Not long ago, I was in Thredbo for what was often the busiest week on the ski fields. It was a combination of the last week of the school holidays, coupled with the Redlands Cup and a number of other inter-schools snow sports’ competitions. Many teachers use the draw card of snow sports to organise a school trip and at the same time get themselves a nice expenses ‘paid’ vacation! Whilst I’ve gone on one of these trips before, there’s often a lack of understanding of the risks inherent with snow sports that comes with this and having been part of a major snow sports’ program for six years that ran for the whole season, we would often see other schools’ groups on the mountain that were less than prepared for the conditions and the overall environment.
Whilst I’m not saying that teachers just throw caution to the wind, however, the risk profile of snow sports is one of the highest of any outdoor activity. Combine, speed, trees, ice, freezing conditions, lots of equipment, kids and other people who are out of control on the slopes and you get a challenging recipe for injuries. However, this shouldn’t be the case and through careful planning and management, every trip can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
So what are some ways to help plan for a safe and effective ski trip?
Have fun! Skiing and snowboarding are awesome sports and they challenge everyone in a different way. Ultimately you’re there with your group so everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. If you setup the trip with clear guidelines and structures in place, you’re going to have an enjoyable and awesome experience.
Coming from Australia, there’s not too many double black diamond runs on our ski fields. In fact, when it really comes down to it, a double black in Australia is like comparing a gentle paddle along a river, with a grade 5 rapid. They’re just not the same. So when I went to ski Colorado, I was excited, yet nervous at the same time because the runs are steeper, longer and harder than anything back home.
Fear and excitement is what makes skiing so much fun and I couldn’t wait! The first thing I noticed when I landed in Denver, was how ridiculously cold it was compared with home, where you can get away with skiing in a t-shirt sometimes (that’s if it’s not raining). It felt good walking out of the terminal into that bracing cold, knowing I was in for some awesome runs! It also felt good getting out of the airport because of those weird murals!!! Has anyone else seen them? They’re messed up! I was wandering along and noticed there’s a soldier with a gas mask on painted on the walls of the arrivals lounge. Kinda weird… As this was my first trip to the US, I didn’t think much more of it, as I assumed that all airports in America must be the same, given the love of guns and stuff! But then later found out about all the conspiracy theories about the airport!!! If you haven’t heard any of them, please check them out! They’re insanely awesome, messed up and funny and I can’t wait to fly back in to Denver to see it all again. Anyway, I digress, back to skiing!
I headed to Breckenridge, where I was based for the season cooking meals and helping out in the house with an Australian snowboarding team. The job was simple. I cooked meals for the 25 people in the house and did the shopping and I was able to ski each day! Basically, my dream job. So each morning I went out skiing and then after lunch I went back to the house, prepped dinner and cooked. This gave my heaps of time to explore the four peaks of Breckenridge, as well as Keystone, A-Basin and an awesome day at Beaver Creek.
The Moment It Got Real!
I’d been skiing there for a week and kept seeing expert only signs plastered around the slopes. My doubting inner voice kept telling me, ‘Don’t go there,’ you’re not an expert, you’re from Australia. However, my much louder more adventurous inner voice kept telling me, ‘Get there now!’ What are you doing on this lame single black diamond? There’s two more categories higher! Hurry up and do it!!!’ Needless to say, adventurous inner voice won out! There’d been a couple of decent snow falls over the previous few days and they’d finally opened up Peak 10 at Breck, which they’d been holding off doing to ensure depth to the base. I rushed over thinking the whole peak would be tracked out, only to find it relatively empty. This was fantastic! I jumped on the chair and headed up. At the top I saw the sign that drew me in! It pointed to a fresh double black run! It called to me, it dragged me in… It was Dark Rider! My stomach churned as I thought of all the things that could go wrong. I was pushing things too hard, I could break something, I could hit a tree, I could set off an avalanche (something we definitely don’t have in Australia). But once again, adventurous inner voice won with such well-formed arguments as, ‘Just shut up and go for it!’ Ok, you’re the boss! And with a skate of the skis and push of the stocks, I shot forward and down the incredibly steep run, plowing through waist deep powder with every turn. Bam! I copped a face full of snow, pumping up, I turned, dropped back into the powder and Bam! Another face full of snow! This was awesome! My heart raced as I weaved through the pines and danced through the deep powder around me.
I soon reached the bottom. I could feel my chest pounding, my legs burning and a smile on my face I couldn’t wipe off. Turning back, I glanced up to see what I’d ridden, my single set of tracks curving down the insanely steep run! I’d made it! It felt amazing. For me the fear of the unknown double black was finally put to rest. I’ve skied since I was five years old, but I’d always had the self-doubt around taking on a seriously challenging run. However, a few days before Christmas, I’d finally done it and I couldn’t have been any happier! As with anything in life that pushes the boundaries, if you put in the effort, build up to it and are confident in your ability to take that final leap which scares the hell out of you, then you can do anything!
As soon as I caught my breath, I was back on the chairlift, to do it all over again!
Abseiling! Most people will be either super excited, or suddenly feeling anxious. I'm somewhere in between! I love abseiling down a rope and have descended small towers to massive multi-drop cliffs, but it wasn't always that easy.
I'm not afraid of heights as such, but it's a really unnerving feeling taking that initial step back off the cliff. My first experience of abseiling was at Lake Keepit Sport & Rec. It was on a Scripture Union camp when I was 12. Fitting the weird harness was the first challenge, followed by the sitting around and waiting... and sitting and waiting... and sitting and waiting... I think this is the biggest problem with abseiling as an activity for kids, the waiting, but a bit of an unavoidable one too. Having said that, the upside from this activity is enormous!
Reflecting back on my experience, I nervously approached the top of the abseil, clutching at my harness as I stepped closer. With the safety line firmly in my hand, I peered cautiously over the edge, looking down at what looked like an enormous drop. The instructor didn't say much, which didn't help, bedside manner is really important at this point! I was connected onto the belay and abseil line and then told to go, with little to no other instructions. I teetered at the edge for what felt like an eternity. Not wanting to look down, but at the same time, wanting to see where I was going. I looked forward and stepped back, my heart pounding so fast I could feel it bludgeoning my ear drums. I took another step awkwardly lurching back. My foot slip, but I caught it in time and I was over the edge! Leaning back, suddenly I was abseiling! The rest of the experience was an exciting blur and before I knew it, I was on the ground staring back up at the drop that didn't look one little bit as hard as what I had thought at top.
Abseiling, despite being perceived by some participants as one of scariest and most dangerous activities you can do, nothing could be further from the truth. It's infact one of the safest! Think about it, you've got a harness, which is then connected to an abseil line, and on top of that connected to a belay line, which is a setup as no single point of failure system. So from a risk point of view, it's super safe! From the kids point of view (and even some teachers) however, it's a different picture all together. The real value here is that it's a great learning experience which can be achieved with high level of perceived risk.
The abseil is simple. Walk backwards!!! That's it! But the psychological challenging to get yourself over the edge is the real task! Most participants freeze right at the top. Not half way down, not near the bottom, right at the start of the decent. This is something a good instructor can work through and talk calmly and patiently with anyone who is finding it hard to take that first step back off the tower, or cliff. Don't pressure anyone to the point they're feeling overwhelmed! That's not good for anyone, be supportive, help them, but if they decide not to go, then just let them know how well they did when they tried it.
For those who push themselves past their fears, this can be a very powerful experience. It's this breaking down of fears and overcoming the anxiety of taking that first step back which can boost someone's self-esteem in a massive way! At the end of the session it's vital to debrief with everyone! Get them to reflect on how they felt before and after. Relate this to overcoming other fears and pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone in their every day life to really achieve and reach their potential.
Not everyone is going to be able to overcome the fear of taking that first step, but those who do, learn so much about themselves in doing so.
What comes to mind when you think about excursions you went on as a kid? Was it the excitement of going away? Did you get to try cool new activities? Was it just fun not being at school?
Since this blog is about excursions, it should come as no surprise that getting away from the classroom formed the most exciting times I had at school. But of course my memories vary from awesome adventures, to downright boring! I’ll give you an example of each!
Ok boring one first to get it out of the way! Canberra! Sorry year 6 teachers around the country, but it was a seriously boring trip! We even didn’t stop to pickup fireworks in Fischwick… So yeah… Anyway, before I get too critical, Canberra is an important trip and is something, I’m going to revisit later in the year!
So now for the best trip! Maths Camp!
Seriously??? Maths Camp???
Hey, before you mash that keyboard and fill my inbox with complains about our national capital… Hear me out!!
Ok so maths camp was a wild ride of excitement. I was fourteen at the time, and to begin with it was lame, I mean really lame! The camp was at Lake Keepit Sport and Rec, near Tamworth. As the name suggests, there’s lots of sport and recreational activities to be had there, like archery, canoeing, grass skiing, rock climbing and sailing! Yet the maths teachers hadn’t correlated this until part way through the first day of gruelling maths sessions!
Anyway, I won’t delve into that Freudian mess! They decided at the last minute.., wait… how about we do maths sessions, mixed with outdoor activities! Wow Snap! I think you’re onto something there Mr. Kepler! And so this was my first experience of trigonometry followed by sailing!
In the end, what made this camp so good, was simply variety and a great balance of activities. I loved the maths sessions because they were all problem solving, which was then followed by some new and exciting outside!
I have to confess though, on the same camp, I did manage to get locked out of my room several times, banned for life from a game of dungeons and dragons, mistook a girl for a boy and got handcuffed to a flag pole!
At the time you don’t realise how much effort those teachers put in to making this such a success, but for me, the mix and variety of challenges turned what could’ve been a very forgettable camp into an amazing and memorable experience!