Outside Insight | A Life of Adventure Education: An interview with Ken Wylie

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we talk to outdoor educator and author Ken Wylie about learning from mistakes, and creating a culture of humility.
Steve Smith Steve Smith
Mountaineers Education Manager
November 17, 2018
Outside Insight | A Life of Adventure Education: An interview with Ken Wylie

A massive avalanche buried thirteen climbers below La Traviata peak near Revelstoke, British Columbia in 2003, killing seven in its wake. It made international headlines. Ken Wylie was among those buried; he escaped with guilt weighing heavily on his conscience, as he was one of the mountain guides responsible for decision-making on that trip. Ken wrote a popular book titled, Buried, about his experience surviving that avalanche, and the soul-searching life lessons which ensued. I have been learning from Ken for almost twenty years - starting at Outward Bound, then at the Wilderness Risk Management Conference, and most recently as a speaker at our Mountaineers Leadership Conference in 2017, where he gave a profoundly moving presentation about leadership, loss, and the healing that comes from courageous vulnerability. I sat down with him to learn more from his experience.

What sparked your interest in adventure education?

I found my way to mountain adventure quite young. I was seven years old when my older brother took me cross-country skiing in Banff National Park. The real game changer for me was seeing a National Geographic film in the early 1980s about the Colorado Outward Bound School. I knew I needed to become an instructor. The educational process resonated deeply. I climbed my heart out so I could build my experience to a level that would be of use. I knew inherently that my own experience needed to far exceed what I would do with my students. Eventually, I applied to work at what was then known as PCOBS (Pacific Crest Outward Bound School), now known as the Northwest Outward Bound School. I became an instructor and loved my work. However, in the early days, I did not understand the importance of parallel process. I was keen to lead others through a process but failed deeply in living it myself.

You’ve had some close calls and incidents over the years. What advice do you have for an outdoor program about creating an environment in which people can extract the right lessons from their incidents and near misses? How do we create safe spaces for people to learn from mistakes?

The most important thing is to create a culture that supports vulnerability and humility. We adventurers put physical courage on a pedestal when it should be intra- and interpersonal courage. Chiefly, if I use myself as an example, I created tragic consequences in my life and career because I was running from the things I needed to learn. Like the person skipping stones across a calm pond, I chose to skim across the surface in an effort to avoid sinking deep into myself and learning who I really was. That was terrifying to me.

We all have personality aspects that we need to learn to master. If we don’t we become a slave to them. Things like arrogance, greed, impatience, and self-deprecation profoundly affect our decision making in high-risk environments and our lives.

Most of us comfortably stop all learning at the technical level. But when tragedy strikes we are left wondering why it happened when the technical challenges were so obviously easy to solve. The answer is to look at ourselves. I call this adventure literacy. Knowing how to read who we are through our adventures. Either we run or we face our dragons. Great cultures of safety support self-knowledge, and authenticity.

Outdoor adventure-based programs are safest when we create courageous cultures of learning. My programs at Mountains for Growth infuse reflection as part of the adventure experience so my participants learn Adventure Literacy from the start. 

When major incidents happen in Canada, there is a formal response, such as creating terrain classification systems or required levels of training and certification to lead groups. What are the pros and cons of these national approaches, and what can the US system learn from the Canadian model?

In Canada, we use the professional peer review (certification) system and it is supported by our land managers. Land managers in the USA have not bought into certification as a baseline for professional mountain activities and so the debate continues on their efficacy. But there is no question that certified guides have higher standards of professionalism technically chiefly because there is a link to technical information that is shared internationally. Many of us gravitate to adventure to find freedom, but it does not serve us to mix personal freedom with professionalism. Once we start to get paid for our efforts the game changes and we lose the freedom we sought as individual adventurers. But when we fully become professional and become certified, we can charge more and we link to a larger body of knowledge so we can do our jobs better. In Canada, it seems that we understand that systems serve the greater good. Guiding business owners in the USA typically do not support certification, and if you want to know why follow the dollars.

Anecdotally I can tell you this: dealing with professional tragedy was hard. However, I can’t imagine how hard it would have been if I knew there were training and certification out there and I chose not to take it. Knowing I was doing my best to become competent helped me survive. Many don’t think this way, but certification and peer review are easy ways to help us do our best work.

I do have a word of caution though. Culture. My experience of adopting certification went hand in hand with adopting a healthy safety culture.

Your writing presents an unusually humble tone for such an accomplished alpinist and outdoor professional. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an outdoor leader, and what advice would you have for aspiring outdoor leaders? What mistakes have you made which you find to be most educational for others to learn about?

The most important skills to have in high-risk environments are courage and humility. The courage to go to wild places and the humility to listen. Listen to self, others, and the environment. By listening we know that we have an invitation to be where we are. The mountains are sacred and we need to be invited. They are not places we can demand to be in. I failed to listen to myself, which resulted in three of my guests being killed in an avalanche (of seven fatalities in the La Traviata tragedy). So I have been profoundly humbled by the consequences of not listening and this is perhaps the reason for my tone.

What would be your word of advice or recommendation to others who want to lead something similar in scope?

My advice is to think carefully about what your goals are. I made enjoying the trip and enjoying the other people a high priority, so I kept working to remember that. Identify clearly what your own personal goals are, and then have clear discussions with the participants to bring yourselves into alignment. 

If you could go back in time and give some advice to the young version of yourself (about life, climbing, being an outdoor leader, etc) what would you say to that young person?

Take the easy lessons seriously. Take time to reflect and internalize invitations to grow and change. Adventure can be an intoxicating escape, but with a little introspection, adventure has the power to turn boys and girls into men and women. Reflection turns events into experiences and we grow, learn and develop. But it requires us to be responsible for our actions. The inner journey is the most important adventure to take.

The Mountaineers mission is to “explore, learn, and conserve.” How does this resonate with your own experience and values?

Exploration is not only outside of ourselves it is also inside. Learning is most powerful when we find something out about ourselves. Adventure is not about consumption of experiences. It is about conserving them and the environment. Experience conservation is what adventure education is all about. Getting the most out of what we do out there so that we need less.

Ken is a Canadian mountain guide and experiential educator for organizations including Yamnuska Mountain School, Outward Bound Canada, and Outward Bound USA. He has also instructed at the University of Calgary and as a faculty member at Mount Royal College (University) and Thompson Rivers University in Outdoor Education and Adventure Tourism.

Ken founded Mountains for Growth in 2013 to help individuals and groups gain personal insight and wisdom through outdoor adventures. To learn more: www.mountainsforgrowth.com

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2018 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.