Climbing Free: Outward Bound Finds Its Way

The original wilderness school is back from the brink of collapse
Outward Bound

It's the second day of Drake Clifton's three-day Outward Bound solo, and he's starving. He rattles his small food bag in front of the camera: crackers, nuts, a nub of cheese. Matted blond hair pokes out of his black beanie. "It's seriously killing me," he says, pouring crumbs into his mouth. He's camped in a boulder-strewn basin high in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with no books, no watch, no companions. His course, a 22-day mountaineering trip for 16-to-18-year-olds, is almost over, and he and his classmates have been separated to sit and reflect on life. He aims the camera at his knuckles, on which he's written "feel love and joy," then peeks out from under the tarp at the gray sky. "Part of the experience is to feel lonely, hungry, just have time to think about stuff," he says. But by the next afternoon, he's sick of it. "I'm so bored and I'm drawing the most pointless stupid fucking picture right now," he says, panning to a swirly drawing of an octopus-man. A few weeks later, though, underneath the YouTube video he posted of his solo, he will write, "I look back at this and I am so proud I got through it."

Everyone's "Outward Bound moment" is different. For Morgan Lane, it was struggling to carry an 80-pound canoe on her shoulders during a portage in Minnesota. For Jasmine Myles, it was climbing to the top of a rock wall in Colorado, despite her disabled arm. Outward Bound puts students in unfamiliar, challenging environments to help them realize there is more to them than they know. "Saying this experience changed me would be a huge understatement," Lane said in her own YouTube video. "I was liberated."

Outward Bound has instilled confidence and self-awareness in over a million participants since its first U.S. course in 1962, making the nonprofit a household name and spawning an entire industry. Former instructors have created some of OB's biggest competitors, including the National Outdoor Leadership School, where founders of programs like the High Mountain Institute and Deer Hill Expeditions received their own wilderness training. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan even proclaimed a "National Outward Bound Week."

But OB's legacy hasn't kept it out of trouble. The national organization lost money and enrollment for years before nearly collapsing in fall 2011, splintering into individual schools. Suddenly, branches of the country's oldest outdoor education school were scrambling for cash—sending out desperate Facebook pleas, even selling old canoe paddles to pay the bills. "At first, it was like, oh my gosh, Outward Bound is going to go away. Here we are in our 49th year in the U.S., and we're done?" says Nancy Crane, a 17-year employee who's now operations and safety director at Colorado Outward Bound School in Leadville. But slowly things improved. Instructors went into the field with students, donations rolled in, and morale rose. Now that the crisis has passed, Outward Bound schools nationwide are asking themselves tough questions: who they are, what they do, and how to stay relevant in a world that they feel still needs them, whether it knows it or not.

The name "Outward Bound" comes from the nautical term for a ship leaving safe harbor for the open sea. Teacher Kurt Hahn founded the school in Wales in 1941 to give young boys, many of them sailors, the fitness, tenacity and teamwork they would need to survive the war and thrive in their jobs. The idea caught on, and schools sprang up around the United Kingdom, eventually reaching the U.S., where Hahn-protégé Joshua Miner started a school in Marble, Colorado. On the first course, 35 boys spent 26 days learning knot-tying, rock climbing and orienteering. They summited a 14,000-foot mountain, ran for miles and spent one night alone, the forerunner of the iconic "solo."

By the end of the decade, OB had grown. Schools in Minnesota, Maine, the Northwest and North Carolina sought to teach through wilderness rather than about it, using the natural environment to cultivate character and encourage teamwork. The boys came back both fitter and more confident. One parent wrote: "His Outward Bound experience has taught him to meet challenges with an assurance he never had before."

Early support in the U.S. came from prep schools, but OB's founders also wanted to reach out to low-income urban kids. Teenagers from different backgrounds camped and lived together in what became an integral part of the experience. "It's not just a heavy backpack or portaging a canoe," says Paul Duba, a 27-year Colorado Outward Bound School veteran instructor. "That cultural challenge is every bit as much (a part) of the thing they're overcoming." But staff worried about what happened when those underprivileged kids went home. "We take kids from tough circumstances, give them a great experience, and then drop them back where they came from. Surely that can't be enough to make a difference in a high percentage of cases," Greg Farrell, who helped the organization expand into cities, told the authors of Outward Bound USA: Crew Not Passengers, the school's official history. In the 1980s, OB began building urban centers. Doing a ropes course in Boston or canoeing up New York's East River blurred the line between the "real world" and the challenge of the outdoors. The organization even designed and implemented a public-school curriculum.

The transition redefined Outward Bound, however, and not everyone was on board. In 1994, the University of Colorado assessed OB's urban and public school initiative and found that "some wilderness veterans, for example, are struggling with the idea of being able to provide an 'Outward Bound experience' without the physical demands of a 26-day expedition." Even as OB grappled with internal conflict, the outdoor education market was becoming more competitive. New programs popped up around the country, and others, like the National Outdoor Leadership School, became more popular. Ten years after Reagan's National Outward Bound Week, enrollment had dropped and revenues were flat. "Among the cognoscenti, Outward Bound isn't the brand name of the industry (anymore)," Robert Gilpin, author of Time Out, a book on alternative education, told The Wall Street Journal in 1997.

Most staff and observers agree that the school over-extended itself, diluting "a lot of their core effectiveness," says Shawn Tierney, a former OB staffer and the director of the Association of Experiential Education, which certifies experiential education programs. "It was not clear who they were serving." The school's identity had become murky, obscured by the variety of experiences it offered. "The brand name Outward Bound is out there, but I think the public has a problem identifying what (it) is," says Aram Attarian, a North Carolina Outward Bound School board member and professor of outdoor education at North Carolina State University.

Duba has another theory, though. OB's message—that challenge brings resilience, and teamwork helps people achieve more—had become a hard sell. "We're up against a culture that celebrates individuality," he says. "The things that OB talks about are elusive. What do you mean, 'build character'? What do you mean, 'teamwork'? It just doesn't lend itself as well to a sound bite."

In the 2000s, John Read, Outward Bound USA's new executive director, led a wave of consolidations. A Harvard Business School grad who ran a Cummins diesel engine plant for 11 years, Read thought putting one national school, instead of many independent ones, in charge of marketing, programming and fundraising would decrease administrative costs and inter-school competition, while increasing enrollment and income. But the recession, which came on the heels of the final merger into one national organization, complicated things. Donations fell, partially because people who had supported local schools for years felt alienated from the new national one. In an effort to "re-localize," Read proposed basing the entire organization at city centers. "It was very clear that donors wanted to give locally, and I was passionate about seeing kids in the cities taken out of their comfort zone for five-to-seven-day courses," which "had the same powerful effect that three-week courses for kids with money always had." But as OB founded new urban centers in Denver, San Francisco and Portland, the internal tension worsened. "People were wondering, is this going to shift entirely to (urban) centers and wilderness is going to be left out in the cold?" says Crane.

Meanwhile, administrators at the wilderness-based schools were struggling with the national organization's bureaucracy. Formerly simple tasks, like buying new gear and invoicing vendors, were suddenly complex. Crane describes the final merger as dysfunctional and disheartening, a sentiment shared by Mike Armstrong, a 19-year OB veteran and administrator at the Northwest Outward Bound School in Redmond, Oregon. "The whole national thing created a bit of an 'us and them,'" he says. He wondered what happened to the money made on Northwestern courses. "I looked at it as: I would take a suitcase of $400,000 bucks to (OB USA headquarters in) Golden, Colorado, and they would lose it."

In 2010, Read, convinced that few people shared his vision for a unified OB based in urban areas, decided to step down. The organization lost $1.3 million that year—less than the nearly $4 million lost in 2008, but still too much. Nine months later, in October 2011, administrators got unexpected news: Come the New Year, all 13 schools would be on their own financially. Even though Armstrong feared he might lose his job, he says, "The other feelings were of relief, like things are going to change for the better."

On Jan. 1, 2012, Colorado Outward Bound School administrator Crane awoke in Leadville, to a world of uncertainty. There was a course in the field: Did the satellite phones still work? The Colorado school had no credit card, no vendor accounts and no guarantee staff would get paid. "It was a little like Y2K. Is everything going to hit the fan on Jan. 1?" recalls associate program director Adam Steel. But over the next few months, the team began re-building the school and re-thinking the future. In February, Crane asked a group of instructors why the school should exist. They scribbled answers on scraps of paper and taped them to whiteboards. The responses varied wildly, from saving the environment to running urban-based programs for kids. "Everyone was so certain that their answer was right," she says. "(That was) how foggy, how obstructed our vision of what we do is."

Soon, the school closed its Denver center, primarily for financial reasons, but also because of the confusion created by the urban programming. Peter O'Neil, the executive director of Colorado Outward Bound School as of May, says the school plans to refocus on its wilderness heritage, the three- and four-week backpacking, river-running and climbing courses that he says are "the real deal." He uses the phrase so much that people around the office have started calling him "Real Deal O'Neil." Colorado Outward Bound still serves under-privileged youth, but in the wilderness rather than in Denver. Other schools are making similar choices. North Carolina Outward Bound School gets just under half of its students from day programs at its Atlanta center, but executive director Whitney Montgomery said the school's wilderness courses are its focus. "That's what we think (the school) does best," he says. "The longer courses in the wilderness do provide many more options for personal growth and self-discovery than a series of day programs."

Other schools are also rallying around their strengths. Even if Colorado doesn't run an urban center or work with at-risk youth, the New York City and Ely, Minnesota-based Voyageurs Outward Bound schools remain committed to those needs. "There's a place in the world for both (wilderness and urban)," says Peter Steinhauser, head of a team that does marketing for all the independent OB schools. "No matter who you are, or where you're from, there's an OB course at an OB school that's right for you."

Colorado Outward Bound instructor Francisco Tharp, who has worked through many stages of the school's consolidation, says his coworkers are excited about the changes. "It reinvigorated a lot of people who had been disenchanted," he says. His boss, Nancy Crane, no longer leaves work frustrated and demoralized. "The banging my head against the wall? No longer applicable," she says. "Since we deconsolidated, it feels like we can be functional again."

For many Outward Bounders, coming together to save the school felt like an OB course. "Everyone was looking for themselves to rise from the ashes, but also looking at how can we help each other do that," Crane says. O'Neil agrees. The school had its share of difficult years, he says, "but you know what? We're about putting our students in situations where they struggle, too. You can learn from struggle. … If you're not struggling, I would argue as an educator, then we aren't doing our job."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

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