My stint as an Outward Bound instructor lasted a few years in the late 1970s. Back then, Colorado Outward Bound (COBS) hired staff by simply calling mountaineers around the state and asking if we wanted to work for the school. I guess they figured most of us were dirtbags desperate for food money and weak for flattery — they were correct. I got my “uncle OBie” call from a nice guy named Steve Andrews, went to an “instructor orientation” that spring, and was soon tromping through the Colorado wilderness working on my tan and getting as fit as I’ve ever been in my life. The pay was dismal, but as we used to say back then: “we are the people, and this is the life.”
It was indeed good. Working summer courses was basically three weeks of backpacking and peak bagging, with a mix of students that varied from total klutzes to world-class athletes. I was usually nice to the klutzes, and did what I could to get them through a course (which, I’ll admit, at times involved not being nice). But I’d latch on to the athletic students and we’d make the mountains into our playground. Examples of just how good it was? For my first two courses as an instructor in the San Juans, I did first descents of remote canyons that involved tyrolean traverses, fixed lines and rappels. To spice things up, we bagged a few 14ers, went rock climbing, and even did a bunch of 4-wheeling to manage course resupplies and such things. Between courses, we’d hang out in Lake City at our base camp and drink beer, go rock climbing at Taylor Canyon, or trail running around Crested Butte.
I’d previously worked as an instructor for NOLS, and as far as I know was the first guy to have instructed for both outfits. Outward Bound was a LOT different than NOLS, with way more emphasis on personal growth through adventure, and virtually no emphasis on skills training other than essentials to get students through the course. Adjusting was hard. I showed up at my first course in the San Juans and was appalled when I found out my students would be doing three weeks of mountaineering in cotton jeans. The NOLS way was wool, baby. So I lost it, pulled course director Ted Kerasote aside, and told him I’d quit right then and there if I couldn’t get these kids into some survivable clothing. Ted calmed me down and it worked out, but I always had trouble going whole hog on the OB way, and tended to hybridize my style between the two. No one but the students noticed.
Spring of 1980 was the best. I was hired to teach a 23 day ski mountaineering course. Director Denny Hogan couldn’t face the thought of me whining about being chained to the non-skiers on the course, so he let me form a patrol of the 12 best skier/students (normal OB style would have been to mix up ability levels, for a better “social challenge”). During that course the students got to climb and ski at least 15 big Colorado mountains. The weather held the whole time, a big May high pressure with nearly 30 bluebird days in a row — perfect corn snow. Myself, I skied 23 major Sawatch range peaks during that course, including a couple of 14ers and a bunch of high 13ers. Some days, I’d even do a peak in the morning with the “kids,” then head out in the afternoon and ski another one. Like I said, this is the life.
So, it was good to bring back memories and join up last weekend with 1960s through 1980s COBS staff for a fun reunion up near Marble, Colorado. The thing about Marble is that’s where Colorado Outward Bound was founded in 1961, by non other than Paul Petzoldt, along with another 10th Mountain Division veteran and ultimate outdoorsman named Tap Tapley. So it’s the perfect place for an event like this.
The legends of COBS’s early Marble days are crazy. Some of the instructors carried guns and shot marmots for food. No one knew the terrain, so they had to stumble through the Elk Mountains and figure it out on the fly. Story is that the famous Outward Bound mountain solo began here, when Tap Tapley messed up the food planning and was short three days rations. Rather than admit to the students they were out of food, he just handed out what was left and said it was time for their “solo.” The students found that fasting in the mountains by themselves was a valuable experience, and the process became part of the curriculum (though watered down in later years.)
More than 100 staff showed up for the campfire Saturday evening. The stories were hilarious. Children conceived in snow caves, girls trapped naked on overturned sailboats, lost staff wandering through the mountains as clueless as their students. Yep. The life.
For me, the most powerful experience of the reunion was when we circled in a mountain meadow for a reading of that famous passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The second most powerful part of the deal was hanging out at the Marble basecamp. Idealists at Outward Bound will tell you that the school is not their buildings or their basecamps, but rather their people and the mountains. They’ve got a point. But. Reality strikes. When a group of buildings has existed since 1962, and been the basis for such a powerful force in North American mountain culture, those buildings have significance–even spirit. This place does, for sure. Sadly, the OB Marble basecamp is up for sale. If it goes away, that’s a tragedy that will make me cry. Folks at the reunion spoke of getting a non-profit started and buying the camp ourselves. If it comes to that, great. Otherwise…
And yes, Outward Bound is the mountains and their people. Nice to hang out with some of those.
I guess I should add a photo of yours truly working my fourth 3-week course of summer, 1979. This was the last one of that year, late summer in the Collegiate range of the Sawatch Mountains, Colorado. What a way to spend summer, tromping around for 12 weeks in the alpine! I still hear from a few students — by all accounts they loved it as well.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain. For more about Lou, please see his personal website at https://www.loudawson.com/ (Blogger stats: 5 foot 10 inches (178 cm) tall, 160 lbs (72574.8 grams).