Big City Mountaineers: Finding a New Perspective Outdoors

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Lessons learned from sharing the privilege of adventure.

For three consecutive summers, I went on a backpacking trip with a bunch of people I didn’t know. We walked slowly, only covering 20 miles or less over the span of five days. More often than not, we didn’t summit anything, even though we always planned to. But each year, it was the best outdoors trip I took.

At the time, I worked for Big City Mountaineers (BCM), a Colorado-based nonprofit whose mission is to instill critical life skills in under-resourced urban youth through transformative wilderness mentoring experiences. On our wilderness trips, five adults guided five teens on a week-long backpacking or backcountry canoeing trip. As a BCM employee, I got to be a volunteer on one trip each year, helping lead a group of young men (our trips weren’t co-ed; male volunteers worked with young men, female volunteers with young women) on their first adventure in the mountains.

Since it was founded in 1990, Big City Mountaineers has hosted more than 800 week-long wilderness expeditions in seven states. In June 2017, BCM partnered with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation of Boulder County on this backpacking trip in the Flat Top Wilderness in Colorado. Photo Credit: Carlos Hwa

Half of the teens BCM serves come from single-parent homes, and more than 80 percent of its families live below the poverty line. The majority of BCM students have never been on a trail before, let alone spent more than one night camping.

During the trips, these young men learned how to set up tents and live out of a backpack.  At our post-trip dinners, the guys talked about how tough the experience was, but how it taught them to stick with things even when they were tired and their feet hurt. They also shared the importance of helping and encouraging their friends when one of them was struggling.

“One of my biggest challenges is thinking that I can’t do it,” said Ociel, a 13-year-old BCM participant. “Out here, I learned to ignore those thoughts and do it anyway.”

That insight is what we hoped they’d gain, but they weren’t the only ones getting a new perspective. We were, too.

The students were tough in ways I never had to be growing up in small-town Iowa. It was an education on what privilege was years before people were really talking about it. That whenever we feel like complaining about a hard day in the mountains, to remember what a privilege it is to be out there at all.

We never kidded ourselves at BCM that we were doing some sort of instructive course to create future backpackers and climbers. We just hoped to open eyes for a week, where the payoff for hard work was a view at the end of the day, the feeling of real adventure, skipping rocks, goofing off with friends and talking about lives and futures around a campfire. It proved the value of a shared experience despite different backgrounds, and the privilege of perspective.

Sharing time together in the backcountry was full of lessons for all of us, which I know have personally made my life better. Before BCM, I was concerned with covering a lot of miles, tagging summits or climbing as many pitches as I could. But the students showed me there are wilderness experiences that can be exponentially more powerful.

For more information on how to get involved with or donate to Big City Mountaineers or similar groups:


Editor’s Note: Big City Mountaineers was one of 26 organizations recently selected to receive a grant through REI’s Force of Nature Fund. The $25,000 grant will go toward BCM’s Girls’ Mentored Wilderness Expeditions program.