Words by Joel Harwood. Photos by Jessie McAuley.
Those who excel in the mountains and who have found success beyond them seem to share numerous character traits. Humility, tenacity, and intelligence are just a few examples of ‘soft skills’ that every climber, mountaineer, engineer, and educator would agree are universal assets. How does one acquire such traits? As a teacher, I can tell you that many of us feel compelled to deliver more than educational content – we feel responsible for inspiring the evolution of young people. How can a teacher empower students to develop character? This fundamental challenge has no curriculum, nor resources, and it is rarely a topic of discussion at staff meetings. Although admittedly biased, I would argue that taking students into the backcountry is one of the most effective ways to stimulate student development.
I am lucky enough to combine my passion for the outdoors with my nine to five. The Outdoor Leadership program is a full-year course for grade 11 and 12 students in Squamish, BC. I personally have a difficult time summarizing what my adventures have meant to my personal development, but I know that the impact has been profound. Today’s youth are less active, more reliant on technology, and have far more social and emotional issues than previous generations. Together, they are who motivate me to offer OL. I have witnessed firsthand just how much growth can occur during this two-semester program. Even more for the students who return for a second round as peer facilitators.
Programs like OL are true community efforts. While my involvement is ongoing, we work extensively with community groups, local professionals, and businesses. We also receive ongoing support from companies like Arc’teryx who recognize the positive impact that a program like OL can have. Through this integration, students gain a deeper understanding of the importance of community, supporting others, and always setting the right example. We aren’t in a position to offer funding or hard goods. Instead, the group demonstrates their own generosity through mentorship initiatives and volunteering with groups such as the Squamish Access Society and SORCA.
Risk management and the gradual release of responsibility are major aspects of what we do in OL. Students constantly consider four factors: risk, consequence, options, and commitment. These factors are clearly important in a wilderness setting, however they are just as crucial when students consider their choices at home, in school, and in the community. Through their experience, students become increasingly self-reliant and transition from passive followers to designated leaders. What strikes me is the extent to which OL positively impacts their lives and how years later they still reminisce fondly about their struggles, triumphs, and the odd inside joke.
There are 21 locals, a German, a Spaniard, and a Belgian currently in the midst of evolution. Many of them would not experience the same significant evolution without programs like OL and generous contributors. Between fall and spring, we’ll spend over a month in the backcountry. The laughs, adventures, and even a few tears are sure to inspire and no doubt they’ll leave with additional humility, tenacity, and intelligence. See you out there.