Nelson’s ATLAS program: ‘The mountain is the mentor’

ATLAS students learn wilderness survival and profound life lessons

ATLAS from Bill Metcalfe on Vimeo.



Around an evening campfire at Kokanee Creek Park, the 14 members of L.V. Rogers’ ATLAS program reflect on a challenging trip they’re just completing and on their semester in the group. They’re about to re-enter the real world of Nelson after canoeing for five days from Creston through multiple downpours and some challenging wind.

Their debrief is partly about the physical challenges, but mostly it’s more personal.

“When I’m with this group, I don’t have to worry about my life,” one girl says.

“Look how lucky we are, that we have 14 people we can be ourselves with,” says another.

They speak many other variations on this theme, and it’s charged with emotion: Before I came into this program I wasn’t sure who I was. I may have seemed OK but really I couldn’t connect. I was adrift. I was afraid I would not be able to figure out what direction to take in life. But now, after ATLAS I have another family. I know what community is. I can approach life with confidence. I have discovered the ability to be myself and have deep conversations.

These young people are not at-risk youth. They are mostly academic high achievers, athletes, artists.

ATLAS students around the campfire at Kokanee Creek. All photos by Bill Metcalfe.

In fact just to get into ATLAS in their last semester of Grade 12 they had to carefully plan, with the help of school counsellors, to have all their academic work for graduation done beforehand.

ATLAS stands for Adventure Tourism Leadership and Safety. Teacher Graeme Marshall founded it 10 years ago.

He has put this group of students through some very serious challenges in the past four months: three major multi-day trips rock climbing, backcountry skiing, and canoeing and dozens of one-day outings in all kinds of conditions, along with lots of academic work in things like emergency first aid and wilderness survival.

Grateful for the storm

They also study leadership. On their trips, individual students take turns being responsible for everything in the camps, on the slopes, on the rock face, and on the water.

“When you are in the bush and the teacher says, ‘Okay, you are going to lead us through this potential avalanche zone,’ I realize I have to make sure everyone is safe,” says student Sian Nielsen.

“You have to make sure everyone has their gear on properly and is paying attention.”

Marshall says they had one scary moment in the wind and rain on their Creston-Nelson trip on Kootenay Lake, but because of their leadership systems, a potentially dangerous situation worked out well. He’s grateful the storm came up because it gave them a chance to practice making group decisions under pressure.

Around the Kokanee Creek fire, when group members debrief how they had each done as leaders, they display a level of thoughtful, subtle, compassionate analysis that any adult group making decisions about the world could do well to emulate.

‘You can do more than you think

For many students the program is about breaking through self-imposed physical or mental limitations.

“You’re able to do more than you think you can,” Natasha Bergman says. “There are those fears that come into your head. But this program really shows you what you are capable of. After this program I will be comfortable going rock climbing or canoeing. It gives you the skills to feel capable in yourself. It drives you personally. It’s six months of pushing yourself in different ways and having your friends help you, working on different challenges every day. Day after day after day.”

Back row, from left: Jonah Thiele, Ava Strautman, Sian Nielsen, Jessica Treijs, Natasha Bergman, Liam Osak, Tucker Anderson, Kevin McBride, Joey Timmermans. Front row, from left: Ameilia Martzke, Angela Lacroix, Arianna Murphy-Steed, Kaelle Senechal-Taiatini, Haley Cook, Chace Gilbertson, volunteer guide Monica Nissen. Lying in front: teacher Graeme Marshall.

Marshall says that on the surface the program is about skills and techniques. That’s what this former Outward Bound instructor is into: hard skills, the techniques that give you a greater edge and more confidence as a skier, climber, or canoeist.

“But then you recognize that is the vehicle or the metaphor for something else, for interpersonal growth. It took me a while to figure out what’s going on there. I see it time and time again. It’s always different and always special. It’s magic. The mountain becomes the mentor.”

Ava Strautman (left) and Sian Nielsen

Marshall reels off a list of his criteria for success with an ATLAS group:

“When they unlock the secrets of technique.

“When you finish a canoe trip and they’ve paddled 120 kilometres and say ‘I could do that for another five days.’ They can go ski touring day after day and don’t want to stop. They’ve figured out the fitness part and the technique part.

“When they confidently say, ‘I can do this,’ whether it’s travelling safely as a group through the mountains or figuring out how to set up a good camp, and they don’t seem lost.

“When they can really lead themselves, and then they are ready, with the self discipline, fitness, and knowledge and skill to start leading others.”

‘Stoked instead of scared’

In interviews with the Star, the students’ comments range across the full spectrum of personal and physical.

Tucker Anderson: “In a normal classroom you have friends and acquaintances but to spend that much time with people is like having another family, so I’ve learned I want to spend more time valuing my connections with people.”

Ava Stautman: “You’re on the water and it’s pouring rain and all your things are damp and you just pray for your bed, but you’re having the time of your life and don’t know why.”

Chace Gilbertson: “The first couple months you don’t really know each other, and you’re trying to find out who you are and they are, weaknesses and strengths. That was the hard part. The mental challenge for me was harder than the actual physical challenge, and it’s more to overcome mentally than physically.”

Jessica Treijs: “It has made me so much more free. It has taken me out of the stress of ‘this is what you have to do with your life.’ It has made me feel very self reliant and really confident outdoors. That is more valuable to me than the past few years of high school have been. It has given me so many skills to move forward and feel ready and comfortable and stoked instead of scared.”

‘Life is going to get crazy’

Marshall says sometimes on a climbing trip they approach the summit in silence. On the last morning of this canoe trip, paddling into Nelson from Kokanee Creek, they do the last kilometre in silence.

They disembark from their canoes silently at Lakeside Park.

Marshall wants them to use the silence to think about what this trip meant to them, “because life is going to get crazy all of a sudden.” Meaning they’ll be out of the wilderness and out of the group, with media, traffic, family, jobs, plans, the world pulling them in every direction.

From left: Joey Timmermans, Jessica Treijs, Chace Gilbertson, Jonah Thiele

But, in the face of that craziness, they’ve got new internal resources they didn’t know they had.

“As a group we have the power to do a whole lot,” says student Arianna Murphy-Steed. “I didn’t believe as much in myself and others before starting this program.”

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