Learning the ropes in Aspen Outdoor Education
September 25, 2011
ASPEN – The glory of being alone in the wilderness and confronting challenges in groups and then, solo, is crucial to the success of the Aspen adolescent ritual.
What makes the program unforgettable is that the experience is an equalizer. Cliques vanish when you confront “The Wall.” Unbridled excitement and encouragement comes naturally. In a plugged-in society, where myths and rituals are the stuff of television, coming face to face with your fears in front of your peers and alone, isn’t taken lightly.
It’s why 32 years later, alums such as Stacey Adams and Mike Marolt still refer to their experiences as the seminal, life-affirming moment that translated to the success of their adult lives.
Adams is a mother of two and a Vice President at CBS in Los Angeles; Marolt, a father of two, with Marolt Llp CPA, also trains and realizes intense adventures with his expedition team – all former outdoor education classmates. Over the decades, Marolt, his twin brother, Steve, cousin Jeremy Oates, Jim Gile and local Olympic Nordic ski racer John Callahan have made more than 40 trips to the world’s highest peaks, including six ski descents from about 7,000 meters.
And each time they summit, the memories come back.
“It’s like going out on eighth grade Outdoor Ed,” he said. “We talk about it every trip. You relate stuff to when you were in eighth grade. It’s not B.S.”
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Since Marolt and Adams’ Outdoor Ed era in the 70s, the program has developed into the preeminent and longest running public school outdoor education program in the nation. Thousands of eighth graders complete the journey, most coming away feeling more confident, competent, tenacious and compassionate.
Just a few weeks ago, Sept. 12-15, the latest group of 120 eighth graders and 16 patrols (each patrol consists of 8 kids and 2 adult leaders), returned from their four-day wilderness experience. Drew Ludwig of Telluride, a certified AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) guide, headed up the ropes activities at base camp, which is usually run by Mark Falender, who went through the program himself.
“It’s intense. Nothing can prepare an eighth-grader for the hike over these mountains,” Marolt said.
Forty-five years ago, John Kuehlman and the program’s brainchildren conducted a survey. “Only 1 percent of students had ever hiked to Crater Lake,” said Kuelhman. Today, the kids venture through the wild side of the Maroon Snowmass Wilderness area which includes Buckskin, Trail Rider, West Maroon, Frigid Air, Avalanche, Sky Pilot, and Grass Passes.
This year, all students arrived at base-camp just outside of Marble, which remains the original Outward Bound camp site from 1968, where they spent their final three days on group activities, rock climbing, and a big 100-plus foot rappel.
“To see these little kids about to rappel … they’re shaking,” said Marolt, who now volunteers. “Even the ones who are used to it. The rappel goes 200 feet to a little bench, then falls another 100 feet into Lizard Lake. When you’re backing off, it looks like you’re going for a 500 foot zinger. The fear comes back. I remember, my shirt got caught in the belay device and I was hanging. Mike Flynn had to climb down and cut it,” he reminisced.
From individual challenges to working in teams, learning problem solving skills, reading maps, First Aid; learning compassion, empathy, tenacity. “For me, the hardest thing to do is trust,” said Harriet Pryor. “I like being in control, but at base camp you have no control. You have to trust that people will catch you.”
Pryor is alluding to Trust Fall, where each student falls backward from high into the arms of the group below.
Trust Fall, Silent Log (getting each person up and over a nine foot high, horizontal log without talking); The Wall. Climbing, High Rappel, Superman (kids are harnessed in and leaning out over a precipice); Tyrolean Traverse, (a rope bridge suspended high over a river), Swinging Logs; Spider Web.
The challenges are the same; the lessons learned, universal.
For Marolt, getting everyone up and over the 16-foot high vertical “Wall” remains a metaphor for success.
“When I’m operating my business, I know there are walls I have to get over every day,” he said. “I can’t do it alone. And my staff can’t do it without each other.”
For the first time in their lives, the kids are forced to work as a team. Then, they are forced to be alone – as alone as they can possibly be.
“They take you from one spectrum to the next just so you can fill in the blanks yourself,” said Marolt.
“The biggest challenge was getting out there and spending the whole week with people I didn’t really know well,” said Zuleima De La Cruz, an eighth grader on this year’s trip. “But by the time I got to base-camp, we were best friends. It changed the way I think about people.”
Next up, solo.
For the solo, each student stakes their camping spot, equipped with their pack, a sleeping bag, a visqueen tarp, rope, pencil and paper, letters from their family to encourage introspection, and a filled water bottle. No food is allowed. From 10 a.m. until the next morning, they are on their own.
“At first it was a little scary, but then it was just time to think about life,” said De La Cruz. “I read my letters from home and cried. It was helpful though. Once I read them, I realized, I’m a really good sister. I’m a good daughter.”
Elizabeth DeWetter spent her solo on Meadow Mountain, fashioning her shelter on a “relatively” flat surface between two trees. “Some people made amazing forts. I just wanted mine to work!” she laughed. “I thought about how lucky I am. In the morning I just couldn’t believe I did it.”
“Learning how to survive in the mountains, in the wilderness, is the exact same process to survival in every day life, with the way the brain works,” said Marolt. “That’s why they make you go on solos; to use a tarp. They don’t want you to be scared; they want you to understand that you can survive. And they want you to understand, and they drill it hard, that it’s serious stuff.”
Arlette Gonzales, a severe-needs student, also did her solo; she made the climb and high rappel with her special needs teacher. When it came time for Superman, volunteer instructor Terry Leach walked her to the precipice.
Snug in her harness, Arlette leaned out and embraced the void.