Category Archives: Outdoor Education

The best young teachers you could find anywhere

56, 57, 60

Training Outdoor Education Teachers

60 – Bushwalking guide training

Honeysuckle Creek Campground to Bushfold Flats camp to Summit of Mt Tennant then down to finish at Namadgi Visitors Centre – 2 days

5 up and coming stars of the Canberra outdoor education fraternity hiked out of Honeysuckle Creek Campground and made our way along the Alpine Walking Track to Booroomba Rocks. The shocking weather forecast didn’t quite eventuate. Mist rose  through the cliffs at Booroomba Rocks. We pushed off track to the open rock shelves on the mountain top to south. Desperate scrambling provided perfect navigation and extension of skills in a direct line back to the Booroomba Rocks Carpark. By afternoon we made Bushfold Flats and set up camp on the meadows.

The evening was beautifully clear and still. We cloth filtered and purified water from the dam.

Overnight rained and blew then miraculously cleared over breakfast.

Mount Tennant’s summit was windswept.

The sat phone, first aid kit and decision making skills got a workout through scenarios.


57 – Top Rope Climbing Guide training

Thompsons Point Nowra


Among an army adventurous training group we sweated up climbs, sorted the safest setups and consolidated procedures.

Santas Little Helper, Lucifer, Hang On, Big Dreams, Woderwick and more.

Top belay, bottom belay, bottom anchors, top anchors, bolts, trees, boulders, slings, quick draws, biners, safety top and bottom, knots, belay systems.


56 – Abseil guide training

Wee Jasper


Devil’s Punchbowl – small, medium and large abseils. Daylight entry to Dip Series 2.

We looked for safer ways to do things – sitting and easing over the edge when the anchor is at foot level.

Managing heat and fatigue as the last group arrives for the day.

What is the ultimate system setup and why?

Belays – self, bottom, top.

Anchor systems.

Is it worth the extra time to set up a releasable abseil line and top belay?

The knife?


Days of time, weekends …… they’ve given up to learn the ropes …….. so they can take students on adventures, provide the experiences that will stay with them for years.


Some of the best young teachers you could find anywhere. Would you have the legs and the heart for this?

Respect, Admiration and Gratitude


Respect, Admiration and Gratitude


Booroomba Rocks

Rockclimbing – with Neil Montgomery

Took a little time putting his boots on. Then he put the rack on over his slings and had to shuffle them back over. A few large cams were taken off. A new belay device hung on his new harness. Not dithering. But not fluent. Rusty. Weighing it all up in his head.

“People don’t use stopper knots anymore do they?”

It had been a while. Years since he had climbed properly. Now here we were at the bottom of our local crag’s classic climb. Equilibrium. The perfect slab. The perfect climb for us both. Hard enough. Beautiful polished granite. Two superb pitches. Cool summer day. Gentle breeze. Like everything had been laid out for us.

It had taken about a decade. For me to entice him out from his always busy world for just a day where we could climb together. For fun. Just us. No students. Not PD. Just a climb. Where we’d both started independently about 40 years prior. On rock. Just one day. Precious.

First steps up were smooth. A wire in a thin crack. Then a sling over a spike. Not many people even notice them these days. More moves up the slanting groove. Fluid and confident as the protection thinned and he was straight back into the mindset. My hands could feel it as the rope paid out steadily. Runners in, he moved straight up the committing wall to the belay. He slowed again there and laced up a bombproof anchor.


35 years ago I’d chanced a job at an Outdoor School teaching mainly environmental studies and a sprinkling of adventure activities. Over a long time there I kept hearing rumours of a guy at Narabundah College doing phenomenal things in his outdoor ed program. Caving in the Nullarbor. Ocean Sailing. Hiking in Tasmania and the Gammon Ranges. Climbing at Arapiles and the Warrumbungles. Amazing. Abseiling into the Big Hole 90 meters then jumaring out. Snowcamping trips. Wow. It seemed that whatever adventures I could dream of he was already doing with high powered students. Like there was no limit to what was possible. So long as everyone came back safely. He trusted the students with safety and good judgement. They trusted him. The school trusted him. The Department of Education trusted him. He carved out and pioneered the very best outdoor education course in the country. Safety guidelines and standards followed where he led. Somewhere I picked up a copy of his “Single Rope Techniques” book. I began to picture a person of quite extraordinary outdoor and adventure skills and knowledge. Occasional meetings we participated in together reinforced this. His course grew to include units like Lead Climbing, Advanced Vertical Caving, Bushwalking Leadership so students could incorporate these amazing trips into their academic programs.

On the belay ledge we chatted about the Larapinta Trail that he had done with a group that had 10 out 12 days of cold and rain. My recent tough personal experience seemed like a doddle in comparison. We swapped the rack and I led the next pitch placing a few wires early on then clipping two new bolts on the thinner section. I anchored on a tree and lowered so I could see him on the way up. Catlike he padded up as I took a couple of photos.

“1983 to 2012”. He responded about how long he had worked at the college. A friend of mine, who worked in the Maths faculty where Neil also taught the smartest kids in the territory, had told me that he was the most popular teacher among the student cohort in that subject. His classes were the first to fill up to bursting. Only sometimes when you get to know someone how they are matches the impression you might have of them. Like an onion every layer of Neil that was revealed to me increased my respect. He had resisted the promotional ladder in school as he loved teaching so much. I had managed in about 20 years to wrangle my way onto two of his outdoor ed day trips. Both were incredible. Wyanbene Cave took us through cold cold cold water into the Gunbarrel Aven and on to the very end. Then back. Way more advanced and challenging than I would ever contemplate. Similarly Jerarra Creek Canyon had multiple abseils and a scary climb out. Of course his students handled it all beautifully. In the cold darkness of night on exit from Wyanbene as we changed, freezing, out of wet overalls he warmed the massive pot of minestrone soup he’d made at home and brought for the group. It was only much later I started to fully appreciate the significance of this type of generosity and care and planning. His leading and relationships with students were the most naturally skilful and genuine I had ever witnessed. In leadership theory “situational leadership” is good for aspiring outdoor education teachers to work towards. At higher levels of capability come “charismatic” leaders, “transactional leadership” and “servant” leadership qualities. At the pointy end the best leaders are “transformational” and “authentic”. Neil’s leadership stretched beyond even this and aligned beautifully with the latest in leadership theory. His head, heart, body and soul seemed to etch his being among those around him. Passion, strength, imagination, humility suffused his work. He seemed intuitively in tune with the people and the world around him. I could see that his groups became communities where each person was cared for and appreciated. He had an almost tangible “presence’ in the group and led with a spirit that rose from a deep well of concern for “the good of humanity and the natural world” (Smith, 2011). Extraordinary. Overnight at Wyanbene he shared his deep knowledge of astronomy and the universe as we sat around the fire. I began to sense a huge intellect. During his 30 years at Narabundah he had met his wife there and then in time brought his own children through.

He enjoyed the next lead across the top of the Northern Slabs to the easier ground. Lots of pro, a moac even and more spikes slung in good old style. As we rolled the ropes he recounted how he had lived the dream in his twenties spending years doing caving expeditions, living overseas and climbing in the USA at all the places I had spent a whole adulthood dreaming about – Yosemite (he storied about an epic on the Salathe Wall), Tuolumne Meadows, Joshua Tree and the Sierras – like a sort of bubbling stream of music pictures and landscapes flowed through my mind as we talked about his early premature “retirement” before he had even started working properly. Now I was at the other end filling my retirement with adventure days like this somehow bookending our two lives in a small way.

Early afternoon. He brewed up some tea over lunch. Now he works at ANU in the science and maths faculty. He is acknowledged and valued highly there for his unusually high level of teaching skill and experience and care for his students. Some things never change. We talked about research and he intimated ideas of a new way of looking at time and motion and philosophy that he is working on. As the concepts washed through my mind I pictured him in his office, across the corridor from one of Australia’s Nobel Prize winning physicists, with his own Nobel Prize if there was one for being an outdoor leader, a teacher, an inspiration, a mentor, a pioneer and just the person he is.

Later Neil found more spikes to sling and threaded his way with cams and wires up the two main pitches of a more moderate climb. This brought back more confidence and finesse to his moves on the vertical walls and cracks. On the final section of the day he pulled through some harder layaway steeps. In my own outdoor education work I was able to follow his lead into a series of wonderful adventures and life changing experiences with my own group of fabulous students. I couldn’t have forged a more challenging, meaningful and enjoyable period of work in education. For that I owe him profound gratitude for the courage and imagination to set up the possibilities of my own trail.

At the end of the day we were both satiated. Smiling.  Content. Back at the crag. “Derwentias” he said, noticing my interest in a beautiful purple flowered plant along the side of track back to our packs. “I’ve planted heaps in my garden at home”.

A few days later Neil emailed offering to return one piece of gear “next time” on a possible night climbing escapade when the weather would probably be too hot during the day. I had a delightful image of us enjoying more occasional perfect days like this one into the future.

I’m not embarrassed to have a few well-chosen heroes to admire and try to emulate. Especially those in our own circles.


Thanks to Heidi Smith for providing some of the words and concepts on leadership Unpublished PhD thesis Extraordinary Outdoor Leaders: An Australian Case Study 2011, UOW

Making The Most


Making the Most

25 – 27 Aug 2015

Perisher Valley Nordic trails

Cross country skiing


Snow had covered the mountains in the last couple of days. Branches hung heavily laden with white ice cream. The roadside was a snow bank from a recent snowplough. Many of the students had never seen snow before. It was like the classic photos and films from northern hemisphere white Christmases or Hokkaido in deep winter except the pine trees here were eucalypts, snowgums. We had a hassle with the tyre chains before driving higher into heavy snowfall. Excitement rocked the bus as the group booted up and sorted out their gear for the day.

Mitch then walked them through deep powder a short distance from the Perisher carpark up to the Nordic Shelter. He had been a student himself on trips here 6 years before, in the same year 11 and 12 outdoor education program. As a student he’d been into everything – snowboarding in Japan, diving and snorkelling at the Reef, canyoning, surfing up the coast. Camping and coast activities with his family laid some initial skills and interest but he became hooked in totally in the college program, like some of the students he was working with now as their teacher, guide and mentor. On the flat we covered the intro skills – using the skis, walking on the flat, star turns, gliding. Falling was fun but recovery practice difficult in the deep, soft snow. Shelter then in the warm hut with a cuppa.

At the front of the group Mitch set a slow pace along a flat groomed ski trail while I brought up the rear. The year after graduating from college Mitch worked pretty much full time as a barista/waiter. Threaded through this “gap year” he was able to complete a full Certificate III in Outdoor Recreation as part of a program of the college and the local university. He learned quickly about the difference between being a student and a staff person and about leadership while picking up his caving guide qualification on an expedition to the Nullarbor Plain. His snorkel guide qual was finished off on a second trip to the Reef. Canoe and kayak guide tickets were done on the Clyde River closer to home. He went on nearly every trip that year with the college as a trainee staff person becoming skilled in a very wide range of activities, landscapes, staff and students. Through all this he managed to save enough money to spend 3 ½ months travelling to Europe both solo and with friends, moving into Eastern Europe as the money ran low. At a flat rest spot we all threw the lightest, fluffiest snowballs at each other and made snow angels. Then back to the hut for a late lunch and a break from the still falling snow.

The afternoon was spent practising skills and funning round the 2 ½ km trail. Downhill skills are harder but most students were snowploughing away merrily by the end of the day. Mitch worked with a couple who were taking longer to pick it up. He had a knack of separating out the components of each skill so they could slowly build – probably a result of his work in high school as a tennis coach. The students had a terrific day. There was hardly an envious glance over to the crowded lifted downhill slopes and busyness on the other side of the valley. Even Mitch, an absolutely passionate snowboarder, had been able to leave his interest in the “other” skiing behind and model a genuine love of cross country skiing that was transferred straight to the group.

Overnight the weather had settled and cleared a little. After a freshen up of skills from the previous day we started on more advanced uphill techniques – herringbone climbing, side stepping, zig-zaging and downhill – linking snowplough turns and christries. Some students picked things up really fast. This is one of the pleasures of teaching Nordic skiing. Morning tea, then we set off around the longer 5km trail. Over the ridge we lost sight and sound of the resort and felt like we were in the backcountry. Mitch led the way and managed the group. This was his first teaching job, acquired even before he had quite finished his degree, headhunted. He had done 3 years at Canberra Uni doing PDHPE and Technology teaching, also picking up some more quals to add to his Cert III – top rope climbing guide, vertical caving guide, surfing guide. Canberra Uni runs a three semester program. In the optional winter terms Mitch relocated to the snow where he could shred the slopes during the day and work in hospitality in the evening. I can only imagine the fun that would have been living in a group house with his mates in Jindabyne with piles of other mates taking up floor space on the weekends. When uni finished each Xmas he worked full time as a gardener for the three month break. He also managed to fit in a semester exchange to Colorado where he studied outdoor adventure programming, fitness promotion, tennis, swimming and group fitness. He made lifelong friends from every continent and on weekends and short holidays like Halloween he went hiking and snowboarding in the Rockies at places like Vail and Breckenridge. Before his exchange time in Colorado he surfed the west coast in a van with a mate, like in a scene from “California Dreaming”, and travelled Europe for 6 weeks before that. Returning from exchange he had his final semester to complete at uni back in Canberra. We reached a good play spot with a good downhill slope and a marvellous view over snowy hills and the Monaro Plains to the east. The energetic skied up and down while the others rested. The snow had got heavier and harder to turn in off the groomed trail. The way home to the hut took longer as the track undulated. Mitch showed his own drive to improve in practising his telemark and Christie turns on the downhills, unconsciously setting a wonderful example to his students, striving for enjoyment and achievement.

The plan for Day 3 was to do a full day trip up to Porcupine Rocks which commanded a view over the Main Range and to distant horizons in 360 degrees. The weather had closed in again and threatened to be very bad in the afternoon so we opted for a longer trail lower down. Again Mitch led the group out and then onto the 7.5km trail. This led into pristine elevated plateau country away from civilisation. This untouched quiet landscape was as far as you could get from the crowded urbanisation of Shanghai where Mitch was able, 3 months prior, to do a Professional Teaching Placement. He had gained a scholarship from Cricket ACT who supplied 20kg of cricket gear which he took to Shanghai and then taught the sport as part of his prac. Of course he followed this with 2 weeks of personal travel in rural China where there was no written or spoken English. Along the trail we caught a glimpse of Kosciuszko and Porcupine Rocks in a break in the clouds. The students skied confidently up and down the steeper parts of the trail. Mitch recorded a formal assessment of their skills. He had also just completed his own assessment for a cross country ski guide qualification.

There was a feeling of comfortable, warm satisfaction on the bus on the way home. The diverse group had gelled well under Mitch’s care. He completed their overall assessments while they chatted or snoozed. As I drove I overheard two students in the seat behind talking to Mitch about his life and one marvelled at “how he is so young and has already done so much and already has such a good job”. With his characteristic twinkle and disarming smile he had opened himself up to them and given an insight into how a life could be lived to the full. He knew he’d been fortunate and learned from his family about having goals and working hard and saving but nothing that the two students wouldn’t be able to do themselves. I couldn’t help thinking that if my own children were their age how much they could learn from this young man and benefit from spending time in his company in the outdoors.

In the weeks that followed Mitch relayed how the students had thrilled and raved about the trip to their class peers. He thought that the cross country had been a better experience for the students with better outcomes than the more popular snowboarding trips. For Mitch, this first major trip where he was the leading teacher, had been a reconnection back to the college and the program and the actual classroom where he had been a student and was now the teacher. He also mentioned that he is now learning Spanish with a view to travelling to South America at some stage to do a language school in Peru or Chile (somewhere close to one of the classic surf breaks). The world is an amazing place with incredible opportunities.

The Outdoor Education Teacher Underground


The Outdoor Education Teacher Underground

18 – 20/5/15

Wee Jasper



Five years ago the national outdoor education conference highlighted a video featuring interviews with young uni students as they trained in teaching and outdoor education. They described how they viewed their chosen vocation, their approach to adventure and their dreams for their future careers. They were a very special group, talented and energised young people with stars in their eyes and great hopes in their hearts. They had a diversity of philosophies and outlooks on life.

Driving to the campsite at the beginning of three days of caving with 20 year 9 and 10 students she chattered on about her class and the trips she had run. Her first 15 months of real teaching she had worked extremely hard to re-establish an outdoor education program from almost nothing. She already had in place a program well regarded by the Principal and parents, respected and appreciated by the students. One of the uni students in the video had recounted how his most abiding goal was to work in a program that he had set up and that was successful. In a very short time she had already achieved this. Managing guides and staff, ensuring safety, providing quality education in a very challenging field that takes time and care and dedication.

On the first afternoon we guided abseiling together at Devils Punchbowl, a collapsed cave crater with a perfect rising cliff that offers abseil setups from beginner to advanced level. She set the big one and supported and extended students through. Later she played frisbee games with them all prior to dusk then supervised cooking with an eagle eye to safety and the fire and then conducted a debrief and made the plan for tomorrow and oversaw bedtime settle down. Herself quiet, calm, focused. She helped negotiate and juggle the plan with very much more experienced and older staff. The students were quiet in their tents by 10.00 pm – first night of a camp with high school kids – this was very impressive.

Next morning was cloudy with impending showers. A group tarp went up while the first of three caving groups left. Punchbowl cave, 30 m abseil in, multiple chambers, complex navigation, scrambles, slides, risks and hazards carefully judged and managed. Riding the tricky edge of letting boisterous teenagers have some freedom and rein while keeping them in a safe activity context. Students having the sort of fun, smiling, happy, deeply achieving, self reliance enhancing time of their lives that would last in them for decades. “Remember the advanced outdoor ed caving trip we did in year 10?” they might say to each other at their forty year school reunion. “Oh yeah, sure do.” Like I’d said at my own reunion on the previous weekend about my most special experience of school.

She belayed the students up the caving ladder to exit the cave. I had worried they would struggle to cope but found they all cruised this difficult physical and psychological challenge having trained extensively at school beforehand. Well prepared. It was raining. A bit miserable. The tarp was fine tuned. A fire lit in a break in the weather lifted the mood. Later in the glowing warmth the chatter was high spirited. Sense of accomplishment and having handled the difficult cave they had heard so much about. Young for the challenge, it was an ambitious plan but they were well prepped. Cooking on trangias again. Showers pass through. Some tents had leaked in the downpour. She manages the loan of extra dry sleeping bags and mats she’d packed in the trailer for such an eventuality. Sit around the fire. Boys take a football off into the darkness nearby- she follows and brings them back. Late evening the 22 students head off to bed and sleep. Stars glitter above in a break in the clouds.

Regular people, including many other teachers, will rarely understand her work. 24 hours a day duty of care. Activities during the day after early morning camp group action which she facilitates. Food, camp, fires. Emotional upsets. First aid incidents. Group dynamics. Debriefing and enhancing transference of learning and personal development from camp back to school and home. Life skills. Role modelling. Being an example to young impressionable people searching for their own identities. Sharing herself around the fire and walking to the cave. Why does she do it?

Overnight in the distance a glider screeches 4 times. She tells me in the morning that she’d slept like a log but had awoken in her tent and sat bolt upright at the screeching.

Day 3 the same. Switched on, tuned in, vigilant 360 degrees. In time she will learn to do it while conserving energy. And the students will be skilfully, subtlely developed to live out their own sense of personal safety consciousness and maturity and responsibility so it all becomes a little easier. There’ll be setbacks too when things don’t go quite to plan. She’d battled back at school to bring some students whose behaviour there is marginal but as she predicted on camp they were terrific.IMG_5040

Dip Series Cave. Four parallel chambers, 2 tricky abseils, navigation underground. She’s the last out. Lunch, packup tents and gear, load the bus. She runs a tight ship, on top of all the details.

Is it that she just loves The Bush to bits, the ocean, the mountains, the caves and wants to share it as widely as one person can? Does she want others to know and feel the joy that she has derived from the activities? Is it that she wants to make a contribution to the world and sees this as a way of doing it to the best of her ability while enjoying life herself? I suspect it’s all of these but didn’t have a quiet moment to ask. Let’s just hope that whatever it is that she keeps doing this work so that the thousand and more other eager students can benefit from her leading and guiding and teaching. And countless more parents will wish that they too had opportunities like their kids with her. What a lucky school they are.