By Ken Gates

Over winter break, while televisions, smartphones and Facebook took the place of school for many young people, the REACH 2013 Cohort left the creature comforts of home and took on the Cone Peak Loop challenge in Big Sur, California.

On the map, Cone Peak Loop is about 26 miles, if you hike it perfectly. Add some false trails, backtracking, and other unexpected obstacles and you’ll find your mileage quickly ticking up to the 30-35 mile mark. Combine 5,000ft of elevation gain, steep trails, and 45-pound packs, and you’d better have a headlamp and feel confident in your navigation skills, because you’re getting into camp after dark each night. It is not a novice trail by anyone’s standard.


Over the past six months, each student built the skills needed for this experience throught the following REACH experiences:

  • A 25 day summer expedition in Colorado, where they were exposed to extended outdoor adventure, service projects,  and working within a  group.
  • Students completed an intensive four day wilderness advanced first aid course in August to build their confidence and experience working together as an entire cohort.
  • In September, students learned new skills related to communication, conflict resolution and leadership while competing in a “Skills Olympics.”
  • More recently, we arranged a Sunrise “Carpe Diem” Hike, where students shared poetry, talked about what they had been putting off in life, and woke up at 3:00 AM to summit a peak before the sun rose.
  • Expedition Prep: Students poured over maps, discussed qualities of a “Leader-of-the-Day,” and prepared their packs and food.

22 miles in, on the last night of the trip, each group sat around the campfire and considered one question: “What have you learned out here that you want to take with you into your life and into your future with REACH?”  As one might expect, students stared silently into the crackling and smoky fire for the first few seconds, reflecting on these past six months.


The answers that followed had little to do with technical skills and everything to do with their relationships with each other, nature, and the impact they want to make in their communities.

All students had hiked the same trails and participated in the same activities, but each answer was unique. Toward the end of the conversation, one student chimed in to say, “REACH has taught me not just what I want to do, but who I want to be.”

REACH does not exist to give students everything they want, but we always strive to give them what they need. To figure out who they want to be, students need new and different kinds of challenges. As they transition from outdoor experiences into the other core areas of REACH, such as post-secondary education and community involvement, we look forward to watching them choose how they will ultimately present themselves in the world.


Ken Gates is a Program Manager for the Orfalea Foundation REACH program.


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About Transition to Adulthood

REACH is an experiential education program for motivated high school students from California’s Santa Barbara County that prepares them to take control of their future. REACH (which stands for Resilience, Education, Adventure, Community and Health) works to prepare students for lives of purposeful action, continuous learning, and the courageous pursuit of opportunity. READ MORE

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