Closing the gap: the community’s role in outdoor learning

Every activity, for every one of us, had a starting point: where we were wandering in, excited, and looking to make a good start at something new. And to make that start easier, many of the sports or activities out there have quite a bit in terms of structure. Coaches, leagues, a team or group of similarly minded people, referees to watch the rules—these are familiar things to our broader society.

Many outdoor pursuits have their similar share of organized entry points: scout troops, university clubs, climbing gyms, mountaineering groups. Maybe an uncle introduces you to rock climbing or a family fascination with the outdoors teaches you to backpack or ski while growing up. Parents impart their knowledge, and you learn from them what to pack and when to turn around because of weather.

But unlike soccer or speech and debate, most of what we do outside doesn’t require a membership or any kind of organization. There are some rules, but largely, it’s free form. Even with no prior experience, you could drop the coin for a trad rack or downhill bike right now and proceed to kill yourself with it this weekend. It’s a bit harder to pull that off with a soccer ball in a rec league.

Thus, the dark side of the freedom of the hills is that an uninformed beginner faces a vacuum of knowledge complimented by risk, without a mandatory community or the safety net such a community can help to provide. There’s a gap between experience and excitement.

It’s very possible to bumble and luck your way to some level of experience in nearly any activity outside; I’ve certainly done my share of it. However, I’ve had plenty of situations that I look back on as excessively risky. Margins of safety got too thin. I trusted things to work out, and they did. But the byproduct is that I want my risk-taking to be calculated, not just the product of chance and hoping. Decisions about risk, for me, should be the result of knowledgable processing that considers and knows the factors involved whether it’s travel in avalanche terrain or making decisions about what to pack for a backpacking trip.

Getting better requires an open mindset—we have to admit that we make mistakes, that we can improve. That’s the first step. Any veteran will tell you that they are constantly learning and applying new things, as the risks dictate that those who don’t won’t last long in the mountains. An open and engaged mind is the most essential piece of gear you’ll need, even though it’s never listed in the buyers’ guides.

The second logical step is that, just like in soccer or any of the organized activities in this world, it falls to the skiing, climbing, or whatever outdoor community to close the gaps in people’s experience. Once you want to learn, you need people to teach you, challenge you, and push you to build your skills and enhance your decision making whatever your level of knowledge.

There are the schools, guides, or clubs that can get you going, and there’s much to be said for groups and professional instruction. I’ve spent two weeks this spring learning from professionals (a three day AMGA Single Pitch Instructor course with KAF Adventures and an eight day Wilderness First Responder course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine) and every single minute was very well worth the expense and time. I’d highly recommend both of those companies to anyone interested in what they offer.

However, you shouldn’t live your outdoor life paying to be constantly guided, or doing things only within the comfort of one organized group. It’s important to own the experience and make the decisions that determine success and failure, because without doing it yourself, those the trips, ideas, and successes aren’t truly yours.

The best way to own those experiences and learn outside, to my mind, is to participate in that outdoor community. I’ve made explicit the general, informal structure of how my outdoor world works in hopes of creating a loose model for understanding how we play different roles for different people. My theory is that when we identify these categories, we notice who we need to spend more time with, who might be missing from our experiences, or grow to understand our own place within the community of our less formal sports or activities. These roles break down into three broad categories that anyone can occupy, sometimes simultaneously—while you read, think of who fits these spots for you, or where you fit for other people.

Cohorts

These are your buddies, often about your age: the co-conspirators on speed dial. They’ve got a similar bent, similar amounts of experience, the same goals. These gals or guys send you pictures of ski lines or new singletrack that get you dropping house chores to get in the car. Maybe the ones you ditch your boy/girlfriend/spouse for, or if you’re lucky, they include your significant other.

Without them, you’ve got no belay, no shuttle driver, and nobody to share the experience when you puke and have to walk out in the rain. They want to learn, just like you. You watch their back: you ask to check their harness or you want to dig the pit they want to skip. They watch yours: took their Level II avie cert or swift water rescue in guide training, and since you’re definitely coming with, you’ll practice crevasse rescue at camp tonight. They push you to learn, call you on your faults, and genuinely care about you and what you’re doing together.

This group can never get big enough. You want cohorts with similar schedules. You want people who are your skill level in every activity you want to do. Easier done in SLC or Boulder then in Podunk-hasn’t-blown-up-yet-but-the-touring’s-sick (this is where I live). Introduce yourself, share your beer, be friendly/outgoing at the campground/trailhead, and don’t forget to grab numbers so you can follow through on that idea you realized you both had. I’ve met a ton of my cohorts while out in the middle of nowhere.

You can spend, as far as I can tell, as much time as you want with your cohorts outside without feeling the drain of teaching/being taught.

Skip the jerks, the batshit insane, and the ones you don’t trust. This goes for every group, but definitely don’t let them into this circle.

Mentors

These are the people you respect. Often, they’re older than you. They’ve been around. Been placing passive pro since long before you were born. Skied everything you’ve been drooling over in the Chuting Gallery. Since some of their Cohorts have probably died out there, they’re more careful than you, and manage to have just as much fun.  They don’t like to suffer like they used to, so they got efficient and went lightweight.

Most importantly, they have to want to pass their knowledge off to squids like you. Not all of them do, so when you find one, keep up, learn fast, offer to carry the heavy stuff, and curb your inner, puppy-like enthusiasm when it annoys them. Introduce your Cohorts to them, and add to the learning and fun.

If you’re a Mentor, the inexperienced are your opportunity to give back. You’ve made it this far, and you know the joys and sorrows of doing what it is you do at a high level. In my mind, getting to know such joys means I owe it to people looking to learn to help them raise their personal bar. You the don’t want the future to place cams wrong, ski without their avie gear, or—heaven forbid—take up soccer instead. So dive in and help them get there.

Find Mentors who understand and respect your limits, and will gently push you to better them occasionally. Believe in yourself when they do this.

You’ll learn more from these folks than you ever will in a book. Listen, watch, and ask intelligent questions. Pay for gas, coffee, whatever it takes, and for the love all the adventures you have under the wide sky, thank them.

You might be the best XC rider around, but if you’re headed out climbing for the first time, it’s good to listen to Mentors—who may be younger than you. This goes for any switch in activities: it’s a great opportunity to get humble and remember what it’s like to start out.

Mentors will probably teach you life lessons too. Things like how to check in with your wife. When the housing market is better. How to organize having kids and still crushing you on the skin track. Maybe they’ll even get you your next job.

Be wary and skeptical—mentors can and have made mistakes before. Do your best to understand what they’re thinking, and if it’s consistently outside your comfort zone or downright wrong, find somebody else. A good mentor welcomes questions and clues you in to their thinking.

Respect that Mentors are probably doing less difficult/rad/interesting activities so that they can bring you along, and that too much of this may drive them a little crazy. There’s an ease to playing with your cohorts and peers, to not explaining everything, that sometimes doesn’t happen in the Mentor/Up and Comer dynamic. Thank them, and don’t feel slighted when they want to go and do things that hit more on their level.

Anyone with experience can be a Mentor. Teaching what you do helps you learn it better. That said, be damn sure that what you are teaching is dialed, and that you know enough to teach it properly.

Up and Comers

These are the friends or acquaintances who haven’t been out the backcountry gate. Maybe younger than you. Only climbed indoors. Never backpacked, but done a couple day hikes. Maybe they’ve no experience at all, but are keen to try it out. They’re slow, they’re clumsy, and they don’t know this yet, so be patient. They stalk your Instagram or heard a story about you and wish they could do the same cool stuff.

So if you’re a Mentor, cool your jets for a day, help them sort the gear, and take them out. Pack the lunch. Carry the rack. And somewhere between the trailhead and top, you’ll realize that, as a Mentor, sharing what gets you so stoked is a thrill just as cool as doing it yourself. When they unlock the crux or safely make the summit, you got to contribute to that look in their eyes. You want to change someone’s life? Want to change the world for someone? Help an Up and Comer do the things they dream about.

Success builds on success. Good experiences keep Up and Comers coming back excited, while bad ones nip fun in the bud. If you’re a Mentor, keep this in mind during your trip planning. Don’t push them too hard, but don’t slight them either. Pick good weather. Ask dumb questions to make sure they brought the right stuff. Be extra dialed to allow for their junkshow.

Up and Comers need their Mentors to focus on their experience, so a Mentor can’t be too personally invested in making the top or sending five projects that day. Encourage communication, consistently check in, and if your bizarre idea is too scary or wild or too far outside their comfort zone, you need to be willing to turn around.

Up and Comers: too much time with Mentors will drain you, tire you out, or maybe even lessen your enjoyment. Maybe they simply go harder than you ever want to. Notice this, and be sure to form your own Cohorts that are on the same page.

To me, a healthy, multi-activity outdoor life includes active participation with Cohorts, Mentors, and Up and Comers. It’s the best way to receive and give back to the communities you play in. Anything else seems like poor stewardship of getting to go and do these kinds of things—it seems like hoarding the gift.

However, there are plenty of people who want to be in their little clique, don’t want to share what they do or where they go, and aren’t interested in the broader community of their sport. I disagree with this ethic, but I do respect people’s time and personal relationship with the things they do outside. So when you meet folks who don’t want to be part of the broader community or won’t let you in, just know they’re having less fun in their little corner and keep marching on.

This post is dedicated to all the Mentors who have spent their time and energy and money to teach me their cagey ways, the Cohorts who called my bluff or pushed me hard or believed in my crazy idea, and to all the Up and Comers for flashing those grins and sharing the stoke when they made that little breakthrough with big results. I would be dead or way less happy without all of you. Thanks to all of you for making this outdoor life so much sweeter, and here’s to the next time we get out.

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