It’s early January, and the canyon in Ouray, Colo. is covered in ribbons of ice. Matt Davidson, a student instructor at the Outdoor Adventure Center, says when he looks out at the Ouray Ice Park he sees only one thing—a playground.
Since the 1980s, Outdoor Adventure has served students like Davidson by showing them that the mountains, canyons, rivers and forests surrounding their urban campuses are all part of an accessible playground. During all four seasons, Outdoor Adventure provides exciting recreational opportunities to students at both CU Denver and CU Anschutz. With more than 100 adventure trips in Colorado each year, including rock climbing, canyoneering, mountaineering, kayaking and backpacking, Outdoor Adventure takes students into the wild and brings them back adventurers.
All the adventure trips are launched from the center’s office at the Auraria Event Center, but the office itself is an exciting destination. The walls are lined with canoes, ice axes and sleeping bags. That’s because the office is a rental shop where students can rent gear at a fraction of the retail price. Whether students are going camping with friends or gearing up for a center-led adventure trip, the office makes sure they have all the tents, backpacks and trekking poles they’ll need.
|Tent (2 person)||$46||$14|
|(Outdoor Adventure rents more than just these five items, but this equipment reflects the greatest price difference. Prices subject to change.)|
The office is also home of outdoor skills courses like a bicycle maintenance workshop where students can learn to fix and maintain their bikes; and it’s the launching pad for Outdoor Adventure’s Adventure Leadership Program—a team-building initiative that helps members of clubs such as student council or the Intercultural Club of Beijing work on their communication and decision-making skills. Many of those club members will come back to the center to join an off-campus adventure trip, and the trip leaders will make sure they are fully equipped when they do—even if it means giving them the shirt off their back.
Davidson remembers an ice-climbing trip when a few anxious students showed up to the adventure completely unprepared—no gear, wrong shoes, a single wool jacket and a bundle of nerves. Not a problem. The trip leaders equipped the nervous adventurers with gear and clothing, and by the end of the trip those rookies were more excited about the climb than anyone.
“That’s my favorite part of leading the trips,” Davidson says, “taking someone who didn’t know that these places existed at all, much less so close to their front door, and introducing them to the joy of playing in them.”
Outdoor Adventure’s trips help students “get out there” and take full advantage of the Colorado experience. The trips vary in length and location, but they all provide practical skills instruction, the opportunity to bond with a group of fellow students and a new sense of empowerment.
Outdoor leadership specialist Bryan Ferguson says becoming an adventurer means interacting with the natural world in ways that most people aren’t accustomed to. It means testing yourself against the wilderness.
Another student leader, kayak instructor Karl Treadwell, says the skills classes and adventure trips inevitably force students outside their comfort zone, and that’s a good thing. “It’s good to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation sometimes,” he says. “That way, when you are faced with a new scenario, you’re ready for it. You already know how to face new challenges.”
Some of those challenges are mental. Davidson calls rock climbing “a very nerdy activity.” It’s problem solving, he says. Yes, rock climbing is physically challenging, but it’s also a puzzle. You have to look up above your head and decide in a moment how you are going to get from one spot to the next. You have to plan your moves. Many students find it’s that mental game that brings them back to nature instead of to the gym. And those problem-solving skills they learned scrambling up the side of a rock on a beautiful summer day? Those are pretty useful back in the classroom, too.
Of course, the trips aren’t all about the challenge—climbing or camping outdoors is fun and exciting. So much fun, in fact, that once students discover Outdoor Adventure, they keep coming back. Ferguson started joining the trips when he was a student on campus. Twenty years later, he’s still coming back every day.
With 20 years’ experience, Ferguson knows better than anyone that it’s not easy to climb up the side of a boulder or hike up a mountain. Standing at the base of a canyon, it’s easy to feel scared and insignificant. But it’s that moment when a student decides to climb, that moment when they do something scary, that ultimately empowers them. Those are the moments that give students an identity as an adventurer who can accomplish anything.
“If your identity is someone who climbs mountains or kayaks wild rivers, then that identity as a brave, persistent conqueror will color everything you do,” Ferguson said. “You’ll find that negative choices like drugs or alcohol just don’t fit with that identity. You’ll find that giving up just isn’t a part of who you are.”