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September 2011 Issue
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Outdoor focus turns students into adults

Students learn how to use snow probes at Mt Hut. Photo: Niki Earnshaw

Niki Earnshaw reflects on a year teaching at Mt Hutt College Outdoor Pursuits Course

“But what happens if the candle goes out and we have no more matches?” Lucy asks.

“Guess we’ll be walking in the dark,” I reply.

One candle, two matches. That’s all. The agreed tactic is for one person to lead with the candle and everyone else to follow. The cave is stunning, the underground formations incredible. We make good time until one third of the way in, the dreaded moment strikes. With no more matches, the spray from a small waterfall hits the candle. We are reduced to darkness.

Now the real teamwork begins as we feel our way through the cave. Descriptions of where to put hands, when to duck and when to climb become help us through. When we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel a cheer fills the cave.

It’s 5am on a crisp Thursday morning in May, the snow from earlier in the week lingers, reminding us that winter is approaching. We sleepily drag ourselves from the comfort of our warm sleeping bags and climb out of our tents to greet the frosty morning. Hurriedly, we begin the climb to reach our goal: the peak of Mt Ollivier. Time is ticking. The sun won’t wait for us. The light from our head torches is our only guide through the boulder garden to the summit.

Our cold fingertips soon warm and as we reach the top, darkness remains throughout the valleys. Our efforts are soon rewarded as the morning sun peaks its head over the Burnett Mountains. To the north, Aoraki/Mt Cook towers and below us the Tasman Valley is filled with inversion cloud. It is truly breathtaking. The 16 teenagers sitting beside me are speechless.

It’s now six months later in November. Pulling on our tramping boots and packs, we leave Christopher Hut on the St James Walkway and head straight up. Hauling ourselves up tree roots and steep slopes, the students supported, encouraged and helped each other to reach the top. 1000 vertical metres later, slogging through knee deep snow, our bellies rumbling we stopped for lunch.

The 360 degree panorama surrounding us couldn’t have been more perfect. On tired legs but in high spirits we push on and drop down to the Henry River.

Early the next morning we are met with a resupply of food, more gear, rafts and guides. The next three days are filled with stunning gorges, white water rapids, campfire cooking, laughter and personal development sessions under the stars as we raft our way out to Hanmer Springs.

A field trip to Sealy Tarns in the middle of winter. Photo: Niki Earnshaw

These three tales are just the tip of the iceberg from a year spent living, breathing and being a part of Mount Hutt College OPC. Each year, a bunch of enthusiastic, motivated and driven Year 12 and 13 students come to Methven to experience life like they never have before. Most people haven’t heard of the Outdoor Pursuits Course at Mt Hutt College, even though it’s now in its 15th year.

To tell the truth, neither had I until I applied for the job in 2009.

It had always been my dream to live in the South Island and teach kids using the great outdoors as a medium to not only show the kids what an incredible backyard we have, but to use it to help them grow and develop.

Every weekend throughout the year we head outside – white water kayaking, abseiling, rock climbing, surfing, skiing, snowboarding, bouldering, tramping, rafting, snow caving and learning wilderness first aid and mountain awareness.

During the week, the students study the usual school curriculum. But just in case being a full time student and taking part in OPC wasn’t enough of a challenge, they all live together in a supervised flatting situation, cooking, cleaning and doing all their own washing.

As the manager of the course, my role includes everything from mother, father, mentor, instructor and facilitator all rolled into one. My co-worker Joe and I are responsible for most of what happens on the course – we are the ones living with the kids at the lodge, we teach them to cook, budget and clean, we stand beside the students on top of the mountain, belay them at the bottom of a climb, shred the mountain with them and paddle with them through stunning gorges.

I come from a teaching background but I know that my heart will always lie in using the outdoors as a medium for teaching. When you use New Zealand’s playground as a place to learn and grow, you’ll achieve so much more than in a classroom.

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the growth and development of the students throughout the year. Whether they are throwing their first 360 on skis or about to do the leap of faith on a high ropes course, everyone is challenged in their own way. I really believe this course is a life changer and without a doubt, the most incredible, inspiring and challenging way to live a year as a student.

Not only do the kids who pass through Mt Hutt OPC have an absolute blast but they finish the course and leave as young adults, ready to charge ahead into life beyond secondary school. They have dreams that will take them into their futures and the tools to make those dreams a reality.

I find myself constantly inspired by the students. Seeing their hopes and aspirations come to fruition as they challenge themselves, step outside their comfort zones and really live life is incredible.

– Niki Earnshaw