Last Thursday evening, while driving through the desert town of Mojave, Santa Barbara Middle School science teacher Victor Dominocielo called to say, “We’re retreating.”

It was the right choice — a show of respect for the extreme elements on Telescope Peak in Death Valley and a prudent exodus for the 16 Santa Barbara Middle School students in his charge.

“There wasn’t any disagreement about coming back down,” Dominocielo said, “so I believe I captured the mood of the group.”

Eric Sanborn was one of two parents on the mountaineering education trip.

“Even though it felt disappointing to leave two days early, it was a very easy decision because safety is always the No. 1 priority,” Sanborn said. “It was a no-brainer.”

The group of 10 girls and six boys reached Telescope Peak on Monday night.

Sanborn’s daughter Emily said there were many difficult personal challenges, such as getting through the night with really cold feet. Every night the temperature dropped into the teens.

Eric Sanborn spent hours at his stove melting snow for water and helping cook food.

“Sitting out in the snowstorm trying to cook food was very hard,” student Zola Phillips said. “And setting up and taking down the tent in driving snow just magnified everything.”

The students spent 10 weeks before the trip training to repel off a cliff, practicing swift water rescue, and learning CPR and wilderness first aid.

“The day they built survival shelters, that night they had a reason to use them,” Eric Sanborn said. “It’s just one of the ways the trip went from theoretical to real world. We were actually dealing with stuff we learned in the course.”

Dominocielo said the students experienced actual survival training such as water limit and fuel limit, and that it was “good for the kids to see the direct connections.”

Emily Sanborn made that connection.

“If I can go through a blizzard with raging winds and our food getting covered in snow, then I can work my way through anything,” she said. “If I keep a good spirit, I can do anything.”

The mountaineering experience had a similar impact on Phillips, who said, “Going up I didn’t think I could do it. I was really worried. But now, knowing what I accomplished, I feel really proud.”

Fellow eighth-grader Maddie Moriarty said it felt great to sleep in her own bed but has no regrets about the effort it took.

“I feel like I came out a lot stronger, and I can accomplish more than I expected I could,” Moriarty said.

Sleep deprived and a little sun and wind burned, Dominocielo said the kids did everything they needed to do to deal with the weather.

“The weather can always throw a curveball at you,” he said. “The key is the kids had really great attitudes and good equipment.”

Eric Sanborn added: “To see the resilience of the kids was just amazing.”

— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.