Ben Gager was a highly active, outdoor-loving college freshmen with an interest in sociology when he started to have doubts about where his school work was taking him. Rather than waste time and money on a degree he wasn’t certain about, Ben opted instead to enroll on an 81-day Rockies to Ecuador semester with Outward Bound – a decision that helped define an exciting new academic path.
When I catch up with Outward Bound alum Ben Gager, just two months after the close of his 81-day Rockies to Ecuador Gap year course, he is breathless. He has just finished unloading his Toyota 4Runner after a solo road trip from Leadville, Colorado to Missoula, Montana. And even after a 14-hour drive, Ben is exuberant.
A Chance to Stop and Re-Orient
Ben’s story begins in Boulder, Colorado, where he began his freshman year as a bright-eyed sociology major. And where, after just one semester, Ben drew the academic year to a screeching halt. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do next,” Ben explains. “I didn’t want to keep wasting money without knowing the direction I was headed. So I decided to stop paying for a major I had no real interest in.”
Ben stopped; paused to re-calibrate his compass; to re-orient and reflect. He narrowed down his career interests to environmental consulting, large land management and forestry. He applied to the University of Montana’s Resource Conservation undergraduate program, one of just four schools to offer that degree. Then, as he anxiously awaited their admissions decision, he enrolled on an 81-day Colorado Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester.
Choosing an Outward Bound Semester Course
According to Ben, choosing which course to enroll in was quite easy. “I chose Outward Bound because their programs offer a lot of emotional and personal skill development. Outward Bound’s approach is very deliberately focused on the non-cognitive skills – which I knew would do more for my future than a program that just improved technical skills.” In terms of why he chose the Colorado course area, Ben says he always knew he wanted to go with Colorado Outward Bound School.
“The 81-day Rockies to Ecuador course offers such an amazing variety of choices,” Ben says. “You get to visit so many course areas and experience so many elements – high alpine backpacking, rock climbing in Joshua Tree, Utah, Ecuador, skiing in Colorado, canyoneering. So you’re not only seeing all of these beautiful places, but you’re getting real technical experience in all of them.”
And choosing the 81-day course – one of the longest courses offered by Outward Bound? “I knew I wanted to go for as long as I could.” Ben says. “For me, I wanted to really develop some hard technical skills, but also push myself to a whole new level in terms of leadership and risk management.”
Ben says that being on a longer course allowed him to make real decisions in the field.
“Whereas shorter courses don’t allow for as many big decisions to be made by the group, on a longer course you are able to really develop those core values, respect for one another, and lines that cannot be crossed. On our longer course, we were making the decisions – and that often dictated whether we would be on time or not; whether we would succeed or not. There was a potential for failure. And that caused all of us to step up; take ownership; think carefully about our choices.”
Ben also says that being on a longer, international course creates a need for organization, self-awareness and self care. “I learned time management on my course,” Ben reflects. “You have to practice positive self care, keep track of all of your things, keep track of time. Otherwise the whole thing fails. These skills will definitely translate to college, where I’ll be in charge of myself, my time, my learning.”
An Outward Bound Family Legacy
Ben’s decision came as no surprise to his father Ron Gager, a longtime member of the Outward Bound community who began instructing Outward Bound courses in the 1960’s and serves today as a member of the Outward Bound Board. “When I told my parents I had decided to go on a Gap Year with Outward Bound, they were totally supportive. And excited.” Ben explains.
The Outward Bound tradition runs deep in Ben Gager’s blood. Although his family doesn’t do highs and lows and the dinner table, Ben has been cultivating an Outward Bound-style relationship with the outdoors for almost his whole life. “I was at Outward Bound basecamps when I was six years old!” Ben recounts. Ben says that, from a young age, he internalized Outward Bound values and design principles – not to mention a real love for the expeditions themselves.
Key Learning Takeaways
Although, as a member of a prominent Outward Bound family Ben knew what to expect of the expedition in many ways, there were still things that came as a surprise.
“I expected it to be hard. I expected long hikes and painful days. I expected to improve my technical skills and glacial skills,” Ben explains. “What I didn’t expect is how much I would learn about group dynamics. I learned to cope with a diverse group. The group makeup is not going to change for 81 days. But you’ve got to figure out how to deal with all of the variables, day in and day out.”
Ben feels sure that these “soft” people skills will come in handy when he begins a career – as a built-in group of diverse individuals comes standard with every job.
Ben was also surprised by how responsive the Instructors could be. During the sections in Joshua Tree in particular, Ben was impressed how the Instructors broke the groups up according to ability – so that some people got to do crack climbing and multi-pitch routes, while others chose a different, less difficult route. “The way the Instructors were able to accommodate a variety of skill levels and interests, but still make it feel like an inclusive, supportive community was cool and surprising. And it was excellent risk management,” Ben recounts.
A Focused Path Forward
Nearly six months after embarking on his Outward Bound Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester, Ben is looking forward to a full academic load and the opportunity to learn about something he is truly passionate about – and something that he now has firsthand experience with.
“Hiking on glaciers, and conserving resources for 81 days with Outward Bound gave me a unique perspective on resource conservation. I think I’ll be well prepared for the rigors of the University of Montana program,” Ben says.
And, armed with keen self-awareness and perceptive group management skills that only an Outward Bound Semester program can teach, we feel certain Ben will be more than up to the task. We wish him the best of luck on his future pursuits. And urge him to remember – all roads lead to Outward Bound.
Ready to get started developing world-class technical skills and honing invaluable leadership skills? You don’t need an Outward Bound pedigree like Ben – and you don’t need a 4Runner full of equipment. You just need to bring yourself, your passion for learning and a willingness to go further than you ever thought possible. Semester and Gap Year courses are enrolling now – and we’d love to have you!
Learn more about the Rockies to Ecuador Leadership Semester here: http://www.outwardbound.org/course/rockies-to-ecuador-leadership-semester/394/. Our next course starts January 18th and is enrolling now.
To see the full selection of our Gap Year and Semester options, all offered throughout the year in a variety of wild and beautiful places, visit our Course Finder.
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