April 8, 2001 Outdoor Ed: Programs introduce students to backcountry
by Sarana Schell
Talkeetna Stuck in their tent for four days while an unusually vicious storm lashed Mount Crosson in 1996, guides Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer had plenty of time to turn over their options for the future.
Just a week before, bad weather had stopped the two from guiding a party up Mount Hunter. Back at base camp, they heard two climbers had died on Hunter the day they turned their party around. Then they heard that Scott Fischer, a good friend, had died guiding on Mount Everest. Fischer had asked Coombs to work that trip with him.
Guiding as a source of employment was looking grim.
Then, as 24-hour cold summer light filtered into the yellow tent, Palmer said, "The light bulb turned on." A school would be a way to take people out to enjoy the mountains "without the sometimes looming pressure of making it to the summit."
The couple founded the Alaska Mountaineering School that summer, joining Alaska's burgeoning outdoor education industry.
Organizations large and small, local and Lower 48, are expanding statewide, capitalizing on the wilderness that Alaska has to offer and a growing worldwide interest in how to venture into it safely.
They are part of a national growth trend that encompasses recreation, manufacturing, retailing, and personal and corporate development programs that have attracted clients like NASA. In 1999, human-powered recreation generated $17.8 billion in retail sales alone, according to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, an industry trade association.
Programs teaching people how to light a stove in a windstorm, travel across a glacier and make conservative decisions in the backcountry may be a tiny slice of that pie, but for folks like Coombs and Palmer, they provide a latter-day version of the Alaska dream of living off the land.
Backcountry education has existed in the Anchorage area for 25 years, first in Anchorage Community College, which was folded into the University of Alaska Anchorage.
UAA's Alaska Outdoor Experiential Education program will teach 1,000 students this year, program director Deb Ajango estimates.
In 1971, the National Outdoor Leadership School offered two courses. Today, NOLS offers 50 courses a year statewide. Alaska Pacific University's four-year degree program in outdoor studies had four students in 1995; last year it had 30.
Mountaineering, hiking and sea kayaking appear on most program rosters, but organizations target different groups and structure their classes differently. NOLS offers month-long courses, while Coombs and Palmer offer one- to two-week courses and UAA has an evening and weekend format.
Besides its students, Ajango said, UAA caters to area professionals who work in the backcountry, from scientists to North Slope workers. APU sticks to its own students, said Paul Twardock, director of APU's outdoor studies program.
Programs often cooperate. APU has an agreement with NOLS to transfer credits, and students are encouraged to take advantage of classes at UAA.
"We try not to compete against (other programs), actually," Ajango said. "We try to partner with them as much as possible. For example, we have an indoor rock-climbing class taught at Alaska Rock Gym by the owners of the gym."
Coombs and Palmer also avoid competition, for personal reasons.
In some ways, Alaska Mountaineering School is a fairly typical small business. Husband-and-wife team Coombs, 34, and Palmer, 29, rely heavily on software to manage their office work, workers' compensation is a big expense, and they wear a lot of hats.
"I go out and fix stoves, then come in and crank something out on the computer," Coombs said of a typical workday.
In other ways, though, the company is as much an expression of a philosophy, a way to live out personal commitments, as it is an income-providing business.
While their idealism puts the squeeze on them and their tiny business, technology, personal connections and hard work keep it growing.
In 2000, the school ran 42 three- to 14-day courses for 186 students. AMS is almost profitable, Palmer said, balancing revenue with expenses, and affording them a living wage. While running water remains elusive, last year the couple were able to move out of the red log cabin that houses AMS and into their own place, and they take low-budget rock-climbing road trips in fall.
To run a low-cost, high-quality program that would be a positive force in the Talkeetna community, the first step was to make sure their school wouldn't encroach on their friends' business.
When the couple returned from their stint on Mount Crosson, they took their idea to locals Brian and Diane Calamar Okonek. The Okoneks started Alaska-Denali Guiding in 1983 so they could make a living in a rural area, just as Coombs and Palmer hoped to do. Coombs had summitted Mount McKinley with ADG as a New Hampshire high school senior, later guided with Okonek, whom he regarded as a mentor. To have him disapprove of the project would be "intolerable," Coombs said.
A school fit with Coombs and Palmer's experience, allowed the couple to work together rather than spend months apart working for other outfits and side-stepped direct competition with guiding.
Okonek said AMS competes with ADG but on a friendly basis. In deference to the Okoneks, Coombs said he tries to make sure ADG has instructors lined up for the season before recruiting from the same pool of instructor friends for AMS classes.
A school was also a chance to try to instill safety habits in students, a compelling option for someone with Coombs' firsthand experience of mountaineering hazards. In 1992, he was in a climbing accident in the Alaska Range that killed his two expedition partners. Both were very experienced in the backcountry, and both were dear friends.
"My accident definitely sealed my decision to make a school," Coombs said.
There is absolutely a need for backcountry education, said Mike Gauthier. Gauthier, the lead climbing ranger at Mount Rainier for the National Park Service, is working in Talkeetna for the 2001 season. People should enjoy their national parks, Gauthier said, and schools provide a bridge for inexperienced people going into the backcountry.
"Really there's sort of an untapped resource in this form of tourism," Gauthier said. "Alaska is a world adventure-tourism destination."
The traditional way into the hills is with more experienced partners, which not everyone has, or on one's own, learning from mistakes.
"That can be a terrifying proposition in the mountains," said APU instructor David McGivern. "It's a Catch-22. How do you get experience when you don't have experience?"
That question arose for Coombs and Palmer when they set out to start AMS.
"I majored in religious studies. Caitlin was an art major… We were set up for disaster," Coombs said, laughing.
Fortunately, art was actually Palmer's minor; her major was outdoor education. Coombs had worked in outdoor education for nearly 15 years, both in the field and in the office. They stretched their capabilities by recruiting local friends to a board of directors that included an accountant and a bed-and-breakfast owner.
This red log cabin serves as the headquarters of the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. Below: Ice screws and belay devices are stored in the school's gear shed.
Capital for the start-up came from the parents of one of Coombs' partners on his tragic expedition up Mount Foraker his best friend and college roommate, Ritt Kellogg.
"Peter and Cynnie Kellogg gave us a $40,000 grant to buy a lot of gear to get started," Coombs said. "They're both avid outdoors people, and Peter's on the international board of directors for Outward Bound. They've always been very supportive of instructors, so it wasn't totally out of the blue."
The investment was crucial to the business's success.
"Alaska mountaineering is about the most equipment-intensive thing you can do," Coombs said. "We must have over $20,000 in boots alone. All our students have to wear $250 avalanche beacons."
Coombs wrote a payback schedule into the AMS grant proposal but said Peter Kellogg instead told him to put the money back into the program. Coombs said he took it as a personal challenge to build the best program possible.
Part of the program's philosophy is to be active in the Talkeetna community. The tiny business donated $300 worth of indoor rock-climbing holds to the local elementary school, gives free workshops for kids most winters and offers scholarships for area residents. Palmer and Coombs said they hope to have a local on every trip. To stretch their scholarship money, they ask scholarship recipients to work off some of their airfares by washing planes or doing other chores for local air taxis.
Another priority is paying their instructors, nearly all friends, well.
"To do that, he has to buck the industry trend," said APU's McGivern, who taught at NOLS with Coombs and at AMS. "Salaries for outdoor instructors are pretty terrible."
Salaries at NOLS top out at $110 per day, Coombs said, but often run at half that.
"When I taught a course with Colby, there were three of us and Colby was the course leader," McGivern said. "My salary was higher than as a course leader at NOLS."
Because Palmer and Coombs have been in the outdoor education and climbing communities for so long, when they look for instructors, they can call on some very experienced friends.
The quality of their instructors makes AMS unique, said Daryl Miller, a longtime National Park Service ranger in Talkeetna. "Colby has a long history here and knows a lot of world-class climbers. He has extremely competent instructors."
The AMS student-to-instructor ratio is another example of education taking precedence over economics. While UAA's Ajango said that the nearly exponential growth in the industry has some programs begging for instructors, Coombs said AMS maintains a ratio of 3-to-1 for its mountaineering courses, one of the lowest in the industry. McGivern said that APU has a ratio of 4-to-1.
"Four to one is safe," McGivern said. "Three to one is better."
Keeping tuition low is another goal. That and the desire to keep pay high create pressure, though, McGivern said.
"Something has to give in that operation."
Coombs agreed: "The risk as a small operation is starting to cut corners."
Still, Palmer sees the company's commitment to stay small as healthful for their principles and the business.
"We certainly don't want to grow so fast we collapse from within," she said.
Walking that line, the duo spend little on nonfield staffing and marketing, leveraging their investments with technology.
The couple's only office help is a local young woman who took one of their ice-climbing classes. She comes in when they are out of the country.
When they are in town, Coombs and Palmer put in long hours and rely heavily on office equipment. Networked computers, a scanner, a printer, a copier allow them to do "the work of five," Coombs said. Spreadsheets calculate food rations, track clients and more.
"We have programs for everything," he said.
The company's bare-bones advertising consists of brochures, a Web site and a tiny ad in the back of Climbing magazine.
"From the beginning, we wanted word of mouth to be our biggest source of advertising," Coombs said. The Internet adds international exposure that Coombs said would be prohibitively expensive to buy in popular climbing magazines.
Apparently the combination is working. Half of AMS bookings come from word of mouth and a third from the Web. Most students are from the Lower 48, but others come from all over the world. A Finnish airborne ranger took a class, and now a ranger is due to come every year. Courses are filling, Palmer said, and they're filling faster.
"Colby recognized a need for things that we didn't," said Okonek of Alaska-Denali Guiding. ADG also maintains a 3-to-1 ratio on courses. "Our courses probably deliver the same educational component, but we never thought to market (them) that way."
That Coombs wrote a book on climbing the most popular route on Mount McKinley, with help from Palmer and other people, doesn't hurt either. Bradford Washburn, to whom Coombs introduced himself when he was 18, donated the photographs.
While some accidents are just bad luck, Coombs said, most are preventable. In his book, Coombs quotes a climber he met on the Kahiltna Glacier who asked, "Which way is Denali?"
Knowledge like where the mountain is is critical, but so is the right mind-set.
APU's McGivern said as students learn skills, they also pick up on instructors' attitudes. AMS curriculum focuses on climbing in control, McGivern said. "That flies in the face of all the extreme advertising that surrounds mountaineering."
"Mountaineering is a problem-solving adventure that can be conservative and thoughtful," Coombs said. He tries to counteract the image that extreme risk is cool, stressing being methodical instead.
"We get young, ambitious immortals," Coombs said. "I try to instill in them to have an uninflated view of their abilities. It's the only time I draw specifically on that Foraker accident. If you make a mistake and someone dies, it's not just your sadness, it's a ripple effect."
The pain he saw in his friends' families "kind of caught me by surprise," Coombs said. "I had my own sadness, my best friend gone, but I had no idea how traumatic it would be to face (Tom's mother) or Ritt's little brother."
Still, the point remains not to stay out of the backcountry but to enjoy it as safely as possible. One source of AMS scholarships for Talkeetna youths is a memorial fund started by the parents of Mike Vanderbeek, a Talkeetna mountaineering ranger killed in 1998 during a rescue.
"The mountains have been responsible for my highest points and my lowest points. (My accident) was the low point of my life, but it was a low spike," Coombs said.
"I have nothing against the mountains. I think they have a lot to give."
Reporter Sarana Schell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2001 the Anchorage Daily News