For the first time in his life, Marc Lewis had summited a mountain in the wilds of Alaska. He’d carried a 60-pound pack on his back mile after mile, day after day, even through driving rain. He’d slept on the ground in a tent and crept across a glacier wearing spiked crampons. Just before his 30th birthday, Lewis signed up for a challenge — three weeks on a wilderness adventure course run by Outward Bound. Two-thirds of the way through the trip, he had exceeded his expectations many times over, accomplishing things he’d never dreamed of.
That’s why, as he nervously watched others in his group descend into a huge glacial crevasse, his heart told him he didn’t need this ice climb to make his trip a success. His decision felt wise, and yet, one question nagged him: “Four months from now, when I’m home in Boston, will I regret not having done this?” He knew the answer. So, with the instructor guiding him through every move, Lewis strapped himself into a harness and leaned backward over the edge into the 500-foot jaws of the glacier, his life suspended on a rope screwed into the ice.
“It was scarier than any upside-down roller coaster or bumpy airplane ride I’ve ever taken — but only for a split second,” he says. “Once I took that literal leap of faith, it was exhilarating to be surrounded by huge walls of ice, cheered on by my friends above, and then to use newly learned skills to climb out. I’ve never been prouder of taking on a challenge that felt so daunting and insurmountable.”
Getting the Better of Yourself
Overcoming physical challenge, conquering fears and working as a team are integral components of the courses offered by both of the country’s top two wilderness educators: Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Their muscle-toughening, character-building excursions into the back country are designed to teach students of all ages valuable wilderness skills — ranging from robust efforts like climbing, caving and white-water rafting, to the finer points of outdoor living, such as in-woods bathroom etiquette and how to cook tasty meals with dehydrated foods.
The two schools do have slightly different focuses: NOLS courses emphasize technical skills, developing leadership and learning about area ecosystems with the ultimate goal of teaching students to safely lead their own wilderness expeditions. Outward Bound courses teach similar skills, but with more emphasis on personal development.
Regardless of the organization, the location or the activities, all the courses teach more than wilderness survival; they teach a whole new appreciation for yourself and what you’re capable of doing. And you may be surprised to find that not everybody who takes the challenge is a super athlete or experienced outdoors person. In fact, most who enroll haven’t camped since childhood.
“We assume students are new to all the activities, so we start from the ground up and teach them everything they need to know,” reports Michelle Barnes, Outward Bound’s vice president of wilderness programs. “The idea is that if you allow people to take some risks every day and to have successful experiences, they’ll push their limits, learn about themselves and develop confidence.”
Many people are attracted to outdoor adventure courses because they’re in transition — between jobs or relationships — or they want a special incentive for exercising, losing weight, meeting new people or getting outdoors.
“Students learn a lot about themselves and how to be good leaders of both themselves and others,” explains NOLS instructor Steve Whitney. “They practice technical skills like camp craft and how to read topographic maps, but they also learn about communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills — things that are just as relevant in the business or academic worlds as they are in the wilderness.”
As students gain experience, they take turns as Leader of the Day to get a taste of what it’s like to make decisions that impact others, such as picking the route and campsite. “Because they’re in situations where the stakes are high for the entire group, strong relationships form,” he adds. “People see each other’s best and worst sides. And they learn pretty quickly that if the group doesn’t succeed, nobody succeeds. So everyone supports one another.”
Classroom Without Walls
“Painful,” “dirty” and “scary” are some of the first words that Chicago college student Constie Brown uses to describe the 80-day NOLS semester in Baja that she completed at age 19. But then, as she reminisces over a pile of photos of the dozen or so young people that were in her NOLS group, she starts adding words like “exhilarating,” “life-affirming” and “fun.”
It turns out that the trajectory of Brown’s photo narrative closely mirrors her NOLS experience. “In the beginning, we looked pale-skinned, materialistic and lost,” she says. “By the end, we were tan, buff, solid and confident. I think it was a pretty intense change for everyone involved.”
What led to all that personal and physical growth? Weeks of getting up early; outdoor cooking; group “briefings” to set travel plans; classes in local flora and fauna, weather and marine biology; and miles and miles of sea kayaking, sailing and mountainous backpacking. Not all of it was fun.
“There were days I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag at four in the morning, freeze while I loaded my kayak in the dark, and then paddle my ass off,” she admits. “In my journal, there are entries where I wrote: Why am I here? What am I doing? Why is my dad paying for me to be here? Why is anyone paying to be here?”
On the up side, Brown recalls, “the morale of the group was pretty high, so when one person had a mini-breakdown — and everybody had their turn at that — there were five other people there to say, ‘OK, let’s sit down and have some water and then we’ll go on.’”
Learning how to cope with being hot or cold, sore and utterly depleted was an essential part of the experience, Brown explains. “I had my fair share of bad times, but I can truly say that every night I looked back on the day with a sense of accomplishment. And I came home with total self-confidence and rock-hard muscles. The process of achieving what I thought I could never do made me feel like I could do anything.”
Brown also came home with one very neat parlor trick that proves her point: She can reliably start a crackling fire simply by twirling a single stick between two hands.
Never underestimate the power of yourself, affirms Outward Bound instructor Eve Michael, who leads both summer and winter adventure courses, including cross-country ski and dogsled excursions in Minnesota’s North Woods. “The wilderness calls on you to find strength within, to step outside your routine and question your perceived limitations,” she says.
On the surface, wilderness courses may appear to be about mastering a specific activity — such as dogsledding or mountain climbing — but on a subtler level, folks tend to learn far more about themselves, often through doing things they were all but certain they couldn’t.
Whether you dread dogs, ice, heights or revealing yourself to strangers, if you’re looking to come face to face with “The Thing You Think You Cannot Do,” a wilderness adventure course is one surefire way to get face time with your fears.
The night before 57-year-old Joann Gadbaw left her Michigan home for a 10-day Outward Bound course in Montana, she wrote in her journal: I feel panic. What will happen to me on this trip?
Her first challenge was the unexpected weight of her backpack, which even running the local high-school stadium bleacher stairs with a pack of water jugs didn’t prepare her for. “With all the food and gear, I could barely move,” Gadbaw recalls. However, by summoning a positive attitude — and borrowing her instructor’s climbing poles — she managed.
Next she had to overcome hesitation about rock climbing, which took her outside her safety boundaries. She balked when the course leaders set up a series of difficult vertical climbing stations. But again, inner fortitude kicked in. She rationalized: “I may never come here again, so I’ll just give it a try.” Despite getting her foot stuck in a crevice so that she had to wriggle out of her shoe to get free, she made it to the top, where she jumped up and down and shouted, “Hey, this isn’t too bad for a 57-year-old woman!”
Gadbaw’s ultimate challenge, however, wasn’t physical, it was mental: Her fear of the dark. It nearly derailed her solo, the culminating experience of an Outward Bound course where each person spends 24 hours completely alone. Unable to sleep without someone nearby, Gadbaw finally set up her tarp and mosquito net within hollering distance of her instructors and then hunkered in for a long night worrying about wild animals. Sunrise came at last, and the rest of her solo went smoothly, giving her time to reflect on her life’s path. “Identifying what’s been most meaningful to me in the past has made me mindful of what my choices are in the present,” she says. “I realize now that it’s not about changing past decisions, it’s about being clear on what I choose today.”
Taking It Home
Revelations and epiphanies during a wilderness course are more than momentary realizations, and they last longer than boulder-hard hiking muscles. What nearly everyone comes home with is an increased respect for the capabilities of themselves, others and the planet.
In Gadbaw’s case, the bravery she tapped into in Montana inspired her to run the New York Marathon, sleep in an igloo-like structure during a winter backpack trek and volunteer to lead inner-city kids backpacking.
Marc Lewis’s Alaska adventure made him more mindful of his relationship to the earth. Both Outward Bound and NOLS teach and practice Leave No Trace guidelines (principles designed to minimize human impact on the environment), so Lewis’s eco-awareness was heightened. As he surveyed the glorious Kenai range after laboring up a mountain, he was struck by the vast power of nature — and its fragility. “The realization fundamentally changed the way I think about the earth and my relationship to the planet,” he says.
A seventh-grade social studies teacher, Lewis decided to share his new-found respect for the earth with others. He now leads a Leave No Trace classroom, where he teaches kids to assess the room when they enter so they can leave tables and chairs exactly as they were. They’re also responsible for disposing of trash and recycling paper. “It’s not full-blown environmental stewardship,” he admits, “but it’s a meaningful mindset for 12-year-olds — one that I hope they take with them outside the classroom.”
Beautiful vistas, pristine wilderness, sleeping under the stars, working and playing hard — that’s what outdoor adventure courses are all about. It’s a collection of experiences that makes for great memories — and stellar photos. But the most powerful and lasting benefits of wilderness education are the ones that photos can’t fully capture. Pride, determination, self-reliance: These are the keepsakes you carry with you everywhere, the ones that keep on developing long after your best prints and negatives have been stored away.
Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.