As a child, Josh Norris placed his hand upon the still heart of a fallen deer. This is what happens, his father told him, at the end of a good hunt. Within the beauty and bounty of the wilderness, a true shot brings silence.
His father explained that the deer was not a trophy to be hung on a wall, and that while hunting had become sport, it also served as a reminder of nature’s ways and a fundamental truth. To all living things, comes death.
“My dad felt connected to the woods, so I grew up spending time there,” Norris says. “When I talk about hunting, kids don’t know what that means. They talk about guys with ball caps sitting in the back of a pickup drinking beer and shooting things.”
The taking of life, of course, requires justification. To his father and now to him, right from wrong was the difference between sustenance and misplaced gratification. Before he ever held a gun, Norris learned to respect the prey.
As director of the Adventure Leadership Institute (ALI) at Oregon State University, Norris has taken his father’s lesson and incorporated it into a program based on respect-- for nature, for each other and for peril.
The program offers three levels of certification in adventure leadership and group facilitation. There are credited and non-credited classes in activities ranging from backpacking, rock climbing and canoeing to wilderness medicine and rescue skills. The institute also has close ties to the Adventure Club, which offers outdoors activities for all students.
The goal of ALI is to balance technical skills with leadership skills and group dynamics. It’s a process of external and internal exploration, preparing for the unexpected and being able to distinguish when risk is vital and when it’s beyond reason.
The program, a branch of the Department of Recreation in the Division of Student Affairs, is designed to make doctors better doctors, teachers better teachers, students embarking on any career to be better at what they do.
“We rarely talk about technical skills,” Norris says. “What we focus on is people. In some classes, we talk about leading and managing a group. In others we talk about being a participant in a group. Every day when we go into a classroom, we are building better citizens to be more effective in the world, starting with an understanding of how other people work.”
The institute utilizes a challenge course as well as a 7,000 square-foot climbing wall in the Dixon Center equipped with an elevator to make it accessible to students with limited physical capabilities. There also is a wall in the McAlexander Field House that is43 feet tall and covers 4,500 square feet.
Through expeditions in Oregon’s wilds, students are taught how to safely explore, respond to emergencies and become part of the spirit of the outdoors. Students don’t have to be experienced in the activities, and physical limitations are accommodated.
“We structure classes so everyone can be full participants. We help people, no matter who they are or where they’re from find themselves, even if they never pictured themselves doing these kinds of things.”
The pursuit of excellence in any field requires establishing high goals, working toward them with intent and tenacity no matter regardless of the setting, Norris says.
“Newton and Aristotle were real people, not some unobtainable figment of our imagination. They were people who applied themselves. They expected to go someplace…I try to teach and model that.”
The course of his life has always begun with a dash to the front door. It didn’t, however, always lead toward education. Then, at age 12, he climbed a rock in Colorado that changed his life. He saw that the entire world was a classroom and that experiential learning was as important to education as books and binders.
“It’s the first thing in my life that convinced me that education was actually worth something. It was the first time I saw education connected to life.”
During his sophomore year of high school, his family moved to the Houston area. It was the first of many moves in Norris’ life, but in all of them he found his way to mountains, deserts, rivers and lakes at all seasons of year and life.
He was 18 and working at a pizza joint when he went with friends to apply for jobs at a climbing gym, setting him on a course that became a career. He got the job and later found work with a guide service. Four months into it, he and a friend decided to go into business for themselves.
“We knew how to guide people but didn’t know anything about running a business,” he says. “I was 18, and I borrowed $400 from my little brother and bought some gear. That’s how we got started.”
The business grew to employ 16 guides and pay for part of his education at Texas A&M University, where he scheduled classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays, homework for Wednesdays, with the rest of the week devoted to his business.
After attending community college, he graduated from A&M with a bachelor’s in psychology and received an outdoor education specialist certificate. It turns out that the two were closely related.
“You always need to be exploring to figure out where you want to go, what you want to do, what you want your impact to be.”
For Norris, impact is geared toward students and his family. He and his wife, Jessica, an optometrist, use the outdoors to help their two sons find perspectives on their lives in the same manner he found his while climbing and guiding throughout the United States and Mexico, including Mexican volcanoes of more than 18,000 feet.
He has first ascents throughout peaks in Texas and Colorado including routes starting at 12,500 feet.
It’s there, from high above, that he can see the world and himself more clearly with a passion fueled by an early understanding that death is a mandate of nature.
But, first, there is life.
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki