By Marcy Stamper
Pausing to take in the scenery halfway up a sheer rock face in Mazama, seventh-grader Wyatt Oosterhof said, “You get up there and say, ‘Where do you go; where do I put my feet?’”
Oosterhof was rock-climbing for the first time. “It’s pretty crazy — I can’t tell if the wall is supposed to have all the holes for your hands and feet,” he said. But he quickly adjusted to the sensation of balancing between the rock face and the climbing rope held by his partner on the ground. “It felt easier toward the top,” he said.
For Oosterhof’s classmate Grace Gonzales, the most nerve-wracking part was coming back down. “The lowering part, where you have to be totally trusting of the rope while walking down backwards was scarier,” she said. Most kids agreed descending was more unnerving, although one student said that was “the funnest part.”
The day of rock climbing was part of a collaboration between Northwest Outward Bound School in Mazama and the Methow Valley School District, supported by a state grant called, aptly enough, No Child Left Inside. Over the past two weeks, junior high and high school students also spent time hiking, camping and playing team-building games.
The aim of the program was to help students develop self-confidence, perseverance, empathy and positive relationships with their peers and teachers, according to Erika Halm, Washington program director for Outward Bound.
The kids on the climbing wall showed they had absorbed the importance of clear communication and teamwork. As one girl called “I’m coming down” from her perch halfway up the wall, her classmate responded, “I got ya.”
Once he had reached the top of the cliff, Alex Eslava didn’t find it intimidating. “You look down and think, ‘that’s a long way down,’ but now I know the rope’s stronger than you think, and you go down easier,” he said. Climbing — particularly the view from the top — was “super-fun,” said Eslava, who said he’d love to do it again.
Rock climbing — with physical and psychological demands — may not be for everyone, but the philosophy of Outward Bound’s programs is “challenge by choice,” said Halm.
For some kids, that challenge could be spending the night away from home, eating unfamiliar food or seeing wildlife, she said. Some kids might ascend just a few feet on the climbing rock, while others are determined to make it to the top. Others had never been to Mazama before.
“At first I thought I would just watch other people, but I knew if I didn’t do it, I would regret it — that’s what motivated me,” said sophomore Amelia Oborne, who spent a day at Outward Bound with her classmates from the Independent Learning Center (ILC).
Oborne’s classmate Jed McMillan was initially motivated by a desire to be better at something than his “super-athletic” brother, although he felt scared before tackling the wall. He was clearly jazzed by the experience. “I would love to do it again. I probably wouldn’t go on a 1,000-foot climb, but it was fun,” he said.
Stretching the imagination
For a generation accustomed to being connected 24-7, a one-hour solo expedition in the woods — a solid hour alone with only their thoughts, a journal and the natural world — presented a different type of endurance test.
The seventh-graders said the time had dragged slowly. “It was hard without distractions,” said one. “I’ve sat alone, but never for an hour or without talking,” said a classmate. A chipmunk provided a welcome distraction.
But many ninth-graders — who went to Harts Pass with Outward Bound two weeks ago — were disappointed their solo time was over so quickly, said English teacher Dani Golden. “They were a little anxious at school because of the unknown, but they were into it once they were there,” she said.
During their solos, students wrote themselves a letter, which will help them build on the experience throughout the school year, said Golden. They’ll also write in class about what they learned from the excursion.
The No Child Left Inside grant to the school district and Outward Bound was one of only 19 to be funded, out of a total 93 applications, said Halm. Although these kids live in a rural area, they don’t necessarily have opportunities to explore the natural world, she said.
“There are not similar existing programs in this region that provide free or low-cost outdoor recreational activities for local teenagers. While there are many outdoor outfitters and guides in the North Cascades, these are not targeted at local youth, nor are they affordable options for the low-income families the proposal will serve,” Outward Bound said in the grant application.
The excursion also encouraged students to stretch their minds and goals in non-physical ways. Students picked their dream lunch companion — one boy chose the designer of the Titanic and another opted for Jimi Hendrix — and had to describe their greatest fear and most embarrassing moment.
In addition to the physical and outdoor challenges, each student selected a personal goal from the 10 attributes of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, such as inquiry, curiosity or courage, which they will concentrate on over the course of the school year, said Golden.
The Outward Bound program is part of a continuum of outdoor activities in the school district, said Golden. The excursions start in fifth grade with an overnight at the North Cascades Institute, followed by a sixth-grade campout, Outward Bound for seventh- and ninth-graders, a marine experience in 10th grade with the Salish Sea Expeditions, and the 11th-grade Close Up trip to Washington, DC.
“Students remember experiences of getting out and about,” said Golden. “It impacts their whole life and what they want to do” for work or recreation.
Outward Bound was founded in 1941 to provide learning expeditions that focus on character development, leadership and service. In addition to the Northwest School in Mazama, which opened in 1988, Outward Bound has schools around the country and the world.
The No Child Left Inside grant program was passed by the state Legislature in 2008. This year the grants will provide opportunities for almost 8,000 children across the state.