An Instructor Reflects on 81 Days: Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester
— April 15, 2015
Our spring Rockies to Ecuador students are on their way home after 81 of the most challenging days of their lives. After such an intense experience, it can be difficult transitioning back to everyday life. A trip to the grocery store or crossing a busy street can be overwhelming after 3 months in the wilderness. It may take a good while for these students to process their experience and begin “unpacking” the emotions and takeaways from course. In the meantime, COBS Instructor Nick “Vince” Vincent shared some of his insights from the previous Rockies to Ecuador semester last fall. Thanks to Vince for guest-blogging and for the great photos!
I am from a little town called Lapeer, a small blue-collar community in Michigan. I graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, majoring in Marketing and Logistics. After college and two years behind a desk, I moved to Denver, CO. Upon discovering the Rocky Mountains, I moved again to the ski town of Vail. I applied to be an intern at Colorado Outward Bound School in 2011. To my surprise, I was hired, which would be the best worst thing that ever happened to me. What I mean is that getting paid to do what you love comes with trade-offs; electing a stranger to rent your room for 4 months a year, quitting your job with benefits, trading a shower for a single change of clothes and saying good bye to your friends for a summer. I’ve been with COBS for 4 years now taking on the roles of Logistics Coordinator, Assistant Instructor, Lead Instructor, and Proctor for the fall semester. I’ve worked a wide array of course types including backpacking, mountaineering, Veterans, Pathfinder, ski and ride, and most recently the Rockies to Ecuador Fall Semester. I have enough photos of beautiful places to fill a house. But why buy a house when you can see the world through an open tent door?
The length of the semester was the most intimidating factor at first. The longest course I had ever worked previously was 22 days and while I work those courses often, the thought of being away from my friends and family for 81 days was a bit terrifying. That’s a long time to go without a cell phone, a warm bed, the interweb, vanilla lattes… it’s scary. I realized my feelings mirrored that of our students – I too had pre-course challenges. At first I dwelled on my losses and not the potential gains. I later realized, this was the beginning of what we teach; self-awareness, compassion for yourself and others, self-leadership, pursuing the beauty of self-discovery, and making more out of less.
I felt under-prepared. I called Julia, she had worked the semester 3 times previously. Julia was also my intern trainer, climbing partner, good friend and mentor. I said “I’m not ready.” She said “You’re ready… and stop being so anxious”. She explained it was like a 22-day course stretched into 81 and that the students were different. They’d show up strong, motivated, resilient to adversity, and open to challenge. “Take it slow Vince…. just let it happen.”
Once the course began it was not as bad as I anticipated, most of the time. I took it one day at a time. In my instructor notebook I wrote down what Julia had told me: “take it slow… just let it happen.” And boy did it happen; we saw a moose, someone cried, a backpack broke, a bear appeared, it snowed, it rained (a lot). Students were challenged, they conquered fears, and someone went home. Relationships formed, some made best friends, some fought, some were leaders, others followed, and families were missed. Days were long, food was low, miles were logged, laughs were loud, and singing was essential. Canyons were narrow, 5.10 seemed impossible, the Gore range glowed and the lightning was way too close. We created culture and experienced a new one, the altitude hurt, a volcano was summited: some thought they couldn’t do it, then they did. Some didn’t. Crampons were forgotten, moments were shared, lives were lived like never before.
Then it was over.
It was over in a single moment and I couldn’t believe it; it was all any of us had known for 81 days. We were a family, we had a routine. We knew whose boots were which, whose Nalgenes were sitting on the table, who had been up last and who would be the first to rise. But it was over and all good things must come to an end. Memories were made and lessons were learned. We often reflected on the day with a tool called rose-bud-thorn, so I’ll keep the routine going. Summiting Cotopaxi with my rope team comprised of James, Russell, and Josh was the rose, or high point, of the course for me. I had built strong rapport with each of them and watched them succeed and fail in their own unique ways throughout course. It was special to accomplish that ultimate challenge with them. My bud, or what I’m looking forward to, is learning how the course has affected the lives of my students and how they continue to use their new skills. My thorn, or biggest challenge, was staying off the “student roller coaster”: I was so invested in their success, I often forgot how important it was to let them fail and solve their own challenges.
For me, I learned more than I ever thought. To be an instructor on a semester course is never an easy task. My job was to be a teacher, but really I was also a student: a student of myself and a student of all the people around me. To respond to the question “what did you learn?” seems like an elementary inquiry to an experience that was anything but. I always say to students that no Outward Bound course is ever the same. The only way to really understand what happens on an Outward Bound course is to experience one. So you should ask yourself: what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?