In March 1998, only a couple of months after becoming the business manager at the Aspen Country Day School, I was asked to join a four-day ski touring trip to a backcountry hut with the seventh grade. The six-mile journey to the Harry Gates hut was not my first winter ski tour, but certainly the first with 16 children in tow. Thankfully, Bill “Huffy” Huffman, the founder of the school’s outdoor education program and a true Pied Piper for kids playing in the woods, was leading the trip.
On our first day, as we traveled up and down hills, across meadows and forests, we found ourselves incessantly changing the wax on our skis to adjust to the variable snow conditions. (Today, we equip students with climbing skins on the base of the skis to provide uphill traction.) The next day was a wander to find some powder skiing from the top of Burnt Mountain. At the summit, we ate lunch, recharged and enjoyed the views. Huffy asked me where I thought we should ski down. I was only a few years separated from the beaches of Miami, and my understanding of the mountains was limited. I knew that north meant cold snow and better opportunities for soft turns.
So down we went, and were rewarded with some fantastic skiing… for the first thousand vertical feet. The wide-open slopes quickly gave way to the dark timber of Slim Jim Gulch. Slowly, we meandered through the woods as the sun dropped below the horizon. The students were exhausted, a bit anxious and yearning for the warmth of the hut. As stars began to litter the sky, we emerged into a large meadow. Huffy pointed to the far side and assured the students that the hut was only five minutes away. I settled into the back of the line and listened to the banter. The relief of knowing that we were close to our objective fed laughter, confidence and friendship. It was on this trip that I learned about the resilience and perseverance of kids, which for me personifies the magic of the school’s outdoor education program.
Now, 20 odd years later, I have had the good fortune of leading and participating in nearly 100 of these adventures. In fact, I have made sure that it became part of the job description! I have rock climbed with third graders, mountain biked with fifth graders and backpacked with middle school students. With each adventure, I am amazed by the positive impact the wilderness can have. Sleeping in the dirt, washing dishes in a pot, and learning how to use a groover (a portable outdoor toilet) are great equalizers. Any labels or characterizations that emanate from the classroom are quickly overturned. A third grader who struggles in math proudly crushes a climbing route. A sixth grader who rushes through an art project happily spends an hour holding the corner of a tarp to shelter classmates during a hailstorm. Empathy, kindness and a sense of humor are critical on outdoor trips, and somehow, students demonstrate these traits without being told. Equally important, adults are compelled to harness the same attributes. Sharing these experiences with my colleagues has only augmented my appreciation and gratitude for the work they do every day in the classroom. The demands of our shared outdoor experiences strengthen bonds across the entire school community.
As educators, we would be remiss if we didn’t also advise them of the reality of the human predicament. Shakers, tambourines and percussion sticks are distributed around the campfire. The middle school science teacher, Mr. Sumera, strums the chords that are now familiar to this nascent Green River band. Within moments, echoing around the sandstone walls is a cacophony of sound punctuated by an animated and energetic chorus singing, “You can’t always get what you want.”
Respect, responsibility, character, community and perseverance — these are the five Aspen Country Day School core values, and they grew directly out of the outdoor education program. Around the campfire, Huffy in his day would inspire by words and by example. Today, children receive a journal on their very first kindergarten outing, and they use it to write, draw and reflect on each expedition, at least two per year — all without parents (or cell phones).
Each May, at the end of their Aspen Country Day School journey, eighth graders find themselves ensconced in Desolation Canyon, listening to the fury of Wire Fence rapid. The rafts are stacked, the kids are dirty, the adults are exhausted, and the river flows. There is always a calming satisfaction at the end of such a trip. Looking into the faces of these soon-to-be graduates, I am confident that they have embraced the school’s values and will draw upon them throughout their lives.