Almost everyone you talk to about Outward Bound describes it as life-changing. And it is – it’s one of those watershed, monumental moments in life where nothing after is quite the same as before. The closest experience I can liken it to is birth – and, in fact, I did that quite often while I was there. Whenever we made it down a mountain or across an ocean and someone asked how I felt about what my body had just done, I’d joke “well, at least it wasn’t giving birth”. It frequently felt pretty close though.
Both experiences break your life cleanly into before and after. Both involve being overwhelmed and then astounded by what your body can do when put under grinding and inescapable pressure. Both involve finding a new relationship to pain.
In bringing a person into the world, as in climbing a mountain, you just have to keep going, and going, and going, no matter how much it hurts. And the more tired you get, the harder you need to work, because there’s no service exit with a vehicle waiting to carry you home if you want to quit. Once you’ve started, you’ve committed. You’re going all the way up that mountain, and then all the way down the other side, because there’s no way out except all the way through. And your body does it because it literally has no choice. Even if you think you can’t do it. Even when you’re sure you can’t do it.
And then, all of a sudden, you have. You’re out the other side. The task you thought you couldn’t do is done – and not only that, but you find you can still keep going after that, too. Spending 48 hours in labour and then being handed a sleepless baby to look after is great practice, it turns out, for running your first half marathon (on trail, no less) and then being handed a long list of chores and realising you’re still not going to get to sit down for hours.
The change in who you are is obviously not as clear as “not a parent” to “parent”. You’re still you. You return to the same house and family and job and life. But you know things about yourself now. You know your own power. You’ve climbed mountains and battled kraken and faced demons both real and imagined. You’ve spent days alone in the forest, hissing at possums and eating apple cores. You’ve been separated from your phone for weeks and realised that your entire soul felt quieter and more connected without it. You’ve walked in forests that have never known people. You’ve sung to dolphins. You’ve jumped into fog-licked oceans at sunrise, and slept inside clouds on a bed of ancient moss.
You’ve touched magic, and by touching it you’ve become a little bit magic too.
I went into Outward Bound with some naive assumptions. I assumed, naively, that Outward Bound was for people who wanted to challenge themselves by trying outdoor activities that they’d never get to do in their normal lives. And maybe that’s true for the younger cohorts. It was definitely true for me.
But the rest of my masters course hadn’t got the memo. Our “watch” of 14 (Huriwhenua 702, toowit toowoo!) consisted of several casual marathoners, an ex-army arborist, adventure seekers, extreme sportsers, a boxing instructor, a premier netballer, and an honest-to-god outdoor guide. These people had not come to play.
I, on the other hand, arrived fresh from surburbia as a 40-year-old mother of two whose outdoor experience in the last 10 years has consisted mainly of dog walks and school pick-up. I had prepared myself by doing a handful of 3k runs, trotting up Pap Hills a couple of times to “break in” my boots (spoiler: I did not) and borrowing some thermals off my mum, who has not been outside by choice since 1987.
I realised I was in trouble on day two, when our instructors announced that our first activity would be rock climbing, and more than one member of the group promptly asked if they could use their own gear.
An Outward Bound course is designed to push every member of a watch to their limits, mentally and physically. It won’t break you, but you’ll definitely find the limits of your flex. I don’t know if any of our plans would have been different if we’d had a less-able group, but I know the first week was really, really hard for me. I felt like I was dying when everyone else was thriving. The second day of our first overnight tramp was one of the harder days of my life. I cried my way down a mountain, beset by aches and blisters and the certain, horrible knowledge that I absolutely couldn’t keep going but I also had no other choice.
But somehow I did keep going. My body kept moving. My new friends carried my gear and held my hands and hauled me up and bandaged my aching feet and told me jokes and with their help I made it all the way down that mountain to eat the most enormous and delicious pasta dinner of my life. By the second (longer, harder) multi-day tramp, I’d learned two new things: my body could, and would, keep going for as long as I needed it to; and that good company can make anything not only bearable, but – dare I say it – fun.
That’s the thing about Outward Bound – it’s as much about people as it is about nature. The people who find the physical challenges easier are often pushed to their limits by working as a team in around-the-clock immediate proximity with 13 others. I feel like I hit the jackpot with our watch – but also, I think that nothing bonds a group of people faster than being isolated and exhausted together (except maybe having to shit in the same bucket). The in-jokes and dad jokes fly thick and fast, and within a matter of days it feels like you’ve developed your own language. It’s been a long, long time since I laughed so hard or so often.
Which, in the end, was the biggest lesson I learned. My body can do hard things – but they’re easier when they’re done with friends. Real, true, in-person, human-to-human connection is fundamental.
Other things I learned:
- Don’t be scared of cold water.
- You are much, much stronger than you think.
- There is absolutely no reason for anyone to climb a mountain – but sometimes it’s worth doing anyway.
- Sing and dance more often. Enthusiasm counts way more than skill.
- The secret to running long distances is to start running and then don’t stop.
- The only song that everyone between 25 and 55 knows all the words to is Bohemian Rhapsody.
- If you have hot food and hot water and a warm bed you are infinitely blessed.
- Your standards can always be lower.