Students Adventure with Outdoor Education

Emily Magnus
LLBean encourages their customers to “Be an Outsider.” REI has an Instagram challenge, #OptOutside. Countless schools and environmental preservation organizations dedicate pages of their websites to outdoor activities, encouraging their readers to choose an adventure.
It’s no surprise to hear this same call to action at Holderness. Since its founding, headmasters and teachers alike have encouraged students to get outside. In the 1880s, it is recorded that Headmaster Gray supported the building of forts throughout the woods surrounding campus, a tradition that continued well into the 20th century. The first official ski team raced in 1936 and grew to provide many Olympians with a strong base from which to launch their careers. Out Back sent its first groups of students into the White Mountains in the 1970s, and most recently the climbing team has developed into a year-round program, teaching student-athletes the pleasures of ice climbing and hiking the high peaks of New Hampshire in the winter.

Outdoor adventures have always made the weekend activity list and have been a favorite pastime for the Bulls. In fact, Holderness, I think, receives more emails from alumni who meet on mountaintops than any other place on the planet!

For Director of the Climbing Program Erik Thatcher ’08, this link to the outdoors is more than just a catchy campaign or merchandising slogan; it is his mission.

“The human experience is so far removed from nature that we have forgotten that we are a part of it,” says Erik. “There are plenty of studies that show that this disengagement can lead to anxiety, depression, and attention deficit problems. That’s what I want to address.”

In fact, Erik feels so strongly about his mission that he is willing to give up weekends and vacation time to get kids outside. This fall, he took a group of students to Pittsburg, NH, to fish and last weekend led a winter ascent of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire’s highest peak at 6,289 feet. Fortunately, while it may have been a bit cold, the winds were gentle and the skies were clear.

“In all my time on the rock pile I’ve only had one other winter day as nice as this,” says Erik who, with the help of Director of Out Back Randy Houseman, guided nine students to the summit. “It was truly an inspiring day.”

In addition to these weekend trips, for the past two years Erik has used part of the school’s winter break to travel with students to other climbing areas around the country. Last year they visited Chattanooga, TN; this year they traveled farther afield to California, visiting both Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert.

“I wanted to take the students to a place that is very different from what they are used to. The landscape in the southwest is so different it makes you stand up and take notice,” says Erik. “The climbing in Joshua Tree is also ideal because it’s accessible to all levels.”

Which gets to the second part of Erik’s mission. He doesn’t want to just “preach to the choir” so to speak. He wants to encourage people who are new to the outdoors as well. On the trip to California, for example, Erik and climbing coach Tim Mijal took with them four seniors and three ninth graders. Three of the students had climbed with Erik previously, but four had little to no experience at all.

Will Bayha ’18 and Anna Jones ’18 were two of the students who had little climbing experience. For them, the landscape and the chance to explore a different part of the country were what prompted them to sign up for the trip.

“The last time I tried rock climbing, I wasn’t comfortable with the heights,” says Will. “But Mr. Thatcher made it easy. He was good about picking locations that had several different levels of climbing so that it was open to everyone.” Will also took advantage of the expansive night skies to experiment with long exposure photography.

But while the climbing lessons and photographic opportunities were valuable, ask Will and Anna to share their most memorable moments from the trip, and they talk about waking up in their tents and watching the sun rise. They also talk about visiting the Kelso Dune Field in the Mojave Desert and listening to the low-frequency booming of the dunes as they shift. For Erik, that’s mission accomplished.

But his work is far from over; there are more students he wants to help connect with nature. This winter, he has several more trips planned, including a special event during the Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival.

2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival, and the first ever Holderness Friends and Family Ice Climbing clinic. The clinic will be run through Ice Fest but instructed by Erik and alumnus Jordan Cargill '11.

“Ice Fest falls on Holderness Parents Weekend this year, and the clinic is on Sunday, February 4,” says Erik. “It’s a perfect activity for families who are staying in the area through the long weekend or alums who are looking to sample one of our newest winter sport offerings!” Details can be found at the Ice Fest website.

And while it is still in the planning stage, Erik is also organizing a weekend long celebration of women in the outdoors in April. “We're hoping to partner with Plymouth State to increase the impact of this event and make it open to the local community as well,” says Erik. “We'll be bringing in an all-female adventure film festival called No Man's Land and are currently working on getting local partners to lead all-female trips and activities for the weekend.” Stay tuned!

In the meantime, Erik’s mission is worth repeating and adopting. Get Outside. Be an Outsider. Opt for an outdoor activity.



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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness NH, 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257