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The Healing Power of Winter Wilderness Therapy (Part Two)

The Open Sky Team

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus 

The Power of Wilderness Therapy

Living in the wilderness in the winter provides Open Sky students with powerful opportunities to increase competence, build resilience, and develop self-efficacy. Wilderness provides a classroom that teaches how everyday choices impact outcomes. Most often these lessons involve taking care of basic needs, eating when hungry, staying dry when it is wet, staying warm when it is cold, supporting others when it is difficult, and sharing expectations to succeed.  

Each day in wilderness offers an array of challenges: living in a community, building shelters, busting fires, tying knots, cooking, cleaning, carving spoons, packing a pack, reading maps, taking care of personal hygiene, and caring for oneself. Accomplishing these tasks builds resiliency and self-efficacy, which translate to confidence in all aspects of life. The challenges that winter in nature provide amplify these therapeutic lessons and new insights.

Winter in Southeast Utah

Open Sky utilizes a hybrid base camp/wilderness model year-round and maintains two base camps: one in Southwest Colorado during summer months and one in Southeast Utah during winter months. 

Open Sky transitions from its Colorado course area to the desert canyon country of Southeast Utah in mid-October. Here, the arid landscape is dotted with juniper, pinyon, and sagebrush, as well as interesting and dramatic rock formations. This high desert habitat provides expansive views and opportunities to find remnants left behind by an ancient civilization. The climate in Southeast Utah is hospitable, precipitation is infrequent, and sunshine is plentiful, providing an ideal environment to engage in deep therapeutic work. 

Thriving in Winter

Open Sky provides all students the gear, food, shelter, and support to manage safely in a winter wilderness environment, allowing them to thrive as they move through their therapeutic process in the program.  

As students gain skills to stay comfortable in the desert in winter, they not only feel better physically, but also feel a sense of confidence, pride, and self-efficacy. The modern world is filled with immediate conveniences, and many students come to Open Sky having never experienced what it’s like to attend to their own self-care. There is therapeutic value in taking responsibility. The more ownership and responsibility our students take, the more empowered they feel. The more empowered they feel, the more ready they are to engage in therapeutic work. It is a simple but profound experience.   

Empowering Self-Efficacy

Upon enrollment, each student is provided with the Open Sky Student Pathway, an educational guidebook specifically designed to educate students on self-care in the wilderness. A primary goal of the Student Pathway is to empower students with the information they need to thrive in the wilderness environment. Students engage practices to support their physical safety and self-care (hydration, temperature management, and wilderness skills) as a part of progressing through the therapeutic curriculum of the Pathway. Experiencing wilderness therapy in the winter is a unique opportunity for students to develop inner strength and resiliency as they master new skills. 

Forming Connections

There is a unique element to winter that facilitates a group coming together to support and care for one another. Because the sun sets earlier during this time of year, everyone naturally gravitates toward the fire, whether it’s during meal preparation, eating, or enjoying some tea or hot chocolate in the evening. Gathering around the fire is a unifying experience that has connected people for many generations.    

Additionally, a lot of effort goes into taking care of base camp, building group shelters, and tending to fires in the winter. Each individual’s contributions are essential to the entire group being more comfortable, promoting cohesion, togetherness, and accountability. Before coming to Open Sky, students may have experienced loneliness and isolation. Their experience with us helps create meaningful opportunities for them to contribute to and bond as a group.   

Expanding Horizons

Not only does Open Sky’s winter course area have a uniquely beautiful landscape, it also holds evidence of civilization that shows there has been a vitality in the region that well exceeds modern America. The winter course area is not far from Mesa Verde National Park, the first and only national park designated for cultural preservation, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. It is not uncommon for students to come across remnants of the ancient Puebloan people. They hike to granaries, observe petroglyphs, or even discover pottery shards. For a lot of our students, their sense of the world and themselves is still emerging. The understanding that people survived and thrived in this landscape before them widens their worldview, develops a sense of curiosity, and gives them confidence that they too can survive and thrive in the wilderness. They feel connected to something bigger than themselves, which is an effective antidote to the “me and I” focus that is so prevalent in social media and modern American culture.  

Winter is a powerful time to enroll in wilderness therapy. When students complete a winter stay at Open Sky, they leave with not only a new set of skills but a clearer sense of who they are and their place in the world. They leave empowered and confident, attributes that will serve them well as they navigate life’s future challenges.  

Key Takeaways

  • Living in the wilderness in the winter provides Open Sky students with powerful opportunities to increase competence, build resilience, and develop self-efficacy. 
  • The challenges that winter in nature provide amplify therapeutic lessons and new insights, that Open Sky students gain.
  • Open Sky’s Student Pathway empowers students with the information they need to thrive in the winter wilderness environment including practices to support their physical safety and self-care. 
  • There is a special element to winter that facilitates a group coming together to support and care for one another. 
  • Open Sky’s winter course area is in an area once inhabited by ancient Puebloans, connecting students to something bigger than themselves and expanding their cultural horizons. 
  • When students complete a winter stay at Open Sky, they leave with not only a new set of skills but a clearer sense of who they are and their place in the world. 
This is the second part in a two-part winter blog series. For more information about the specific winter wilderness risk management practices Open Sky employ to keep students safe and comfortable, check out part one, Winter Safety and Comfort: A Top Priority at Open Sky.

December 9th, 2022

The Open Sky Team