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Tomorrow's outdoor leaders learn by doing

Psst, wanna walk down walls that are 50-feet high, with concrete waiting for you at the bottom? It's fun, good for muscle tone and offers that incalculable benefit — like bungee jumping — of doing something that feels incredibly dangerous to your body (and mind) but isn't, so it builds confidence, too.

It's rappelling and it's a giggly twist at the beginning of Southern Oregon University's new Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program, which prepares students for some real exposure (meaning, it's a long way down) and adrenalin rushes — and prepares them for careers in the booming outdoor adventure world, says teacher Erik Sol. The program takes advantage of the region's immense natural wonders, such as mountains, whitewater, National Parks and trails, that are the natural (and free) laboratories for the field of study.

"Rappelling is experiential. You create an anchor system. The belayer (the person holding the bottom end of your rope) creates friction. If you freak out, they pull on the rope and lock you in," says Sol, indicating that's kind of how the outdoor adventure world is.

"I definitely got adrenalin," says Brian Thoroman, after doing the Australian rappel — actually walking down the concrete wall of Raider Stadium nose first — and confessing to a certain level of fear.

He holds out his hand, laughing with delight. "See, it's shaking. It will calm down soon. There it's getting steady now."

Says Jacob Lee, after also doing the Australian descent, "I was a little afraid."

Sol says the exposure and shakiness are important confidence builders, because you're learning how to think while not firmly planted on terra firma. Thoroman is an Ashland masseuse who, with his wife, wants to develop a career that gets them in the outback many months of the year, taking people backpacking and hotsprings-trekking and teaching them survival skills they didn't know they had.

Outdoor adventure outings also include learning skills in rock climbing and mountaineering on SOU's indoor climbing wall and at Emigrant Lake and on the Greensprings. Winter mountaineering, using ice axe and crampons, is done in the wilds behind Mount Ashland. Students practice self-belay, self-arresting and avalanche awareness, says Sol.

In spring, classes do whitewater rafting on the Rogue between Gold Ray Dam and Gold Hill Sports Park, shooting rapids of class 3 and under. Mastering such skills teaches students to be "safe, conscientious partakers of our natural environment," he says, and informs them whether a career in outdoor adventuring is for them.

It's not all hairy-chested gutsy stuff. Those are the "hard skills." Trickier is learning the "soft skills," like dealing with a lot of people who "completely lose it" in the unfamiliar outback, out of the environment where they feel confident and in control, says Thoroman.

Also on the list of vital soft skills outdoor adventure leaders have to develop are preparation and planning skills, the ability to plan meals and menus, and how to cache food for trekking customers, many of whom will be retiring baby boomers who have worked hard for decades and now want the chance to interface with nature and experience the adventure they briefly knew in their early twenties, he says.

"It's extremely common that a lot of interpersonal stuff comes up, conflicts arise, voices don't feel heard, needs aren't being met and these have to be anticipated and managed by soft skills," says Thoroman.

A lot of the students in the Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program, like Krysta Gordon, who is studying psychology, have other majors. After rappelling, she observes, "I love it. It's lots of fun, though going over the edge (of the stadium wall) is a bit daunting. I love the group bonding and learning to help each other."

Since its inception this term, the Outdoor Adventure Leadership Program has been a big hit, filling classrooms, says Donna Mills, chairwoman of the Health, Physical Education and Leadership department. SOU is one of the few schools offering this cutting-edge career-track program.

"It's a good recruiting tool for the university," Mills says, "and it opens up lots of opportunities to look at careers in new ways."

In between helping his students down the sheer stadium wall, Sol notes, "I'm blown away at how amazingly popular the program is. It's a fairly new concept in the country and we're blessed with this phenomenal environment to do it in."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.