Outward Bound: Charting a Path Through Challenge 10

“To Serve, to Strive and Not to Yield”

Meg Ravenscraft tells the story of a 23-year-old Harvard student who detested his month-long Colorado Outward Bound School course. “It was hard for him. He cried every day. He told us he hated us. But in his exit interview, he said, ‘If I ever have kids, can I send them on an Outward Bound course?’ It was interesting that a gifted student from an Ivy League college could have learned something he never encountered before. He was walking away feeling strong and independent. He basically said that all the money in the world could not have bought him that level of courage and independence.”

Ravenscraft, a Carbondale middle school teacher, initially took an Outward Bound course in Alaska as teenager. She wrangled a scholarship for a second course and then finally became an instructor. Her reasons? “I saw value in the shared learning that came out of the courses,” she says. “The students were so far removed from their comfort zones. They were pushed to their limits and had to leave their coping skills behind.”

When Susie Bell threw off her pack and staged a sit-in, that’s what happened to me. My Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) patrol had hovered near breaking point all through the first day of our final expedition. As we traversed behind Mt. Sopris, I knew the 12,966-foot peak was there. But the woods were so thick I couldn’t see it—or any other mountain! That meant that I never could get a compass bead in the trackless woods. The three teenaged girls in my patrol groaned and grumbled about being lost as we bushwhacked over, under and through stabbing branches and downfall. They cursed me personally as they clambered across a slippery log that provided a  “bridge” over a waterfall we had to cross.

Yet the night before, after the instructors dropped us off, saying that they’d meet us in three days near Snowmass, those girls had elected me their leader. Me!? A bit shy, I had been bullied at school and battered by family dysfunction at home. I had come to hone my mountaineering skills and to escape. Those flatland girls probably chose me just because I was the only Coloradoan and was good at orienteering.

But good as I was with a map and compass, I had no idea how to handle an insurrection! When Susie Bell refused to cross Capitol Creek—the creek that separated us from the bull on the other side—I faced a challenge for which I was wholly unprepared.

That was in 1968, the first summer that Colorado Outward Bound ran courses for women. My COBS course started in Marble, at the historic base camp where Outward Bound first took root in the United States.

Outward Bound was founded in 1939. During the Battle of the Atlantic, marooned sailors were dying not just from wounds, but also because they didn’t fight to survive. Merchant shipper Lawrence Holt and educator Hurt Hahn thought that they could change that by starting a new kind of school. Founded in Aberdovey, Wales, its mission was “to change lives through challenge and discovery.” Borrowing a sailing term, they named it Outward Bound.

Over the years, Outward Bound has changed—and saved—many lives.

The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness tells about one of them. Gary Ferguson, the author of 16 nature books, wrote The Carry Home about a pilgrimage he took to scatter the ashes of his wife Jane, who was killed in a canoeing accident. Ferguson’s memoire, published in 2014, chronicles both his physical trek through the five wilderness areas Jane most loved and his psychological odyssey from devastating loss to rebirth.

Jane Ferguson had been an Outward Bound instructor, choosing outdoor education as way to give back after experiencing a lifesaving awakening in Outward Bound. As a teen, Jane struggled with anorexia, but in Utah’s slick-rock country, she found she had “a talent for handling hardship.” She discovered that the wilderness gave her perspective, a measure of sanity and “the assurance that she could be strong in the face of random weather.”

Today, Outward Bound offers courses of varying lengths and welcomes veterans, business professionals and community leaders as well as youth. Its courses include time-honored passages that have changed little over the years: outdoor skills training, challenging environments, a solo and a final expedition where students are thrown onto their own resources—sometimes harrowingly so.

Ravenscraft, who has taught for Colorado Outward Bound for five years, comments, “Our instructors are not guides. Guides try to make you comfortable. We try to make you uncomfortable because this is about challenge.”

COBS alumna Darylann Aragon says she’s always been a perfectionist. She’s studying International Business at the University of Denver, taking a whopping 18 credits per quarter. She’s the first in her family to attend college and muses, “Being 20 is so hard sometimes. I’m a worrywart and put a lot of extra pressure on myself.”

After training in Leadville, Aragon’s course toured the Andes, alternating between working on farms—building a fish hatchery, picking coffee beans and harvesting food that filled students’ backpacks—then trekking up over frigid, 15,000-foot summits and down through sweltering, equatorial rain forests. Aragon, who weighs just over 120 pounds, carried 60 to 70 pounds of gear daily.

On one 12-hour trekking day, Aragon and a friend were in charge of the map. “The instructors told us we had to take a left turn or we wouldn’t get to the camp,” she recalls. “People were complaining and so exhausted. And we missed the turn! The trip leaders knew exactly where we missed it, but they let us walk on for another hour or so. When they finally told us, we had to walk back a full extra hour! Emotions were running high and I just started crying. I felt so angry, so defeated! It was my fault and I felt really guilty. Later, I realized that if anyone else had missed the turn, I wouldn’t have been so mad at them.”

“I learned that it’s okay to cry, to do what your body needs, and if you make a mistake, you fix it. Outward Bound changed me,” says Aragon. “It taught me how to be alive and fully present in what I’m doing. By the time I finished the course, there was just an overwhelming sense of peace, this incredible ability to forgive myself.”

The lessons that this article’s author learned back in 1968—lessons about leadership, following the line of my own compass and repairing the morale of an unraveling group­—were not what I went to Outward Bound to learn. But after handling Susie Bell’s insurrection, I brought my patrol in safely and on time while others went awry. I learned that I could master minds as well as mountains, and those lessons have endured throughout my life.

As Ravenscraft says, “Outward Bound is there to change people. It’s character development through the lens of outdoor adventure. During the course, you have some of the most deep and profound conversations of your life: about what you want to do with your life and what you need to do to get there. These are conversations that we all need to have.”