How Outward Bound lost, and found, itself

  • Outward Bound Instructor Sam Ecenia dives into alpine skills training on Mount Hood to start off the summer field season for Northwest Outward Bound School. Here he demonstrates the self-arrest, a technique to stop a fall on snow and ice.

    David Moskowitz
  • Northwest Outward Bound students document lessons learned on a 14-day mountaineering course.

    Courtesy Northwest Outward Bound
  • NYC Outward Bound students on the climbing wall in Queens, New York.

    Courtesy NYC Outward Bound

It's the second day of Drake Clifton's three-day Outward Bound solo, and he's starving. He rattles his small food bag in front of the camera: crackers, nuts, a nub of cheese. Matted blond hair pokes out of his black beanie. "It's seriously killing me," he says, pouring crumbs into his mouth. He's camped in a boulder-strewn basin high in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with no books, no watch, no companions. His course, a 22-day mountaineering trip for 16-to-18-year-olds, is almost over, and he and his classmates have been separated to sit and reflect on life. He aims the camera at his knuckles, on which he's written "feel love and joy," then peeks out from under the tarp at the gray sky. "Part of the experience is to feel lonely, hungry, just have time to think about stuff," he says. But by the next afternoon, he's sick of it. "I'm so bored and I'm drawing the most pointless stupid fucking picture right now," he says, panning to a swirly drawing of an octopus-man. A few weeks later, though, underneath the YouTube video he posted of his solo, he will write, "I look back at this and I am so proud I got through it."

Everyone's "Outward Bound moment" is different. For Morgan Lane, it was struggling to carry an 80-pound canoe on her shoulders during a portage in Minnesota. For Jasmine Myles, it was climbing to the top of a rock wall in Colorado, despite her disabled arm. Outward Bound puts students in unfamiliar, challenging environments to help them realize there is more to them than they know. "Saying this experience changed me would be a huge understatement," Lane said in her own YouTube video. "I was liberated."

Outward Bound has instilled confidence and self-awareness in over a million participants since its first U.S. course in 1962, making the nonprofit a household name and spawning an entire industry. Former instructors have created some of OB's biggest competitors, including the National Outdoor Leadership School, where founders of programs like the High Mountain Institute and Deer Hill Expeditions received their own wilderness training. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan even proclaimed a "National Outward Bound Week."

But OB's legacy hasn't kept it out of trouble. The national organization lost money and enrollment for years before nearly collapsing in fall 2011, splintering into individual schools. Suddenly, branches of the country's oldest outdoor education school were scrambling for cash –– sending out desperate Facebook pleas, even selling old canoe paddles to pay the bills. "At first, it was like, oh my gosh, Outward Bound is going to go away. Here we are in our 49th year in the U.S., and we're done?" says Nancy Crane, a 17-year employee who's now operations and safety director at Colorado Outward Bound School in Leadville. But slowly things improved. Instructors went into the field with students, donations rolled in, and morale rose. Now that the crisis has passed, Outward Bound schools nationwide are asking themselves tough questions: who they are, what they do, and how to stay relevant in a world that they feel still needs them, whether it knows it or not.

The name "Outward Bound" comes from the nautical term for a ship leaving safe harbor for the open sea. Teacher Kurt Hahn founded the school in Wales in 1941 to give young boys, many of them sailors, the fitness, tenacity and teamwork they would need to survive the war and thrive in their jobs. The idea caught on, and schools sprang up around the United Kingdom, eventually reaching the U.S., where Hahn-protégé Joshua Miner started a school in Marble, Colo. On the first course, 35 boys spent 26 days learning knot-tying, rock climbing and orienteering. They summited a 14,000-foot mountain, ran for miles and spent one night alone, the forerunner of the iconic "solo."

By the end of the decade, OB had grown. Schools in Minnesota, Maine, the Northwest and North Carolina sought to teach through wilderness rather than about it, using the natural environment to cultivate character and encourage teamwork. The boys came back both fitter and more confident. One parent wrote: "His Outward Bound experience has taught him to meet challenges with an assurance he never had before."

Early support in the U.S. came from prep schools, but OB's founders also wanted to reach out to low-income urban kids. Teenagers from different backgrounds camped and lived together in what became an integral part of the experience. "It's not just a heavy backpack or portaging a canoe," says Paul Duba, a 27-year Colorado Outward Bound School veteran instructor. "That cultural challenge is every bit as much (a part) of the thing they're overcoming." But staff worried about what happened when those underprivileged kids went home. "We take kids from tough circumstances, give them a great experience, and then drop them back where they came from. Surely that can't be enough to make a difference in a high percentage of cases," Greg Farrell, who helped the organization expand into cities, told the authors of Outward Bound USA: Crew Not Passengers, the school's official history. In the 1980s, OB began building urban centers. Doing a ropes course in Boston or canoeing up New York's East River blurred the line between the "real world" and the challenge of the outdoors. The organization even designed and implemented a public-school curriculum.

The transition redefined Outward Bound, however, and not everyone was on board. In 1994, the University of Colorado assessed OB's urban and public school initiative and found that "some wilderness veterans, for example, are struggling with the idea of being able to provide an 'Outward Bound experience' without the physical demands of a 26-day expedition." Even as OB grappled with internal conflict, the outdoor education market was becoming more competitive. New programs popped up around the country, and others, like the National Outdoor Leadership School, became more popular. Ten years after Reagan's National Outward Bound Week, enrollment had dropped and revenues were flat. "Among the cognoscenti, Outward Bound isn't the brand name of the industry (anymore)," Robert Gilpin, author of Time Out, a book on alternative education, told The Wall Street Journal in 1997.

Tim Roberts
Tim Roberts says:
Jan 21, 2013 05:35 PM
Emily Guerin, I would love to see you write a follow on to this piece. Many children were killed and maimed by the policies of John Read, and the inept management of those who worked under him. Cutbacks in leader training meant kids barely out of high school took groups of teenagers to places they had never been before, and the consequence was children died and had life altering injuries from which they will never fully recover. I applaud the mission of Outward Bound, and life outdoors is not without risk, but this is much more than a story about a brand and an educational philosophy. It is a story about the consequences of cutting corners on safety and staffing in the interest of increasing marketing budgets, and growing "market share".

The abject failure of John Read is a story that should be widely told, because so many children suffered because of him.
Kenneth Wylie
Kenneth Wylie says:
Jan 21, 2013 06:58 PM
What will sustain the school is real adventure that the students spearhead. Not peaks or rivers the instructors want to climb or paddle but objectives that the students embark upon, fueled by their own passion. Autonomy is a scary thing in our society. If we do not have rituals that help youth become adults they will forever be children.
As a society, we need to see that, we cannot keep them safe. Some children have wild hearts. If we do not give them adventure, they will find or create their own. Given the choice, would a parent prefer losing their child to a mountain or river adventure, or to drinking and driving, or depression? All roads have their perils. It is better if we adults choose which peril has the potential for positive effect and be proactive about our choices. Ultimately, we are responsible to help them become healthy functioning adults. However, we have to be an adult to know and understand its value. Once we value adventure, we will fund high quality programs.

Ken Wylie
David Olsen
David Olsen says:
Jan 21, 2013 08:36 PM
The Boy Scouts of America went through some similar changes in structure, went to more urban activities and lost participants in droves. They went back to the wild activities, the spirit of new
adventure, and regained scouts.

Also, like the Locavore movement in which people attempt to have more
oversight and control for better food production, local OB schools may be a healthier structure.
Beverly Lyne
Beverly Lyne says:
Jan 23, 2013 09:41 AM
As a former COBS instructor, I am also re-invigorated, as COBS returns. Lucky for all of us! I take COBS guiding pedagogy into my BSN nursing classroom every day of the semester!
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare says:
Jan 23, 2013 10:12 AM
Hey Tim,, I'm skeptical about your claim that "Many children were killed and maimed...and had life altering injuries from which they'll never recover". Do you have any references for that? It just seems rather spectacular and unlikely. That would have received a lot of press and would likely have been covered in Emily's article. Thanks.
Ian Yolles
Ian Yolles says:
Jan 23, 2013 06:31 PM
As a former Outward Bound instructor circa the late 70's and 80's, I care deeply about what I once knew to be Outward Bound's core educational philosophy and pedagogy. I say that because I witnessed, time and again, the efficacy of its educational mission in action in a wide variety of school settings around the world. From that perspective its particularly interesting to read Emily's article as I've often thought that somewhere along the way Outward Bound lost its relevance. Where it once was the leading "brand" in outdoor education circles, it clearly suffered and lost its luster. The article comments on the structural challenges that confronted OB as it moved from a decentralized to centralized organizational model and its recent reversion back to local governance and oversight. This may be a positive step however, at a deeper level, I would argue that Outward Bound still suffers from a core identity problem that is more complex then simply the wilderness versus urban question. All you have to do is visit the current school websites to see that the message and programmatic offering is not coherent from school to school. So, institutional change has happened at the structural level which may be positive but until the deeper identity question is resolved and agreed to by all critical stakeholders I worry that Outward Bound will not maximize its potential in a world that needs it now, perhaps more so then ever before.
Anna Maslakovic
Anna Maslakovic says:
Jan 24, 2013 09:23 AM
Hey Ian, I'm intrigued by comment. How would you define Outward Bound's core mission for the 21st century?
Mike Zawaski
Mike Zawaski says:
Feb 04, 2013 05:31 PM
After 17 years working in the field for COBS it is great to see our official stance be focused on taking youth out on long expositions. I think the best thing we can all do for COBS is help encourage students to take courses. Kids and adults need what COBS has to offer more than they realize. Three weeks in the wilderness with a pack on your back has a high likelihood of being a life-changing experience.
Brian Swedberg
Brian Swedberg says:
Jan 30, 2014 09:05 PM
My son was just expelled from the 81 day outdoor leadership semester along with six teammates. They were a days into the 81 days semester and they decided to smoke a joint. While I disapprove of pot use, I have to question the leadership ability of the staff if they expelled 7 of 12 in the program for smoking a joint. In Colorado no
Less. And all 21. For $14000 you would think the staff would be better trained and not a heavy handed expulsion. The program is a rip off if they can't handle this small program. Stupid. I am really disappointed and angry. I was a wilderness guide for seven years in northern Minnesota. During the 70s and 80s. We handled this type of problem all the time. And I never once "expelled" a kid. Totally unacceptable and ridiculous. Outward bound should be ashamed.
Dominic Pacheco
Dominic Pacheco says:
Feb 15, 2014 09:39 AM
Speaking from my own personal experience I wish I would have had an opportunity as a teenager to be involved in what Outward Bound has to offer. I agree that adolescents need to put their energy into something non-distructive, and as urban sprawl increases the environment where one can focus their energy decreases.Individuals need to learn to be governed by their norms and not just the laws society places on us. In the backcountry there are no police, parents, and detention centers, so there is a need to reflect on those ethical questions, and use of critical thinking skills to properly formulate good decisions on their own.
Laurie White
Laurie White says:
Aug 01, 2014 05:38 PM
Wayne, Google Outward Bound Deaths, and read the National Geographic link and story. What Tim wrote is accurate.
Laurie White
Laurie White says:
Aug 01, 2014 05:40 PM
Michael Lucks
Michael Lucks says:
Nov 11, 2015 10:52 AM
It's surely late in this comment thread to think that many/any will read my post, but I'm compelled just in case one parent sees this and is considering an OB experience for their child. Outward Bound changed my life and many of those around me, profoundly. My youngest son as well. The fatalities are tragic, and having lost my oldest son, I have a sense of what grieving parents feel, and how they would respond to an article like this. Of course, my pain does nothing to lessen theirs and there is nothing to recommend putting their child's life at risk. I once read a definition of the Wilderness as anywhere outdoors where two unexpected risks occur at once. Most survive that occurrence if prepared by their parents and the other leaders in their life. And by prepared, I don't mean trained in outdoor skills. I was raised by a mother alone, and she prepared me. I saw experienced wilderness guides and athletes who were unprepared. My brigade instructors, a Green Beret and a pediatric trauma specialist MD, were prepared for most of the events we/they encountered, but not all. The wilderness is not for everyone; nature by definition is heartless. I don't know what my son will recommend to his children, but I trust his judgement, and his confidence is derived from many life altering character-building experiences, including Outward Bound.