Sierra Surroundings

“Instead of doing PE they’ll go down to the beach and learn surfing, for instance. To work at these schools you have to be a certified instructor in kayaking, sailing, diving, surfing and other water sports — they have all the skills and certifications,” explains Whipple. “Their winter is our summer, so there are all these super-qualified people who have little work in the winter. We have five directors from Australia, and all of them are full-time outdoor recreation education professionals.”

Mountain Camp recruits teachers and outdoor education professionals to help run and lead the programming. Many of them have been at Mountain Camp for years.

“Having a core group of highly qualified people who are used to doing this professionally raises your standards to a whole new level,” says Whipple. “Our waterfront director has 15 years’ experience running a program on the open ocean and running 250 kids in the ocean at a time, versus 60 kids in a lake. The standards and procedures they set up keep you safe. The same is true at the ropes course and climbing equipment. Our ropes course director is in her 50s — there’s a whole different level of preparation and professionalism that goes along with that.”

To make communication flow more effectively and to create more personal contact and accountability with the counselors, Mountain Camp created a buffer of directors — seven directors are responsible for six to eight counselors for the entire summer.

“It helped us keep them enthused and to have someone to talk to. A big part of the program is about keeping the staff inspired,” says Mountain Camp’s program director, Katie Walker. “The communication between staff and directors has picked up. It goes back to a classroom; in a smaller class you’re more likely to raise your hand and be involved. And, the campers leave with the impression more so of the counselors than the directors.”

Program the Course

Mountain Camp is dedicated to minimal technology, but thrives on creating new and sometimes unusual programming, as long as it stays on track with the camp’s mission.

The camp offers all ball sports, including team handball (a combination of Ultimate Frisbee and Lacrosse), archery, music, drama, waterfront, ropes courses and climbing, arts and crafts and other traditional camp activities.

Additionally, camp staff is encouraged to offer new activities. Whipple took a fencing class in college, and imported that into the camp programming. Fort-building is another unique activity the camp has recently added.

“We copy other camps, and remember things that were fun when we were kids, so we started fort-building, where the kids go out into the woods and build forts. City kids don’t have access to the materials and space to build a fort. That was a classic one,” says Whipple. “We also instituted sling shots. The counselors were using some, and the kids wanted to try it. We encourage counselors to be creative and come up with new ideas for things they’ve done in the past, like our drumming and photography programs.”

The camp created a science and discovery class, the popularity of which surprised Whipple. The kids make gack (a Silly Putty-like substance), volcanoes, airplanes, and anything they can make with their hands with simple ingredients in an hour. Whipple reports that the classes are consistently full.

Given its high-adventure feel, Mountain Camp provides woodcraft education, like outdoor cooking and no-impact camping.

Mountain Camp’s program director, Katie Walker, says the camp is shifting its programming very slightly and subtly to be more accommodating to younger age groups. Part of the reasoning is the camp is seeing an aging trend — the average camper is getting older.

“Our program is set more for a 12 year old, so we’re trying to gear ourselves more toward that younger age and a program that will be more attractive to them. It’s not necessarily programming; it’s more about making them feel special and self-confident,” says Walker. “I remember being eight and nine and being intimidated by people who were just a couple of years older than me. Separating them for at least part of the day gives them a chance to grow in their self-confidence and how they view one another, and to feel more comfortable with others. They seem to enjoy having activities that are only for them.”

Camp Focus

Mountain Camp has been successful in its niche, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s stuck to its niche and has kept things relatively simple. Whipple says that has resonated with its urban, Bay-area market.

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