Non-profit celebrates 25 years of getting urban youth outdoors

Big City Mountaineers has gotten nearly 7,000 disadvantaged youth into the mountains over the past 25 years. Photo courtesy of Big City Mountaineers.
Big City Mountaineers has gotten nearly 7,000 disadvantaged youth into the mountains over the past 25 years. Photo: Courtesy of Big City Mountaineers
For a quarter of a century, Big City Mountaineers has helped introduce urban youth from low-income families to the great outdoors with a series of backpacking and canoeing trips through some of the most picturesque terrain in the United States.

But despite its wilderness pedigree, the non-profit was actually born far from the mountains on the white-sand beaches of Miami. In 1989, Big City Mountaineers founder Jim Kern, the co-founder of the American Hiking Society, had seen an ad for $1 plane tickets for kids accompanying paying adults. Looking to seize the opportunity, he decided to take his son, Drew, hiking in Montana, and asked his friend Gerry Gault to join so that Drew could bring a buddy along.

Most of Big City Mountaineers' participants have never been to the mountains or ever gone on a hike. Photo courtesy of Big City Mountaineers.
Most of Big City Mountaineers’ participants have never been to the mountains or ever gone on a hike. Photo: Courtesy of Big City Mountaineers
According to the organization’s director of programs, Elizabeth Williams, Drew was embarrassed that he couldn’t find a friend, so the elder Kern went to a local YMCA and found a kid to take the open ticket (something that Williams admits couldn’t happen today). The boy, a 14-year-old named Raymond, had never been hiking before, but enjoyed the trip so thoroughly that Kern realized he had a new mission on his hands: helping disadvantaged kids discover the joys of the outdoors.

From that initial trip to Montana, Big City Mountaineers (BCM) was born.

Since then, BCM has helped nearly 7,000 kids experience the wilderness on backpacking and canoeing trips around the country. The organization, which moved its headquarters to Denver around the turn of the century, runs 30 expeditions a year for 13- to 18-year-olds in Denver; Seattle; San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis. (Portland, Oregon, will be added next year.)

The program is based off of matching experienced hikers and guides with underprivileged youth from low-income urban areas, providing them a once-in-a-lifetime outdoor experience free of cost. BCM partners with local youth centers like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to find its participants, who are usually recommended by mentors at the center.

From there, the teens embark on a seven-day trip into foreign territory, learning backpacking skills on the fly.

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“The first day is a real struggle,” says Masao Yamada, a BCM mentor and the youth agency leader for Bellevue Boys & Girls Club outside of Seattle. “But then the leadership qualities start to come out and the group starts to work together and form this bond out in the wilderness.”

The groups usually band together within a day or so of hard work and a few laughs. According to the director, getting used to the awkward weight of the packs always serves up some funny moments. In addition, in order to facilitate this process, mentors hold round-table discussions during meal times.

BCM groups are usually kept to five kids and five adults to allow for strong team building and a shared experience. Photo courtesy of Big City Mountaineers.
BCM groups are usually kept to five kids and five adults to allow for strong team-building and a shared experience. Photo: Courtesy of Big City Mountaineers
Trip locations range from the Enchanted Valley in Washington state to Yosemite National Park in California to canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Wisconsin. The excursions are completely free for the kids, a tenet that BCM works hard to protect by raising money from outdoor-industry sponsors like The North Face and Columbia Sportswear as well as with its unique Summit for Someone program — a personalized big-mountain trip for adults led by professional guides that provides 50 percent of the organization’s fundraising quota each year.

The strong support base has kept BCM growing, allowing the program to actively scale its operation in new cities (Williams says the East Coast is next on the organization's list) and continue getting kids outside.

“It’s all about climbing the literal mountain to learn how to climb life’s metaphorical mountains,” says Williams. “These kids are learning the life skills that are going to help them in the tougher situations they face on a daily basis.”

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