Spotlight on the Outdoor Program, Part 1: Rope Rescue and Climbing

Wednesday, 30. October 2013

by Daniel Davis Wood

Rope Rescue and Climbing Techniques is just one of the many activities offered through the Outdoor Program at the Ecole d’Humanité. These activities are typically among the most unique, diverse, exciting, and popular at our school. But what exactly do they include and how does the Outdoor Program organize them with a focus on both skills instruction and safety? Each Wednesday over the next four weeks, we’ll take a closer look at what’s on offer with Michel Raab, our Outdoor Program Director and Risk Management Officer. This week is the Ecole’s Intensive Week, when all academic classes are put on hold so that students can devote themselves full-time to non-academic activities, which means that Michel will be leading Rope Rescue and Climbing Techniques over these four days.

“Rope Rescue and Climbing Techniques is a class designed for students who are just beginning to learn rock climbing skills,” says Michel. “They learn about gear functions, gear care, and basic self and companion rescue skills. They spend the first two days in the climbing gym where they learn about climbing techniques and brush up on their belaying and leading techniques.” They learn things like how to tie knots and hitches, how to escape a belay and transfer the load to the anchor, and how to raise loads using mechanical advantage with different pulley systems.

During the last two days, says Michel, “they also take part in bouldering as a way to improve their movement, strength, and endurance, and alternate between bouldering and sport climbing sessions. They learn about the three phases of climbing movement -- preparation, traction, and stabilization -- to help them develop an awareness on how to read a route and how to use their body more efficiently. The days start with a good stretching session, specific for climbing, and a briefing to set up specific goals for the day so students can work on specific techniques.”

As was the case when the class was offered last year, these lessons are limited to about six students during Intensive Week, although many more students will receive similar lessons by becoming involved in the Outdoor Program in different ways. Between 35 and 45 students enrol in one of the four rock climbing classes offered in both the Fall Term and the Spring Term, and between 25 and 35 students enrol in one of three ski touring classes offered in the Winter Term.

What else do students learn in these sorts of classes? “Because teenagers in general are young when it comes to learning outdoor skills,” says Michel, “the goal of the classes is to have fun and learn the basics. We can’t really go in depth with all of the topics, but we ensure that our students learn enough to stay safe while climbing or skiing under our supervision.” For example, although the rope systems used in the Intensive Week class may look simple to outsiders, they are complex to handle and students can easily forget what they learn about them. “For that reason,” says Michel, “we are continually double-checking students’ systems and reminding them of the safe habits and techniques we teach them. We also have to be careful because outdoor activities produce high levels of excitement, fun, and fear, sometimes to the point that students lose focus very quickly, and because they can make students tired, cold, hungry, and thirsty. We also can’t forget that some students can be impatient or energetic, so we need to slow them down to prevent them from being injured or separated from the rest of the group. We supervise everyone very closely to make sure that students of all levels of ability learn new techniques and how to put them into practice safely and securely.”

Many students who take advantage of the Outdoor Program find the activities on offer thrilling and rewarding. “I can’t imagine the Ecole without the Outdoor Program,” says Jesse Clements, from Boston, a ninth grade student in the American Program. “Being able to utilize these amazing mountains is one of my favorite parts of being at the Ecole. The Ecole taught me to love climbing, skiing, and hiking, and now I can’t imagine not having them in my life.”

The Outdoor Program also gives these students and opportunity to see, up close, how outdoor professionals conduct themselves responsibly when taking part in activities that naturally involve some degree of risk. “Under our safety policy,” says Michel, “all of our Outdoor Program teachers must be either qualified mountain guides or J&S (Jugend und Sport) certified instructors in ski touring, climbing, or alpine climbing. This policy guarantees a certain level of instruction and competency among our teachers, and helps to keep our procedures in line with Swiss regulatory standards. We have five J&S certified instructors on-staff and we also work with outside instructors like Lucas Iten, a qualified mountain guide who was also a student here at the Ecole.”

Currently, there are six components to the Outdoor Program. These include:

  • Overseeing the Hike Commission, which organizes single-day hikes throughout the year as well as the Four-Day Hike in Fall Term and the Six-Day Hike in Spring Term
  • Organizing rock climbing classes in Fall Term and Spring Term
  • Organizing skitouring classes in Winter Term and in part of Spring Term
  • Offering Intensive Week classes such as Rope Rescue and Climbing Techniques
  • Organizing technical hikes such as the mountaineering hike in the Fall Term and the skitouring hike in the Spring Term, and offering special supervision due to the high risks and technical components involved in them
  • Supporting the Ski Commission, which organizes single-day skiing events during the Winter Term, by handling and maintaining the free ride kits (avalanche transceivers, avalanche probes, and shovels) for students taking free ride lessons -- although skiing and snowboarding classes are technically not part of the Outdoor Program

Next Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at the climbing classes offered through the Outdoor Program and we’ll hear more about what students have to say about them.