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Are the Mountains Still Speaking for Themselves?

A Defining Tension 20 Years On…

James Neill, Wilderdom


Axiomatic issues in adventure education should be examined in more depth,

particular during significant stages of a field’s evolution. The question of the role,
importance, methods, and so on in facilitating adventure education groups has been
attracting considerable attention since the 1960’s. However, there also seems to be
significant reluctance to examining facilitation methods by people who consider doing
so a threat to a more essential quality of adventure-based experiences, based in the
experience. A classic paper on the topic was written in 1980 by Thomas James,
entitled “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves”. This paper eloquently articulates
the sentiments of the “rock-jocks” and the “touchy-feelies” in terms of the strengths
and weaknesses of their arguments and practices. The “mountains” versus
“facilitation” tension has continued to thrive in adventure education ever since, and is
no less resolved today than it was in 1980. It is suggested, however, that this has
been, and should continue to be, a healthy tension that has irritated and stimulated
adventure education leaders to look more closely at their preferred facilitation styles
and strive to successfully integrate the educative potential of “mountains” and
“facilitation”. The current paper places Thomas James’ “mountains” versus
“facilitation” duality within the context of subsequent proposals of up to six stages of
facilitation (Priest & Gass, 1997), argues that it is necessary to examine the
relationship between the first and second stages (mountains and reflection
respectively) more closely, since they are so fundamental, even axiomatic. The rest of
the current paper goes on to describe a 60 to 90 minute workshop that can be
conducted with adventure education trainee leaders and/or for staff training,
examining the question of “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves” and relating this
back to individual, personal preferences and beliefs.

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
Preamble: Axiomatic Issues in Adventure Education
Adventure education, in its ‘modern’ form, is well over 50 years old. It seems
timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century to reflect upon trends and issues
influencing adventure education programming and to consider the underlying,
seemingly perennial nature of fundamental questions. Science talks about axioms,
the central hunches or beliefs upon which the whole box and dice rest. Adventure
education should also be in the habit of making apparent, and cogitating upon, its
axioms. What fundamental assumptions do the theories and practices of adventure
education base themselves? Mapping out the territory of philosophical assumptions
that are the architecture of outdoor education is a significant task, and few, if any,
could claim to have tackled the task comprehensively and head on. A few names
come to mind, as worthy of consideration – Jasper Hunt and Steve Bowles, for
example. Such thinkers, however, would probably be the first to argue that we need
deeper examination of the fundamental assumptions in order to consider possible
futures and ways forward for adventure education. I personally have particularly
appreciated the work of Jasper Hunt on ethical issues in the adventure education
setting and Steve Bowles’ questioning of the positivistic limitations of the
predominantly North American theoretical and philosophical views that receive
considerable global currency in adventure education circles.

Amongst the potentially axiomatic issues that could be considered for closer
philosophical examination in adventure education are the roles, challenge, risk, safety,
nature, psychological aspects, the leader, and facilitation in adventure education. The
current paper focuses on a facilitation question – specifically the debate that occurs
between those who promote a “let the mountains speak themselves” view versus
those who promote a “facilitated processing of experience is important, in addition (or
integrated with) the “mountains” experience”. Interestingly, this is not a new issue.

Bacon’s (1987) Three Stages in the Evolution of Outward Bound and Priest
and Gass’ (1997) Six Generations of Facilitation
Stephen Bacon (1987) identified three key stages in the evolution of Outward
Bound: 1) a first generation model which focused on experience alone and dominated
programming in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; 2) a second generation model which
emphasised discussion, group process and imported techniques, characteristic of the
1980’s; and 3) a third generation stressing experiential metaphors which we can
gained more prominence during the 1990’s.

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
Since this time, Michael Gass (Priest & Gass, 1997) has done some interesting
work expanding the nature and sequencing of reflective processes and the use of
metaphoric framing of activities. In essence, Priest and Gass (1997) proposes shifting
the reflection process from after the experience to before the experience or during the
experience. Frontloading, the fourth stage involves conducting a preview discussion
before an experience to help orient and focus participants during the ensuing activity.
The fifth stages builds upon frontloading by introducing an isomorphic framing, that is,
a metaphorical structure for the activity which has a meaningful link to other aspects
of participants’ lives. The sixth stage is used where up front frontloading and
isomorphic framing may not work, and thus is may involve using paradoxical means,
such as telling participants that an activity will probably be too hard for them to
complete in order to fire their motivation.

Whilst it can be tempting to focus on the intricacies and complexities of the

latter stages, there is no doubt that the vast majority of outdoor education
programming utilizes the first and second stages – letting the experience for itself and
using post-experience reflection to help make sense of an experience. Thus, we
shouldn’t let the proposal of advanced facilitation models blind us to the reality that
the guts of current programming lies in these two more fundamental and critical
stages. What’s more, a vital tension exists between the two models.

Mountains vs. Facilitation

The tension between letting the experience speak for itself and processing of
experience is not new. Thomas James (1980/2000) observed that vehement
arguments about whether or not Outward Bound programs should include more
‘processing’ components dated back at least to the early 1960’s. He claimed that
there has been an enduring, indeed defining, tension between the “rock jocks” and the
“touchy feelies”, which is still very much in evidence today in outdoor education. The
tension makes some uncomfortable, partly because it is perplexing, drives passions
high, and is not easily resolvable. But I suggest the dilemma is a very healthy one and
that professional engagement with the issue is vital to the aliveness of adventure
education. The debate continues to fuel staff planning meetings and course debriefs
every day all over the world and it can be a particularly using topic when structured
into staff training.

A Workshop on “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves”: Preparation

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
I ask trainee staff and undergraduate outdoor education students to read
Thomas James’ class “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves?” paper before
conducting a 60 to 90 minute workshop and then complete a pre-workshop reflection
sheet. If trainees are not able to read the paper beforehand, then I provide a
summary of the paper at the start of the session. So, I find the session can be done
effectively in 60 minutes if trainees are prepared, and 90 minutes if they are not
prepared. It is preferable, however, that trainees read the paper beforehand because
it is so eloquent and engaging. Remember, download these materials from: The rest of this describes
assumes trainees have done their ‘homework’.

Workshop: Phase 1 – Personal Orientations

I reintroduce students Thomas James’ notion that there are people who prefer
an instructional approach which emphasizes the quality of the actual activity and
experience and allowing students to do their own processing of the experience
(“Mountains”) and those who feel that it is critical to help structure and organize
students’ processing of their experiences, often via debriefing, but there are also many
other creative and more subtle processing techniques such as journal writing.

On a board I then draw a long line, the continuum, as follows (with pictures) and
ask each trainee to place a cross and their initials to represent their preferred
instructional style, given their ideal program and ideal client group. This is fascinating
to watch and discussion will usually ensue quite naturally.

Let the Mountains Facilitate Personal
Speak for Themselves & Group Process

When everyone’s finished, I then emphasize that there is no right or wrong in

this exercise (trainees often seem to think that the trainer is way towards the
facilitation end – but I usually place myself more towards the mountains side than
most for two reasons – one, its my personal preference, two, it provokes trainees).

I then ask the couple of folks at the extremes to share with the group their
reasons for their preference and sometimes I’ll also ask for a perspective from

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
someone right in the middle. The ensuing discussions is always lively and reveals
strong arguments for both ends of the spectrum. I continue probing for viewpoints
until critical comments start emerging about the model itself – the switched on
facilitators will start to make comments like:
• “but I use a different style with different groups, so it was very hard for me to place
myself in only one place” or
• “groups go through different stages, and so I used different styles depending on
the stage of group development” or
• “different participants respond best to different styles and so I try to adapt to meet
each of their needs”.
In the initial stages of the workshop when these kinds of comments come up, I
respond by saying something like, “sure, but at the end of the day, what is your most
comfortable, preferred way of leading a group”. However, when the comments
surface again later in the workshop (may need some prompting), I move into the next

Workshop Phase 2: Redesigning the Model

Until this point in the workshop, I’ve emphasized the utility and value of Thomas
James’ model. I then suddenly switch gears and invite students to throw the model
away, because its clearly problematic and there needs to be more flexibility.

So, I then ask students to redesign Thomas James’ model in a way that is more
meaningful and useful. They might look blank. So, I suggest that perhaps the line
should be bent into another shape, a triangle or a circle or a spiral. Or perhaps a new
metaphor would be better – some groups have used a bus, a chef, and so on.

Groups then breakout and have about 20 to 30 minutes with large paper and
markers to develop a new model. Each group then gets a few minutes to present their
models. The resultant presentations never fail to impress. I emphasize the vital
importance of us not accepting the written literature without trying to reconceptualize
it for ourselves, in our own organizations and with our own groups.

I then finish by emphasizing some take-home points:

1. Understand that you have a personal preference that influences and guides
the way you operate in group leadership situations
2. Understand that there are a wide spectrum of preferences and some of the
best instructors are from the opposite ends of the spectrum, so there’s no right or
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
wrong in what should fundamentally be preferred. There are strong arguments for
both perspectives and there are also potential limitations for both.
3. Develop flexibility in your style – you cannot be a successful instructor by
sticking with your preference – must develop capacity to operate along the full
4. Develop excellent expertise in your preferred style – we have a preference for
a reason, often because we sense it is where our intuitive strength lays. So develop it

Conclusion: Vital Tension and Some Speculations

We need such debates and we can benefit from revisiting defining tensions of
the past. The explosion of adventure education formats in the last 15 or so years
makes it possible to see Bacon’s three stages of program design and Priest and Gass’
(1997) six stages, all in existence - from boot camps to sophisticated adventure
therapy - in different countries, organisations, and even in different programs run by
the same organization. Research on facilitation styles has even suggested that all
three styles could be used within a single program, with different orderings creating
varied processes and outcomes (e.g. see CAT studies by Priest –
We also need to consider individual differences between participants (i.e., does
everyone goes through the same process?) and unique situational influence. Surely
the individual and unique moments play particularly significant roles in the inner
process of experience and transformation? If so, then it becomes difficult to see too
much value in placing emphasis on the facilitation technique without simulataneously
focusing in an indepth way of the experience of the individual. It may, thus, be that
Priest and Gass’ (1997) six stages of facilitation do not go where Thomas James (1980)
and Stephen Bacon (1987) were heading in their papers – towards describing a deeper
spiral in which each of the three models was an important thread, a transformative,
spiritual, even Jungian, type model. Bacon (1983) suggested that the metaphoric
model be supplemented by a mythic or archetypal model in which students access
ancient patterns of learning by symbolically recreating the formative challenges of
heroes and heroines. Of course Bacon (1987) conceded these ideas are not new – in
fact by definition such rites of passage are incredibly old. Priest and Gass’ (1997) six
generations of facilitation seem to describe some specific techniques for presenting
and sequencing the interaction between activities and instructor intervention. At the
very least, we should be wary and critically examine the proposed linear evolution of
stages suggested first as the “mountains” versus “facilitation” duality suggested by
James (1980) and then expanded by Bacon (1987) and by Priest and Gass (1997).

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom
Neill, J. T. (2002). Are the mountains still speaking for themselves? A defining tension 20 years
Bacon, S. B. (1987). The Evolution of the Outward Bound Process. Greenwich, CT: Outward
Bound USA.
James, T. (1980/2000). Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves? [republished] Scisco
Conscientia, 3.
Priest, S., & Gass, M. (1997). Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming. Champaign, IL:
Human Kinetics.

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom