Ryan Hammes has what many would consider a dream job: director of outdoor education at Colorado College. His resume is unlike most others, listing certifications (CPR for the Professional Rescuer, Top Rope Site Manager, Single Pitch Guide, High/Low Angle Rescue Training); professional development (Association of Challenge Course Technology, Bioneers National Conference, Winter Injury Sports Symposium); and a nine-page experiential transcript that includes multi-pitch rock climbing, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking and canoeing, alpine and ski mountaineering, caving, and backpacking.
As a child growing up in Onalaska, Wis., Hammes (pronounced “ham” and “mess,” snapped together tightly like a carabiner) enjoyed the outdoors but never considered that as a profession. Instead, he earned a B.S. in geology with an emphasis in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but eventually came to the realization that he did not enjoy the mapping fieldwork as much as he thought he would. He returned to school, earning an M.S. in physical education teaching with an emphasis in adventure education.
Prior to joining CC in July, Hammes was the coordinator of outdoor recreation at Sonoma State University, an 8,000-student school located in Sonoma Valley. Hammes and his wife had always said it would take a lot for them to leave the California wine country; however, Hammes had been an Outward Bound instructor in Leadville, Colo., for four years, and was willing to leave Sonoma for the opportunity to return to Colorado.
At Outward Bound Hammes enjoyed working with the participants, some of whom had never been in the wilderness before. “It’s exciting to see someone try something for the first time and to be part of that experience,” he said. Sometimes they don’t think they can accomplish what they are trying to do, but they can. It’s a good feeling to help them, to coach and guide them. The euphoria on their face is amazing.”
It’s the teaching, coaching, and mentoring roles that Hammes most enjoys in his outdoor education work, and he sees his role at CC predominately as one of a facilitator, with the majority of the emphasis on peer-to-peer teaching. “I want the structure to be such that it allows students to succeed,” Hammes said.
“There is a lot of learning happening when kids are in the wilderness,” he said. Not only are they discovering technical skills, but also group dynamics, critical thinking, leadership, and problem-solving skills. “There is so much opportunity to apply what they are learning in class,” he says.
Hammes hopes to boost the professionalism of outdoor education as a career, citing the need for national standards and a desire to help students build an “outdoor education portfolio,” or transcript of their outdoor experiences, training, and certifications.
He acknowledges that many CC students are passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the outdoors, but he also wants the program to be accessible to those who might feel intimidated. “The program needs to be inclusive,” he said. “I’d like to expand what we’re doing, help minorities, first-generation, and international students feel welcome, and also to allow those who are wilderness experts the opportunity to grow.” He also foresees offering customized trips for an interested class, faculty and staff, or an on-campus Greek organization. Not every trip has to be extreme; easy day hikes also are an option.
Hammes hopes to align the outdoor education program more closely with academics. “So many of the outdoor trips could be collaborative with the sciences,” he said. An example: A spring break trip down a Colorado river, with a geologist discussing the rock formations and the rafts guided by outdoor leaders.
Although he enjoys a wide variety of outdoor activities, he is particularly passionate about two: rock climbing (despite his fear of heights) and backcountry skiing. Rock climbing for Hammes is a spiritual undertaking, one in which “every second is so focused. I never feel more alive than when I am rock climbing.” It’s the danger that he thrives on, saying “It’s the risk of losing something that I like. If that isn’t there, it takes away all the fun.”
Quick facts about Hammes:
Most memorable land adventure: Sleeping on a three-and-half-foot rock ledge on the Big Wall, south face of Washington’s Column in Yosemite National Park.
Most memorable water adventure: Kayaking in six-foot swells in the Apostal Islands National Seashore on Lake Superior.
Wife: Amy Bullis, a math teacher at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High.
Residence: Manitou Springs.
Hobbies: Despite living in the California wine country, enjoys brewing beer.
Musical tastes: Bluegrass. Played percussion in high school, now enjoys the guitar and mandolin.