Written by Carol Newton
Hunched against the wind and snow flurries, I ducked into the Outdoor Education Center to the usual homey bustle of activity. Students filtered in and out of the various rooms, planning some trip or another or looking through gear catalogs. A meeting was happening in the other room, no doubt some incredible trip in the works.
Looking towards the whiteboard in the room, I was surprised, as usual, by the quantity of trips being planned: Level I Backcountry Training, Level II Climbing Course, Level II AIARE. Somehow, all of these trips and trainings are processed, posted on Summit, and regulated so that cautious parents can rest assured of their child’s safety. On this particular day, I was fortunate enough to meet the woman behind this incredible system: Rachael Abler, who greeted me with an inviting smile and firm handshake.
Originally from Michigan, Abler describes herself as a “major tomboy; always dirty, walking home from school, collecting sticks… climbing trees.” Her family loved to go camping and backpacking, creating positive memories that furthered her love of the outdoors.
In college, she got involved with the outdoor club at Michigan State. Originally set on teaching deaf students, she spent her undergraduate years studying deaf education but eventually realized that, while she loved teaching, the thought of lesson plans in math and writing were thoroughly unappealing.
However, her pursuits in education were not fruitless. After being given the opportunity to work with Base Camp Challenge Center, an experiential education facility, she realized that with her background in teaching and her love for the outdoors, she could find a perfect career in outdoor education. With the help of a fantastic mentor, she sought out different trainings and experiences, taking a WFR course and going on a NOLS trip.
With new motivation to apply her teaching experience to outdoor education, she got her Masters degree at the University of Illinois in recreation, sport, and tourism (something her family jokingly coined “a masters in vacation”).
Prior to arriving at CC, she participated in numerous opportunities involving outdoor education, including a four-month internship in Vail, Colo. in backcountry skiing and ice climbing, working at Avid4 Adventure as a lead climbing instructor, and working as the Outdoor Recreation Coordinator for 20 months at the Colorado School of Mines.
After spending the last six years of her life working towards her current position, Abler finally became the Outdoor Education Specialist here at CC in July of 2015.
“I have the best co-workers in the world,” says Abler. “Working at CC has definitely been the most enjoyable position I’ve ever worked in… I’m a for-lifer.”
The Outdoor Education Program has four professional staff. The hiring system in the Outdoor Education Office is to first find staff members with the right amount of passion, experience, and knowledge, before placing these candidates in positions where they can best serve the program.
Abler’s role as a specialist is especially fitting for her, because she must be open to all aspects of Outdoor Education and her experience with the outdoors gives her the flexibility to do so.
As such, Abler has many roles, including overseeing the gear house, the Bike Co-Op, CPR training, wilderness medicine, and AIARE courses. Her main role, however, is to oversee the Ahlberg Leadership Institute (ALI).
The ALI encompasses all trip leader trainings, including climbing, backcountry skiing, and water programs. Through this amazing program, the ORC ensures that trained leaders are consistently prepared to lead students of various skill levels, while at the same time keeping with the tradition of student-run trips. With over 200 trips a year, it is crucial to ensure that leaders are prepared.
While Rachael expounded on her love for the Ahlberg Gear House staff and the Bike Co-Op, she didn’t hesitate for a moment when explaining that interacting with students every day is her favorite part of the job. She loves the conversation and bustle of the after-lunch hours. The opportunity to be a mentor for others is exciting for her, as the mentors in her life have helped her get to where she is today.
Though Abler was hard-pressed to decide on a favorite outdoor memory, she recounted a funny and touching experience on a freshman orientation trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. Three days in, all of the students started saying “slick” and “slick city.” One of Abler’s most inspiring mentors, Jim, used to always say that. Shocked, she wondered aloud how they could have known the phrase used so often by her beloved mentor. Even more surprising was the students’ amused reply: “Rachael, you’ve been saying that like every other word for the past two days!”
Somehow, she had unknowingly picked up on her mentor’s lingo and repeated it without a thought. While it was immensely funny to hear the students repeating the phrase, it was also rewarding. Abler remarked that she wouldn’t be where she is now without Jim’s incredibly valuable mentorship, and passing along his little “Jim-isms” felt like honoring this amazing 72-year-old man.
Abler also provided some tips on how to maximize rewarding outdoor experiences:
Get involved as much as you can while you have excellent resources. In college, it’s easy to take your resources for granted, but with such easy access to gear and the fact that the Outdoor Education Program at CC is one of the top programs in the country, it’s important to appreciate and take advantage of the opportunity to get outside. Specifically, get involved with the ALI program!
Even if leading isn’t for you, participate in various outdoor trainings. Oftentimes, students are very skilled in their outdoor abilities, but it’s always a rewarding experience to hone your skills. If you don’t feel as skilled or want to try something new, now is the time to explore!
Ask questions of people with more experience! Talk to pro staff in the Outdoor Education Center or more experienced student leaders.
Latch onto someone you’re excited to get outdoors with and work on building skills together. Building a supportive community and gaining mentors makes learning and outdoorsmanship much more rewarding.
It’s easy to get excited in the outdoors and to get in a tight spot. Practice sound judgment and analyze whether the risk is worth the reward. If it is, and you’ve planned, feel squared away, and have technically and tactically prepared, go get ‘em and have fun!
Colorado College is lucky to have such a dedicated and passionate specialist in Outdoor Education.
Whether you’re looking to lead, to get more involved in the outdoors, or to simply have a great conversation with an inspiring mentor, Abler is always open to having a conversation that will leave you feeling more energized about the outdoors and about life than when you entered.
If you haven’t had the chance to meet Abler, drop by the Gear House; I guarantee it’ll be worth the walk. As she said: “the door’s open at all times… except, of course, when it’s locked.”