On July 27, an email went out to current and former Outward Bound instructors and employees informing them that the national organization had decided to close almost half its base camps across the country and curtail operations in its traditional wilderness course areas.
Included in the closures are the Silverton and Marble base camps, which support courses in the West Elk and the San Juan mountains. It seems tragic to me. Marble is the home of Outward Bound in America, and Silverton was where we delivered the most high-end, technically demanding courses to the most promising students. When OB schools in Europe and throughout the world had largely strayed from the original purpose and format, the Colorado school remained the stronghold of the original Outward Bound promise: to use the wilderness as a classroom for teaching youth about their inner strength and core values such as compassion, communication and persistence in the face of adversity.
Many environmentalists know Outward Bound as the front line in the struggle to save the earth. OB takes people into the wilderness and the mountains, out onto the ocean and the rivers and gives them a personal relationship with the outdoors. Instructors introduce their students to an entirely new way of life that is largely based on learning to do without the unnecessary amenities of the modern world. Learning and practicing conservation of the environment and stewardship of the earth go hand in hand with learning to tie knots and navigate whitewater. In addition, the organization itself has served as a watchdog for the wilderness areas where it runs courses. Instructors and course directors know the mountains, the rivers and the oceans, and they know when they are being abused.
Of the core values of Outward Bound, however, environmentalism doesn’t even rate. The values have more to do with human strengths such as an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, a readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.
Few people know the story of how Outward Bound was started. Its founder, Kurt Hahn, was a German Jew and an educator who founded a school in Germany, the Salem School, to combat what he and his supporters saw as a moral decline and decreasing physical fitness among German youth after World War I, when many of the youth had suffered malnutrition as a result of the war. According to the Colorado Outward Bound instructors’ manual, “he set out to train young people to have moral independence, an ability to choose between ‘right and wrong’ and an improvement in their physical health.”
In 1932, in the run-up to World War II, Hahn came out publicly in protest of the Potempa incident, in which a young communist was kicked to death by Nazi storm troopers who were later congratulated by Hitler. In 1933, Hahn was arrested and imprisoned for his beliefs. Well connected, Hahn was allowed to flee Germany rather than suffering worse penalties. He was exiled to England, where he founded a number of schools to give young people the physical strength and moral courage to put thought into action.
Of course the term “Outward Bound” has ocean-faring connotations: It refers to a ship that is bound for the sea, leaving port beneath a blue flag. The first Outward Bound School was founded to prepare young seamen for the rigors of the open ocean. One of Hahn’s supporters, Lawrence Holt, was the head of a large shipping firm who had seen that in cases of shipwreck, the men who survived were not the young and strong, but the older sailors with years of experience surviving on the open seas. The model was imported to Colorado by educators and industrialists who were “concerned about youth who were unwilling to accept responsibility and challenge.” Since then, Outward Bound in America has striven to foster leadership, courage and compassion in the youth of America.
The reason behind the current base camp closures is financial; my understanding, though I’ve been out of the loop for several years now, is that the schools have suffered greatly from decreasing enrollment. Whatever the reason, whether or not the school leadership is making the right decision, it seems to me that these basecamp closures come at a particularly bad time in the history of the United States and in the history of the world. Certainly there’s never a good time to see leadership, compassion and courage go by the wayside. But with America in the depths of a severe moral and political crisis, with the world gripped by global warming and an end to oil, with the demand for raw goods and basic resources placing ever greater claims on our wilderness, we need more people, not less, to lead the charge for justice, to take a stand for compassion, and to be willing to face adversity in the name of doing what is right.