By Polly Keary, Editor
Kids raised in the city don’t see a lot of glaciers, whitewater rapids, or soaring granite cliffs surrounded by deep forest.
But glaciers, rivers and rocks can teach those urban kids many valuable lessons, said Ray Sayah of the Monroe Fire Department.
So the firefighter, who has been a mountaineer for many years, now volunteers his time with the Cascade Leadership Challenge, providing greater Seattle-area kids with opportunities to experience nature through activities such as mountain climbing, whitewater rafting and rock climbing.
“What we are working on is teaching city-bound kids a new way of living,” said Sayah.
The Cascade Leadership Challenge was formed about five years ago with the goal of helping young people find their place in the world through experiencing it.
“By working with others and learning experientially though responsible outdoor adventure, our members become better people and gain valuable life skills,” they explain on the organization’s website.
Teens aged 14-20 do more than go on outdoor adventures, though. They plan the adventures. There are two kinds of adult assistant to help them do it; Movers, who serve as expedition leaders, and Shakers, who serve as mentors, assistants and supervisors.
The adults try to stay mostly in the background, letting the young people plan and lead the expeditions themselves.
Ray Sayah is a Mover. He has been an avid mountaineer for a long time, and about three years ago, a friend recruited him to the Cascade Leadership Institute. Since then, Sayah has become first a board member of the organization, and then president of the board.
Last year alone, he led kids on three climbs of Mount Rainier and one climb of Mt. Baker, all of which were successful.
There are about 80-100 kids who participate in the year-round adventures. There is at least one adventure per month, and in the summer, they may be weekly.
Kids have whitewater rafted a half dozen Washington rivers, climbed six Pacific Rim mountains, most of which are volcanoes, have rock-climbed, backpacked and hiked throughout the region, kayaked, sailed and scuba dove, and even traveled simply to explore other cities.
One popular urban adventure is “hipster hunting,” in which teens go to Portland and play a sort of bingo in which they compete to spot examples of “hipsters” with various characteristics.
During the school year, most of the adventures are closer to home, and involve learning the skills they will need for the big excursions of the summer.
Not only do kids plan and lead the expeditions with the help and guidance of experienced guides like Sayah, they also plan meals and transportation, learning to manage a budget as they buy and prepare their own food.
“They have to learn about dealing well with each other, they have to tent together, their clothes can’t get wet because they can’t just go throw them in the dryer,” said Sayah. “They learn planning and conflict resolution, and they have to be okay without their technology. There’s not music out there other than what they make.”
Kids also learn important values and practices, such as leave-no-trace camping skills, first aid, and safety.
But while the experience is priceless, kids don’t have to come up with a lot of money to participate. Dues are just $20 a year, and all share the cost of expeditions.
“We get some grants and donations so we can reduce the cost of a lot of things,” said Sayah. “A trip to Mt. Rainier might be several hundred dollars but a rafting trip might be $100 for a week.”
Sayah said that seeing urban kids learn a new appreciation for their world, and a new confidence that comes from learning to take care of themselves in that world, is very gratifying.
“I think it’s fun watching the transformation of kids who don’t care very much about what we think they should care about to kids who are more thoughtful and have fun doing simpler things,” he said. “They have fun paddling or climbing. I like to see that transition, from city life to wilderness and adventure. It’s kind of cool.”
The organization will take on larger challenges than ever before in the coming months.
They will climb Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest peak.
And the members and volunteers will over the next two years raise money and prepare to travel to Nepal to establish a mountain guide training center to be called the Sherpa Mountain Guide Academy.
March 1, there will be a benefit auction at Woodland Park Zoo to raise money for both projects. The Denali climb will not only challenge the young climbers, many of whom have climbed other mountains with the Cascade Leadership Challenge, it will help them draw attention to the Nepal project.
Then in late 2014, youth and adults will travel to Nepal to begin setting up the academy, which will help aspiring Sherpa youth to become mountain climbing guides.
The goal is to help Nepalese natives break the near-monopoly that Westerners have on the mountaineering industry in the Himalaya.
Not only will Cascade Leadership Challenge members build the academy, they also hope to construct a common house in the community of Sibuje in Nepal, where they can install a school and medical clinic.
The project dovetails nicely with the Cascade Leadership Challenge’s goal of empowering teenagers.
“It creates connections between American and Sherpa teenagers, who have yet to realize their potential as highly-skilled outdoor leaders,” the organization said on its website.
But before any of that gets underway, there will be more fun local adventures for kids.
Later in the year, there will be guide training for Seattle-area kids who eventually might become outdoor adventure guides.
And soon the kids will head to the Mount Rainier area of Paradise, where they will build igloos.
Any kid interested in doing things with the Cascade Leadership Challenge can visit the website at cascadechallenge.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.