A student rappels into rushing water during a trip with the Adventure Leadership Institute. Basic skills are practiced inside Oregon State facilities before they are put to the test in the elements.

During the summer you can find a dedicated group of climbers pulling on plastic holds with battered fingertips and scaling the walls at Dixon Recreation Center’s climbing center. The small space is blazing from the combined body heat of the climbers. Sweat drips from concentrated brows, chalk dust fills the stuff air, and Josh Norris looks around and says, “This isn’t really the point.”

“We’re not just interested in creating amazing climbers,” Norris, the director of Oregon State’s Adventure Leadership Institute, continues.

But he stumbles over his words a bit and backtracks.

“Well, we are. Most of us love doing that. But we see the application being across all walks of life. We’re not training people to go out and be guides. We want to make teachers better teachers; doctors better doctors and engineers better engineers.”

The majors Norris listed are popular for ALI students who participate in certificate program which offers courses in backcountry leadership, technical rock climbing, mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, canyoneering and more. But Norris himself? He started out a guide…

The Houston native worked at his local climbing gym and started his own guiding company after high school. He took hiking, climbing and river trips with clients around the Western U.S. and Mexico until he found himself drawn to education. Norris enrolled in classes he felt would specifically apply to his life: classes about leadership and communication mostly.

And then, he taught.

“I taught an interdisciplinary, outdoor education course at a community college in Austin,” Norris explains. “A group of teachers would go into the field with students for two or three weeks at a time and we would teach science and creative writing and whitewater canoeing all together.”

From there Norris was hired to start an outdoor education program at the University of Missisippi, and after following his wife on an optometry fellowship to Oregon, ended up here at Oregon State.


Norris found it easy to dive into a position at Oregon State because of its illustrious history of outdoor recreation and leadership. This year Norris and the rest of ALI celebrated the 50th anniversary of Willi Unsoeld’s historic climb of Mt. Everest.

Unsoeld founded the Oregon State Mountain Club while studying at what was then Oregon State College. Unsoeld went on to receive degrees from the University of California and Washington University. He returned to Oregon State as a religion department faculty member. However, his employment at Oregon State was interrupted by an opportunity to serve in Nepal as part of the Peace Corps as well as the opportunity to climb Everest.

With friend and partner Tom Hornbein, Unsoeld became the first American a to climb Mt. Everest via the West Ridge, and the first person to completely traverse the mountain. More people have been on the moon than on the west ridge of Mt. Everest.

Norris thinks Unsoeld would be proud of how far the program has come and what it stands for today.

“In his position as a philosopher here, Willi had a lot of things to say about the ultimate purpose of climbing,” Norris says. “He called it sacred. That’s what we believe too.”

Norris says the focus of ALI is to teach life lessons and provide students with transformative experiences in the outdoors. “When we do these outdoor activities we can’t ignore the fact that some kind of group interaction is going on,” Norris says. “People have influence over the situation and the outcome. We want our students to be successful out there.”

Unfortunately, Willi Unsoeld’s final climb of Mt. Rainier was not successful. He died in 1979 during an avalanche while guiding students from Evergreen State College. His son Krag remembers his father referring to his ascent of Everest as an “alabatross.”

“If you climb Everest, that’s all people are going to remember you for,” Krag Unsoeld says. “He didn’t want to just be somebody who had climbed Mt. Everest. He first and foremost wanted to be an educator.”

Willi Unsoeld was a pioneer of outdoor education and a leader in the field. Some even called him the “Father of experimental education.” He worked to help establish the Outward Bound program, which aims to grow its participants personally and socially through challenging outdoor expeditions. Krag Unsoeld said his father believed people are only prevented from being successful because of the barriers they set for themselves.

“Outward Bound helps people break through those barriers,” says Krag Unsoeld, who works for a similar program in Olympia, Washington.

The anniversary of Willi Unsoeld’s historic climb was celebrated by ALI this spring with an open house informational session about Willi Unsoeld himself and the history of the outdoors at Oregon State. “I think Willi would be proud of what we’re doing here,” Norris says.

“...It doesn't matter what it is, you have to have something to fight. Doesn't have to be a mountain, but it has to be something. And it isn't important whether you win or lose. Only that you keep fighting.”

-Willi Unsoeld

ALI certificate students learn to navigate mountains, rivers and canyons throughout their education. Norris says these skills and the ability to work together makes them strong future leaders.


Norris says every day in his job is different – an adventure. Sometimes he’s out leading trips with students. Sometimes he’s in the classroom, and sometimes he’s stuck in his office surrounded by binders full of paperwork. His favorite binders contain pages of written testimonials from students about their ALI experiences.

They say things like, “[Backcountry leadership] class was really stressful, time consuming and tiring, but I totally see its value, and I’m grateful for it”; “ALI has been an incredibly learning experience for me. I learned various skills but also understanding and teaching. This has been an inspirational opportunity that has helped me develop skills like decision-making, teaching, learning and group discussion.” and “Nothing is more real-life learning than this program.”

Norris says many ALI students pursue graduate school in subjects like engineering and medicine, but ALI involves students from a wide variety of academic areas.

One student, Ben Church says ALI completely changed his life.

“I didn’t do much outside before I came to Oregon State,” Church says. “I was very much an indoor person.”

Now, just several years later Church is guiding river trips and rock climbing as much as possible. He teaches ALI kayaking classes and works as a student manager at the climbing centers. A sports science major, Church will graduate from Oregon State next spring. He hopes to continue doing what he loves.

“Helping teach and helping people learn,” Church says. “I think one of the best ways to do that is through adventure. Teach outdoor skills and the skills that go along with that: leadership and communication. I would like to continue in this field.”

Recently, Church and fellow ALI student, Dalton Bixby guided a trip for researchers in the water resources program, part of the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. Caroline Nash, a first year PhD candidate in the program noticed that many of the students doing fieldwork didn’t have basic safety knowledge.

“We go out into these really remote locations in the Cascades. We’re dealing with headwater streams, and a lot of our people don’t really have experience with self-rescue and training.”

ALI can help with all kinds of outdoor access and safety issues for Oregon State researchers in the field, and Nash reached out and got connected with Church and Bixby who developed a curriculum specific to the researchers needs.

Senior Faculty Research Assistant Sarah Lewis participated in the training and was impressed with the level of knowledge of her guides and the experience itself.

“We talked about safety before we did anything,” Lewis says. “They took us through a series of exercises and got us more comfortable with being in the water.”

Nash and Lewis agree they will be safer and smarter during their field research after their training and hope to make the one-day course a requirement for undergraduates.

“The group was really fun,” Church says. “Not everyone we work with is as invested. They really wanted to learn and have a good time. It went really well.”

Norris says ALI has been used as a recruiting tool in the past. Many new students are excited about the certificate program and the outdoor recreation Oregon State has to offer. ALI’s partnership with academic departments is also a draw.

“Working together makes everyone better,” Church points out.

But Norris still insists there’s even more profound forces at work.

“Lots of schools have bike shops and climbing walls,” Norris says. “What they don’t have is some of the highest thinkers in the outdoor field. We use the outdoors as a classroom and experiences as our textbooks, and we see success every day.”

An ALI student climbs a route at Smith Rock State Park near Bend. The park is known as the birthplace of American sport climbing, and is a popular location for ALI climbing trips.