AS A teenager, I had a very low boredom threshold, so it was something of an ill-judged decision by an Outward Bound instructor to anchor me to a tree to act as one of the safety men for my fellow rock climbers.
Sitting atop the cliff-face enduring mountain sport ennui, my task was to take up the slack on the safety rope attached to whoever was scaling the crag. Thanks to my sterling efforts, climbers who slipped only fell a few feet before the rope yanked them, saving them from certain death.
However, an unfortunate incident occurred when, distracted by a safety colleague’s comments on the attractiveness of the kitchen staff, I inadvertently forgot to reel in the surplus cable. In perfect storm circumstances, the German student on the end of the rope clumsily lost his footing and made a rapid free-fall descent. He had expected to only fall a yard or so, but due to my inattentiveness the panic-stricken Bavarian spiralled 20ft or more, letting out a blood-curdling scream just before the rope suddenly became welcomingly taut.
Fifteen minutes later, I saw his quivering fingertips appear at the edge of the precipice and then his tear-stained, red face. Reading his body language, it was clear that he was in no mood to thank me for my part in what had been a character-building experience for him; that I burst out laughing did little to help sooth UK-German relations.
Back then, it was thought that Outward Bound courses instilled moral fibre in young people. Today, there is doubt in psychological circles that outdoor pursuits such as abseiling, rock climbing and canoeing have any influence in shaping an individual’s character. Instead, there is talk of youngsters learning a new attitude of “I’ll give it a go” rather than “I can’t do it”. The have-a-go hero way of thinking is described as a growth mind-set, the negative outlook being termed a fixed mind-set.
Research has found that some youths consider skills and ability to be innate and do not stretch themselves, a “feel the fear and tremble uncontrollably” approach to life’s challenges. However, other teenagers believe that practice and hard work can make up for a lack of raw talent and they regard failure as part of a learning process, a springboard to ultimate success.
Hopefully, the youngsters participating in the Loch Eil Outward Bound courses will maintain the can-do mentality when they return to their schools and neighbourhoods. To date, the growth mind-set work of the Fort William centre has not been evaluated but, from my own experience, I expect the impact of being placed in perplexing situations will stand them in good stead.
When I was there in 1973, the companions I bunked with chose me as their leader. I’d like to think they recognised my charismatic qualities, but the sad reality is that my rise to greatness was probably due to my scary ginger beard. Alas, the deranged Old Testament prophet look failed to quell a mutiny when some under my rule refused a direct order to carry certain supplies in their rucksacks. “Carry them yersel,” barked the ringleader of this outrageous sedition, which, to avoid being unpopular, I duly did. Now laden with twice the weight most others had on their backs, I not so much yomped as staggered across Rannoch Moor. Falling to my knees on reaching the first camp site half an hour behind the rest of the troupe, I begged to be relieved of my command. Disappointingly, my lads would not hear of it.
My Outward Bound course showed me the value of utilising one’s initiative. For example, on being introduced to orienteering via a five-minute lesson on how to use a Woolworth plastic compass, my band of brothers and I were scattered in various locations within a large forest. Armed with a map, we were each supposed to find hidden markers and return to base. On soon discovering that my map reading skills were non-existent, I opted to conceal myself in bushes and clandestinely watch those who could understand the mysterious link between latitude, longitude and compass degrees.
My instructor was mightily pleased when I returned with my completed card, but was slightly discomfited by the howls of protest from losers who suspected foul play, my discarded compass found in the undergrowth being Exhibit A.
In my opinion, we should rope in more youngsters to the concept of a growth mind-set.