“I’ve seen the transformation that happens in young folks”
High on the Guide’s Ridge of Crested Butte Mountain, the banter and machismo from a group of teenage boys falls away like the cliff face before them. The joking stops and, although there’s a pleasurable stirring inside them, smiles fade into more somber expressions. In so many ways, the instructions that followed were life lessons.
Having felt the power of the outdoors himself, and having witnessed it work in others, longtime local river and mountain guide Billy Rankin started the Irwin Outdoor Leadership Program, a version of the Irwin backcountry experience for high school-aged kids, local or visiting, who want to know the ropes and not just hang on them.
“We’re teaching kids and not just guiding them,” says Rankin, lead guide for Irwin and the camp’s originator. “The program is really about safety, more than high adventure. I want them to learn the skills that will keep them safe when they’re out on their own or with some friends in the backcountry.”
Since starting in late June—with help from Crested Butte Mountain Guides, Scenic River Tours and Adaptive Sports Center—Irwin classes have taught the basics of whitewater rafting and standup paddle boarding on Lake Irwin, hiked Scarp’s Ridge and climbed mountains, alongside guides who specialize in each.
“He taught us a lot,” Gus Hensley said of Rankin after the hike to the top of Scarp’s Ridge. “He taught us a little about maps, navigation and compasses, and a little about wildflowers.”
Gus’ brother Michael added, “I learned that you shouldn’t go off the trail or else it will ruin all the wildflowers.”
On each outing, the kids learn what to take on a trip and how to pack for it, how to navigate to get to where they want to go and then the skills necessary to be safe and successful in any number of outdoor pursuits. Beyond the technical skills, however, the kids learn about themselves and their friends as they’re exposed to real-world lessons in group dynamics and the outdoor ethic inherent in Leave No Trace. And for Gus, it was a chance to meet some new friends.
“There were some people who hadn’t hiked it before and I got to meet some new people from out of town,” he said.
When it’s all over, the goal is for each student to understand the steps necessary for a successful outing, whether it’s for a family vacation or as a professional guide sometime in the future.
Rankin, who grew up in New York, has been a guide, wilderness EMT and backcountry professional for more than 20 years. It’s a career that started with a semester-long National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in his sophomore year in college.
“Guiding and outdoor education has been a life passion,” he says. “I’ve seen the transformation that happens in young folks—everyone really, but young people especially—when you put them in the outdoors in a beautiful setting or in a position that makes them think for themselves or rely on other people in the group. I really believe in what the program can do for kids and how important it is to get kids outside and teach them how to be safe in those situations.”
While Rankin has worked at pricey summer camps for kids, he understands that to get the local teens into the program, it would have to be affordable. At $60 to $80 a day, this program easily beat the price of camps where kids get the experience, but not the expertise.
“The goal was to price this and make it really accessible for kids in town. [Irwin is] a pretty high-end outfitter for summer and winter outfitting, but we didn’t want to do it for $200 a day or more, like some of them.
“With this, the equipment, the guide expertise and the van, we’ll run this [financially] as a break-even or potentially a loss,” Rankin says. “But we’re doing it because it’s a need right now and it’s one way we’re giving a little back to the community.”
Of his trip up Scarp’s Ridge and around Lake Irwin, Gus says, “Normally I don’t have the resources needed to go up to Irwin and do something like that, so I probably would have spent the time in town.”
And at least one member of the community stepped up to give back to the camp, providing scholarships to kids who weren’t able to afford the fee otherwise. “One gentleman chipped in a bunch just so kids can do this program,” Rankin says. “I was overwhelmed when he made that offer and it was because he thought it was important for local kids to have those skills.”
This past summer, the Irwin Outdoor Leadership Program went out to learn technical rock climbing and climb a peak, learn to fly fish and hike Scarp’s Ridge.
“Kids were engaged and challenged and had a great time having outdoor adventures and learning,” Rankin says.
And even as residents of the valley who have a healthy outdoor skill set, Gus and Michael are looking forward to another outing. “I love climbing, so I’d like to go if I can,” Gus said.
Next year, the plan is to expand the program to be available on more days throughout the summer. “Chances are we’ll be offering a fuller schedule of even day trips with the possibility of more multiday trips or even an expeditionary type camp,” Rankin says. “We’re definitely spurred on by what this program could lead to in the future.”
For more information about the program, email Rankin at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-IRWIN-77.