Forbes Cone led a group of 10 Colorado Academy students on a stimulating winter adventure hut trip to Benedict’s Hut, outside of Aspen. After miles of snow travel, his tired group reached the hut. Someone punched in the door code supplied by the famed 10th Mountain Division. But it was the wrong code. The group was stuck outside. It was getting later in the afternoon, and colder, and everyone needed the shelter.

“After walking miles to get to this hut, there was no way to get in,” said Cone, director of experiential education at CA. “And there was no option to get back. We had to figure out a way to get into this hut.

“Is there a way to get through a window? Is there some other access point? We contemplated breaking a window.” But then a student noticed the steel bar on the door was attached by brackets that were held on with Phillips head screws.

“We took out the multi-tool, unscrewed the four screws, and it took the massive bar off and we were able to enter the hut,” Cone said. “It was a good problem-solving situation. The kids were tired and cold, and wanted to get inside. This kid slowed it down enough to observe, figure out the door. When we left, we put the screws back in and left it as we found it.”

Learning how to be resourceful is but one of the many benefits of experiential outdoor education. Peace of mind is another one, said Cone, 34, who’s entering his fifth year at CA. “It’s written in our DNA as human beings; we’re hard-wired to be drawn by expansive views, to investigate the natural order of things and to find renewal in beautiful, natural places,” Cone said. “After all, we have spent the majority of our time as a species hunting, and gathering, and that requires an intimate connection with our natural surroundings. To be human is to be connected to nature.


“It’s written in our DNA as human beings; we’re hard-wired to be drawn by expansive views, to investigate the natural order of things and to find renewal in beautiful, natural places. After all, we have spent the majority of our time as a species hunting, and gathering, and that requires an intimate connection with our natural surroundings. To be human is to be connected to nature.


“Those who are the most adept at tracking animals, identifying edible plants and navigating using stars are the most likely to flourish.” As people have evolved, those skills are needed less. “But our psychological need for nature has increased,” Cone

said. “Evidence of this is that studies show that high school students around the United States are reporting higher levels of stress and depression than ever before. I think that’s partly due to very busy schedules, academic pressure and pervasive technology. There are studies that say direct contact with nature does increase mental health.”

So Cone is doing his part, leading outdoor activities such as the hut trips, river studies, backcountry skiing, fly fishing, rock climbing, backpacking, nature photography, astronomy, a geology trip to Moah, Utah, and more.

Cone makes sure the students learn plenty while they’re out there. Some examples:

  • On the hut trips, they learn how to cooperate as a group, divvying up such tasks as finding firewood, preparing food, cleaning the hut and more. They also learn about what causes avalanches and how to avoid them, how to measure and seek instability in a snowpack, dig a snow pit, and measure the angle of the slope (most avalanches happen at an angle of between 28 and 38 degrees, Cone said).

“The hut trips are an amazing way to get the kids out in the backcountry in the middle of winter,” said Cone, a former instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming, He also ran the rock-climbing program at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. “There’s this atmosphere of community and everybody’s pitching in to make these trips possible. Experience, rather than direct instruction, can be more effective.

“Often, students come on these trips and have never started a fire. They take for granted they have a flushing toilet, on-demand drinking water. Here, they have to be involved in making this stuff happen.

“I think they come away feeling more grateful about the creature comforts they haveExperiential Education at Colorado Academy in Denver, as well as an appreciation of the great outdoors.”

  • On river walks, students will take samples to test the health and pH of the water, learn to sketch a hydrological map, and get a basic understanding of how basins, rivers and watersheds work.

“If we only do the activity, we’re missing a huge opportunity to teach the kids about leadership, taking initiative, the environment you’re traveling through – all the dimensions of the experience; it’s important to harness all of it,” Cone said. “I think when the outdoor programs are connected to the curriculum, those are the most powerful experiences. That’s because students can deepen their understanding of the natural environment. When students engage through multisensory learning, by making their own observations, touching something by taking a sample, their understanding increases significantly.”

Cone also recruits other CA teachers as trip leaders. Joel Allen, who teaches geology and biology at CA, led an astronomy/geology trip. Jesse Myers has led some outdoor photography trips, where students learn about important factors such as camera operation, composition and reflection.

“I’m trying to connect more of what I do to the existing curriculum,” Cone said. “We’ll keep offering these experiences, but I want to connect with other classroom teachers to take students outside of the classroom and to provide a hands-on learning experience.”

Katy Hills, who teaches art in the Upper School, has helped Cone lead backcountry ski trips and hut trips. And Lower School counselor Kate O’Donnell helped lead an overnight camping trip for kindergartners, held on campus.

The key to gaining a student’s interest? “It took me time to learn to meet kids where they are,” Cone said. “They may be an artist. They may want to experience nature through a camera lens. If a kid is really interested in astronomy, rocks, for example, we cultivate the interest and love of the outdoors through exploration of geology, and we push kids physically by getting to the top of a mountain.”