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Educating the Next Generation in Adventure – Leo Houlding

Why should all children experience adventure? For the sake of humanity

Leo Houlding puts his money where his mouth is.  A world renowned climber and explorer, he sees no barriers to bringing his own young children on some pretty wild adventures.

Making a career from jaw dropping expeditions to the heights of El Capitan or Everest, and everywhere from the Amazon to Antarctica, it’s inevitable that his love of the wild would be shared with his family – and, through his work as a trustee of Outward Bound, with as many other young people as possible.

Yet hearing first hand the astonishing ability of his own ten year old daughter and seven year old son to scale mountains and weather storms will open your own mind to new possibilities.  Leo shares his version of “what we did last summer” at the Summit this year – be prepared to be inspired.

“We were 2600m high, on the summit of a mountain called Peña Santa in Northern Spain when a violent electrical storm swept in….

…it’s not a situation you’d choose to be in with any climbing partner, let alone my wife and kids.  But it wasn’t forecast – and for the past two days we’d been up in the foothills with no phone signal, so here we were.  It was quite astonishing – like nothing I’ve ever seen.  

Our hair was literally standing on end and you could feel the electrical charge in the air.  I didn’t hang around – no time for summit photos or a sip of water – I sent the family abseiling down immediately whilst I quickly tidied up our gear and joined them on a ledge just below the peak.  Sheltering here overnight, still on the rock face, in our tiny tent literally in the middle of a storm was scary but exhilarating. 

Yet small things still strike me.  My youngest slept through the thunder, which sounded like bombs going off around us.  And the next day, despite a 13 hour trek down which resulted in heat exhaustion on my part, he was still running around, picking up sticks well into the evening.

Children have far more strength and resilience than we give them credit for.  They’re often much fitter than adults and journeys like this which would be beyond most people, they take in their stride.

I think in the UK we’ve become particularly risk-averse and urbanised.

And that’s a danger for society.  Our culture blames others for every risk or accident yet it’s vital we arm our young people to own and learn by their mistakes.  By outsourcing the responsibilities of life to others, we are growing a generation who will be completely unprepared to manage risk and take responsibility for themselves.

I think the antidote to this is adventure. By that, I don’t mean expensive, extravagant trips abroad – I just mean time in the great outdoors.  In an environment where things aren’t prescribed and sterilised, and something as simple as the weather can turn a situation on its head. These are the experiences that teach us the life lessons we need.  And often the benefit isn’t always in the moment – it’s a formative lesson which leads to long term agility and resilience.

The link between adventure and environment needs to be recognised by policymakers.

The brutal truth is that if you don’t spend time inhabiting the wilds, witnessing the beauty of our planet, you simply don’t appreciate it.  In this country I feel we are increasingly disconnected from the outdoors and although the messaging around climate change is finally coming across loud and clear, there are still millions of people who don’t relate to the outside world on a personal level.

I believe it should be government policy for all schoolchildren to spend at least one week a year experiencing outdoor adventure  – something the governments of Wales and Scotland are close to doing.

This gives a whole generation an appreciation of the great outdoors, even those not lucky enough to grow up in the countryside as I did.  The thing is, people say it’s hard for more deprived urban communities to access good outdoor space, but I think it’s city life that’s expensive.  Yes, you may need to find funds to travel to rural areas, but once you’re there, and equipped with the knowledge of how to look after yourself, the rest of the adventure costs nothing: there’s no need to pay for accommodation, or buy restaurant food – and paddling in that lake, or wandering the forest is free.

As a result, I’m a strong proponent of the right to roam, and believe open access to land, and to wild camping encourages its stewardship. Showing climate change through documentation is important but it needs to become real – we must all step out into the real world and engage with our landscapes.

This generation has a better understanding of the climate emergency than any other.

Since I was at school, climate change has gone from a theory to a visible reality.  Our children are seeing extreme weather events and climate records set every year – it’s now an accepted fact that human actions are resulting in damage to our planet.

This means they already have a greater awareness that previous generations didn’t have, but by going to wild places, it’s possible to see even more clearly the contrast between populated areas and the undeveloped, unspoilt world. It gives a positive insight into how people can exist peacefully within landscapes.

It’s hard not to hear a deafening message from the planet when you are alone at its extremes…

…and I wish those with the power to make change could hear it too.  I’d love to take policy makers on a serious expedition to help them see and experience wilderness up close. Our world is a finite resource and any idea of profit over protection of the planet is simply crazy – and we should have realised that by now.  The timeframe we have is becoming extremely short, yet change is too slow.  There’s a lot of talk and a lot of hyperbole but I don’t see much action – big business is profiting more than ever before from resource exploitation.  The divergence between words and action is madness. On our current trajectory we’re tipping the balance on our endless skies and endless horizons – and it’s not in our favour.”

You can hear Leo’s talk ‘Adventure in the 21st Century’ on the Forum Stage at Blue Earth Summit on October 11.


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