Navigating her own path

Alumna Jess Pel&aacuteez takes the reins on a long-distance charity horse race

Far off lands, challenging maps, wild horses, meandering roads, dangerous territories—alumna Jess Pel&aacuteez’s summer trip for most anyone would be the adventure of a lifetime.

In August, Pel&aacuteez ‘10 (M.S.) competed in the Mongol Derby 2012, a charity horse race that pitted 34 riders in a 1,000-kilometer trek across the remote Mongolian wilderness.

The rules were simple: ride a Mongolian horse to each of 20 stations that loosely follow Genghis Khan’s postal system. No marked routes, no hotels or typical daily comforts, only a 5-kilogram pack of supplies.

The 10-day endurance race presented numerous pitfalls, as the riders navigated across rolling plains and rocky terrain, ducked giant vulture-like birds, and chased after loose horses spooked by dreaded marmot holes.

It was just the kind of challenge that Pel&aacuteez seeks and enjoys as part of her career, thanks to a master’s degree in geological sciences from Cal State L.A.

“I’m not the kind of person to pay to go skydiving,” she said. “I want experiences that you read about in books by Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson—those real adventures I read as a kid.”

Needless to say, Pel&aacuteez has an insatiable curiosity. Never satisfied to learn by merely reading or surfing the web from a safe distance, she is driven to explore by traveling, touching, doing.

While finishing up a bachelor’s degree in history at a private college in Massachusetts, Pel&aacuteez took a geology course and found the subject fascinating. Upon a subsequent research trip to Death Valley National Park, she found her calling.

“For 11 days we had no facilities, running water, toilets or showers,” she recalls. “We hiked 10 miles a day, dug 6-feet-by-6-feet holes in the dirt to get samples, it was 107 degrees and I loved it.”

In 2007, Pel&aacuteez enrolled in the geological sciences program at Cal State L.A., where she dug deeper into the study of how the Earth works and the way in which humans influence the environment.

“The quality of the instruction at Cal State L.A. is the best I’ve found at any school,” she said. “What really opened the doors is the accessibility of the faculty.”

Pel&aacuteez, who taught several courses and participated in research while at Cal State L.A., also organized a Geology Club trip to the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert.

Pel&aacuteez wrote her thesis on the Loihi Seamount, an undersea volcano in Hawaii. While on the tropical island, she sampled flowing lava as a researcher at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and piloted submersibles to collect rock samples from the bottom of the ocean at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—all while blogging about her experiences.

“I hiked across lava that formed the day before. I saw the glow flow beneath my feet,” she said. “It made me realize that the earth, no matter what we’re doing to it, is still going through the process of creating and destroying itself.”

Reinvention seems to be a theme for Pel&aacuteez—who has dabbled in art, literature, photography, science and animals—making her nickname, “Volcano Jess,” an appropriate choice for the fiery redhead with a gregarious personality.

Since receiving her master’s degree, Pel&aacuteez moved with her husband, Carlos, to Australia. She works as a geologist for a large mining software company in Brisbane, Queensland, and often travels to countries such as Chile, Peru, Honduras and South Africa to research mining areas for clients.

In her off-time, Pel&aacuteez is rehabilitating two horses—Phoenix and Zeus—saved from slaughterhouse auctions. She rode Phoenix daily in her backyard arena to prepare for the Mongol Derby.

Her knowledge of horses and geological skills—like mapping, navigating and topography—proved useful while on the derby. And although she had to stop after five days, she’s looking forward to giving it another try—hopefully with Carlos at her side.

“It was a bit extreme and for a good cause,” she said of the race. “It was an opportunity to make a positive impact, share another cool adventure with my friends and visit a part of the world I haven’t seen and just test myself.”

Jess blogs on her adventures, including the Mongol Derby, at www.volcanojess.com.