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Just Bouldering and Books

 Just Bouldering and Books

by Jim Eagen

August 06, 2002

Photos by Jim Eagen

Learning the ropes at Turtle Rock Institute's Base Camp means leaving them behind

DAY I-2 Base Camp to Camp #1 - Finally after a two day hike up to the Base Camp my Partners Tyler Sakai, and Teddy Barger and I could rest our sore legs. The base camp was pitiful, all there was were a few canvas tents and some old men sitting and drinking deeply from tankards. Slowly I approached the old men. "Do you think we should camp here or start now?" "The Mountain hides many secrets," said the old man in a cackle.

Want to know what's next? You will have to ask Trevor, one of the students at Turtle Rock Institute held this summer at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, CA about 2 minutes from downtown San Francisco. For one week this summer Trevor and nineteen other middle school students from around the Bay Area took part in the course Base Camp, learning the history of alpine climbing through mountaineering literature and lore as well as spending some mornings placing foot holds on Turtle Rock's 80 foot lap traverse.

Base Camp came out of the idea that students would find more excitement in their writing if they were able to have adventurous experiences of their own. As a high school and middle school English teacher, I always had a few students who would refuse to write, usually because they felt they were not any good at it. Their self-esteem was lacking and when asked to write about a situation from their own life that was intense or fulfilling, they always mumbled that they had none worth writing about.

Marin Country Dayís Base Camp students and teacher Eager to give them a charge and more importantly an opportunity to succeed on their own terms, I started a rock-climbing club, taking kids to indoor gyms as well as to bouldering spots in Manhattanís Central Park. Those bored and disenchanted kids were suddenly pumped to be out having fun and doing something intense and demanding. I saw them come alive outside of the walled confines of a classroom, yet when we returned to school, I still needed to teach them how to structure an essay. Therefore, I changed up the assignments, replacing mundane classics from the Western Canon like "My Antonia" with newer coming of age stories like Krakauerís "Devilís Thumb." We also began to write about the climbing sessions we had, as fodder for our more academic work. Students who refused to write more than a few bland sentences were now coming in after school to get help on their stories. And the stories were good, very good. It was that simple, and therefore the class was born.

This summer, half the day the students focused solely on mountain literature and the construction of a short essay. Half the course time was spent in the classroom, reading, writing and discussing life in the mountains. Short works by Jon Krakauer, as well as a classic climbing story titled "Banner in the Sky" by James Ramsey Ullman were read and dissected. Poems about the weather by Carl Sandburg, websites on Everest and topo maps showing trail systems in Marin were also used. Students were taught to keep things minimal and to the point in their writing, looking at the style of Ernest Hemingway in some of his Nick Adamís stories: tales that depicted Nick, a young man not much older than the students, on the road and in the wild, self-sufficient and independently adventurous.

Marin Country Dayís Base Camp student spending some time on the rock When the kids were not writing and reading, it was time to climb, and the schoolís location could not have been more perfect. Marin Country Day Schoolís campus is at the bottom of the Ring Mountain Preserve, a grassy, exposed slope with numerous rock outcroppings linked by a series of trails and fire roads. At the top sits the enormous boulder Turtle Rock, aptly named for its shape. With the city of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands to the South, and Mt. Tam and Napa Valley visible to the North, it is a visually spectacular spot. It normally attracts day hikers armed with lumbar packs and dogs, but for those boulderers in the know itís a rock sanctuary. No crowds, incredible views, and a wealth of problems, all with soft as cotton prime landings, make it a perfect place to learn how to torch your fingers as well as discover the beauty in the balance of bouldering among miles of trail and trees.

Here the students followed the minimalist ethos as well. Making sure to bring little to the rock and leave nothing behind, the students adhered to the guidelines many climbers follow when on the trail. All had water and food, their shoes, and a notebook. When climbing, emphasis was made on keeping things simple and using one's head as much as one's hands. At times some kids got frustrated, choosing to scramble to the top and write in their journals, complaining they were too short for a particular lunge or too sore for another crimp. Others worked hard on solving problems and completing moves that only days earlier seemed impossible. The goal wasnít to make each kid the new Chris Sharma, but rather to give them a real experience outside, in the elements so they could use it as traction when they got back to writing in the classroom. The students, coming from all over the Bay Area, were 10 to 12 years old, and many had never been climbing on real rock. This Students studying and writing about mountaineering literature was an opportunity to shy didnít need to go to Yosemite to climb, and that tons of gear wasnít necessary either; there are plenty of cool places right under their noses, and they needed little more than an imagination, shoes and curiosity to find them.

By week's end, the students had completed a full-length essay on their exploits and they also got a chance to climb outside in an area they had never known existed. More importantly, they learned what it meant to think things through before acting, both when writing an essay or beginning a bouldering sequence. A plan is always important to help make ones goals attainable, no matter if the task is big or small. In that sense Turtle Rockís Base Camp gave them more than just a fun summer experience. It taught them skills that students take with them to use whenever they need to, whether on the rock, in the classroom, or in the world beyond.

The bigger the mountain the taller the tale: Here are four stories written by Base Camp students at the Turtle Rock Institute. Using what they learned in class about mountaineering, mountain weather, climbing history, geography as well as from their own experiences on rock, the middle school students were asked to write a fictional essay about a great climb they had undertaken. As you will see, a large imagination also helped.

Jim Eagen is a freelance writer and educator who splits his time between San Francisco, CA and Ithaca, NY. Though he is more likely to be found scaling playground monkey bars with his one year old son Ben leading, he has also been know to climb rock and ice. An avid traveler and mountaineer, Jim has climbed peaks in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador as well as in the Rockies and the Adirondacks. His latest book "First People: The Aymara of South America" is due for release sometime this fall. And most importantly he is married to a beautiful woman named Ellen who only said "I do" in order to get closer to his loyal pooch and partner at the crag, Cole.

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