If you want to lead people safely to adventure in the outdoors, you need to go to school. In Calais, Washington County Community College’s Adventure Recreation and Tourism Program is where students acquire the skills they need to land outdoor jobs.
Not all choose an outdoor related career. For some, the course is a character builder until they decide if an outdoor life is for them.
The curriculum is comprehensive and provides detailed instruction across an entire range of skills. The graduates work in every outdoor field by finding positions that vary from wildlife managers to game wardens, park rangers and whitewater guides. Others become rock climbing instructors and guides.
I met up with them last week at Eagle’s Bluff in Clifton to learn more about their studies. This time of year they are climbing rock faces while being protected by ropes, harnesses, helmets and hardware.
They were already at the base of the wall when I arrived. Scott Fraser, their instructor, and Greg Hudzina, a second-year student, were hiking around to the top of the 60- to 80-foot-high cliff to set up anchoring systems and the ropes for the three routes the class would be climbing.
When he returned from setting up the ropes, Fraser explained the purpose of the four-day climbing trip. “Today is these nine students’ first day on real rock, as opposed to the school’s indoor climbing wall. We’ve spent the past three or four weeks on the wall and in class, learning climbing terminology, techniques, knots, belay techniques and how the body moves in the vertical world,” he said. “The objective is that after this four-day trip, everyone will be able to build anchors, place protection and climb on their own.”
Fraser gathered his charges around the base of the cliff so he could explain the protection systems and routes he set up. Then the group stepped into their harnesses and tied into their belay devices. After checking out their equipment set-ups and making changes when needed, he watched while, in turn, each student scaled the wall.
The tied-in belayers and their backups encouraged the climbers on the ropes amid lots of youthful chatter and laughter. It may have been serious study, but it sure sounded like fun. When asked to explain the difference between climbing indoors and climbing on rock, Jenni Heisz was quick to respond. “It makes you bleed a little more when you miss a hold. I got up a little ways and it’s really wet. There’s a little waterfall up there, a little dribble,” she said. “My fingers got a little numb when they got wet, but I stuck with it and topped out.”
For the next several hours, they set up the ropes for various routes that would challenge all their rock-climbing knowledge. After climbing in Clifton, the group camped at Blackwoods Campground in Acadia, so they would be near to their next climbing destination, a secret locale in the park where they could practice setting up anchoring systems and placing protection.
I met up with them that day and listened as Fraser explained the structures of the rock wall, crack systems, and the hardware devices they would use to aid in their climbs. He talked awhile about the differences in the hardware and their uses, then stepped back as the group went to work placing the various chocks, cams and nuts in cracks in the rock wall. He critiqued every set-up and made suggestions to improve their placement.
As the group broke into three-person teams to place their hardware, I watched and was impressed by the concentration they applied to their work. Each one studied the cracks in the wall to help them decide on the best possible placement for their means of protection. They’ve learned that poorly placed protection can pull out and lead to a catastrophic result, a long fall and possible injury.
For Greg Hudzina, the second-year student who’ll graduate this May with his Associate in Applied Science Degree, this trip was in preparation for part of his capstone project. “It’s kind of a senior project,” he said. “Next week I’ll be leading some of these students and others from the general public. Beforehand I’ll be setting up an actual introductory rock climbing guide business with a business plan, costs, brochures, advertising, rates, and basically designing everything that will demonstrate how to make this venture profitable. Then out here I’ll be graded on placing the anchors and belay systems and guiding them.”
After spending two days with the students, I was confident that each one could lead me up the steepest cliff face safely. They all had acquired the skills in terminology and techniques and performed those skills to their instructor’s satisfaction. If they could pass Fraser’s examination, they’d be qualified to guide even novices like me to some really great adventures on rock walls. Pretty satisfying work if you love the outdoors.