to.” He says it’s also unique that students can participate in field trips as early as their first year, whereas students at larger colleges might not get that opportunity until their junior year.
Garry’s advice to prospective students choosing a college is to “Go to a college that’s going to give you the most attention.” In his mind, starting out at a college like CMC which focuses on the first two years is the best place to begin a college education, in contrast to larger universities where the attention goes to upper-classmen and graduate students. “Go…where we are only spending our time with you in your first two years. You have 100 percent of our focus.”
“CMC spoils its students,” he jokes – adding, “in a good way.” He notes small classes and personal attention make a big difference for student success. “We’re friends with many of our students,” he says.