Tag Archives: Outdoor Education teacher

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

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.