Mountain Workshops for Tacoma Youth

You may be familiar with our Mountain Workshop youth programs in Seattle, but did you know we also run them in Tacoma? We work with partner organizations to help provide youth with climbing and outdoor experiences they may not otherwise have access to.
Sarah Holt Sarah Holt
Tacoma Program Manager
December 19, 2017
Mountain Workshops for Tacoma Youth
by Sarah Holt, Tacoma Program Manager

Mountain Workshops, The Mountaineers’ youth outreach program, has become well established in our Seattle location over the past five years. But these programs have just recently begun in Tacoma. By partnering with other youth-serving agencies, our goal is to reach youth that may not otherwise have the opportunity for rich outdoor experiences.

Our Tacoma program began with two pilot groups – a Girl Scout troop of 1st and 2nd graders, and a group of alternative high school students served through YETI – the Youth Experiential Training Institute, based out of Burien. 

The YETI group had some backpacking experience, but wanted to learn technical climbing skills. It seemed like a perfect partnership. They signed on for four afternoon sessions – two days at the Mountaineers Tacoma Program Center, learning climbing and belaying skills, and two days climbing outdoors and learning to rappel at Exit 38.

Serving At-Risk Youth

“These are kids who have slipped through the cracks of the traditional school system,” one of YETI’s volunteers told me.  At times, I marveled that these kids had struggled in school. They seemed so supportive of each other, so eager to learn, so full of life. “For one reason or another, it just wasn’t working for them. But this –  hands-on, outdoors, learning new skills – it really clicks for them. It really builds them up.” 

The teens took to climbing quickly. Every member pushed themselves to top out every route, and by the end of their first session, they were challenging each other to make the routes more difficult. 

“Try climbing only the cracks! No holds allowed!” One boy challenged another.

The rewards of climbing are intrinsic. It’s challenging - mentally and physically - and gives a sense of accomplishment. But the kids were equally excited to learn to belay. Belaying, while fairly simple, is a serious endeavor. It means placing another’s life and safety in your hands. The students fully embraced the importance of performing this skill with the utmost care and safety. It was truly impressive to see the trust they placed in one another, and their enthusiasm for taking on this responsibility.

For a youth who may feel like a misfit, or left behind by society, few things are more powerful than the message: “I trust you. I trust you with my safety and my life. On belay? Climbing!”


Getting Youth Outdoors

While building technical skills is great, our primary mission is to get kids outdoors, making a connection with nature. After the kids had been trained in climbing and belaying, it was time to go out into the mountains and experience what real rock feels like. Our first foray into outdoor climbing seemed destined for failure – just as I pulled into Exit 38, it began raining hard. YETI’s van barely made it - the engine smoking as it overheated on the way up the pass. We decided it wouldn’t be a great day for climbing –  but perhaps we could salvage the trip with a rappelling lesson. I was worried the day would be a bust, that their first outdoor climbing experience would be miserable.

I didn’t need to worry – I forgot that nature doesn’t need anyone to sell it. The teens stopped to snap photos of the small creek that runs down past the crag. They were blown away by the steep rock cliffs. They stopped in awe at the top of the crag, taking in the views before they began their rappels. They couldn’t wait to come back next week and actually get to climb.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2016 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


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