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FEB. 17, 2014

SWA (Struggling with Acronyms)

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Question: What’s the difference between a snow fort and a snow shelter?

Answer: Depends on how much fun you’re having!

As with any field that benefits from the attention of specialist professionals, outdoor adventure and education suffers from the burden of jargon. Is that kid over there scrambling up some rocks? Actually, she is bouldering, and those rocks are rated V-5. You think that’s a whirlpool? Actually, it’s a hydraulic, and it makes this waterfall a Class IV rapid. Much of our jargon is imported from other fields: you might call that a blood pressure cuff—actually, it’s a sphygmomanometer. And the stuff you know after a class on fire building?  Desired outcomes!

Even more overbearing is our dependence on TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms). Paddlers asses risk by thinking about WORMS (Water, Obstructions, Route, Moves, Strainers). Climbers build anchors that are SERENE (Simple Equalized Non-Extending Efficient). Students might VOMP (Vent, Own, eMpathize, Plan) to resolve a conflict because when they were HALTing (Hungry, Angry, Late, Tired) on a backpacking trip, the LOD (Leader Of the Day) didn’t LAV (Listen, Affirm, Validate) critical feedback. Somehow, I’ve gotten to the point where I keep a straight face if another instructor tells me, “Jimmy sprained his ankle. His OPQURST’s are manageable.”

How can this be, when so much of the experience we offer depends on simplicity? We go to the woods to strip things down to what really matters. We go out to commune with our truest selves. We go out to build communities free of social judgment and distorted communication. We go out and teach simple skills: staying warm, climbing on top of things, walking for a long time. Yet, so many of these skills are entrenched in technical language that bewilders outsiders and bores students.


With that in mind, we headed out into the woods this weekend to play in the woods. Yes, we had a Leader Of the Day and designated Gearage (like a garage for gear), and we hoofed out our 10lb med kids and tomes of wilderness medicine knowledge. But for our students’ sakes, we let them play. We built fires and snow forts and made ash cakes and ate them, ash and all. We played with frog eggs. We threw snowballs. We tracked animals through the woods. We pretended to be animals, and remembered that we are animals. The snow fort was a huge success, and many of our students used it for shelter, staying warm through the night despite lows in the twenties. Yes, we met our desired outcomes—and we remembered that no matter what you call it, adventuring in the woods is fun.

Felix Dowsley
Head Resident