Building Leaders in BC’s Backcountry

Each year, Grade 11 and 12 outdoor leadership students travel to Manning Park for a five-day winter camp experience. The winter camp is designed to develop each student’s camping skills and personal organization under challenging conditions. It is our belief that before you can effectively lead other people, you need to be organized and be able to take care of yourself. The personal organization and the skills required on the winter camp, such as food preparation and navigation, set the stage for students to move on to the spring trip where the focus is on using these skills to lead their peers.

Developing Winter Skills

The winter camp begins in the relative comfort of cabins at Manning Park Resort located in the heart of the Cascade mountain range. Time at the resort offers an opportunity to introduce students to important skills related to winter travel and camping. On the morning of the training day at the resort, we travel to the local ski hill to learn and practise backcountry ski and snowshoe techniques. The afternoon is dedicated to recognizing the risks associated with winter backcountry travel. Avalanche awareness is emphasized throughout the program and the students learn about what avalanche terrain looks like and how to avoid it. During this session, students also learn how to use their avalanche transceivers and practice an avalanche rescue. The evening is spent learning about what gear to bring and how to pack and carry it effectively. Finally, the students meet in their respective groups for a map lesson to review the route plan for the trip.

Once students have completed their training, they leave the resort to spend two nights out in the backcountry. This typically involves a 5- to 6-kilometre ski or snowshoe tour up a cross-country trail to a plateau where we make camp. Once at the campsite, the students are responsible for setting up their own snow kitchens. Each cook group designs and digs out a snow pit complete with benches to sit on and a table to cook on. The students are responsible for cooking their own meals during the winter camp and this is a skill that will be reinforced throughout the course, ultimately leading to the Outdoor Leadership students planning and preparing meals for the younger students as part of their duties next fall leading the grade trips.

Before bed on the first evening out, time is spent discussing how to sleep warm and how to put the camp to bed. Gear must be arranged and organized so that it can be easily found if it snows the next day. Before bed, the students prepare hot water bottles to put in their sleeping bags to help them sleep warm throughout the night.

Navigating in the Backcountry

The next day is spent taking a day tour up to a summit viewpoint where we have lunch and admire the view from our mountain setting. Students plan the route, and throughout the day individual students are asked to put their navigational skills to the test taking turns leading the group. Navigation is an important backcountry skill and the winter camp provides an opportunity to practise before they are put in a leadership role leading their peers later in the year.

On the way back to camp, students are presented with an avalanche rescue scenario that forces them to use the skills they have developed over the last four days. In the scenario, students are asked to find and recover two buried packs using the transceiver, probe and shovel techniques that were introduced on the training day.

The last morning of the trip is an alpine start and it represents the final challenge of the trip. The alpine start serves as a test of each student’s organization and teamwork. The students wake up before dawn and break camp by headlamp before setting off down the trail to meet the bus at 8:15 am at the trailhead. Watching the sun rise as they ski down the trail amid their final challenge is an added highlight for many of the students.

The winter trip provides the perfect platform to develop confidence in the outdoors as the harsh environment demands a solid skill base and a high level of personal organization. It serves as the perfect introduction to the camp skills and mindset required by a student as they progress through the course.

For many of the students in Outdoor Leadership, the winter camp represents a lasting memory of one of the greatest challenges in their course experience.

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Peter McLeod
Peter McLeod is Director of Outdoor Education at St. Michaels University School.

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