Mountain Challenge celebrates 25 years

Mountain Challenge celebrates 25 years

Sept. 7, 2012
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

Mountain Challenge is celebrating its 25th anniversary this academic year, but community members shouldn’t expect to see silver on any of the posters, logos or event invitations that will herald the milestone.

Instead, the palette for such things will be earthy greens, browns and oranges, inspired by the outdoors that founder and director Bruce Guillaume and his Mountain Challenge staff want everyone to get out – and get fit – in.

“This anniversary is a good time for us to look forward, and the two biggest challenges we see in our communities are getting people to be more active and getting more people outside. It only helps for people to be fit; it only helps for people to be outdoors, so a lot of the programming that will be tied to this anniversary celebration will be planned with those goals in mind,” Guillaume said.

The Mountain Challenge anniversary will also lift up the environment, he added.

“It’s connected to the goal of ‘getting more people outside.’ Once you’re outdoors and you have a connection to nature, I think you feel a duty to protect it,” Guillaume explained. “Unfortunately, being green and being environmentally aware today is more of an academic exercise than a personal experience.”

The 25th anniversary celebration officially gets underway at 1 p.m., Sept. 23 with the “Outdoor Adventure: A Celebration of Human-Powered Activity” held on the grounds of Maryville College’s Crawford House, which has been home to Mountain Challenge throughout its operation. The celebration will include outdoor activities, vendor tables and screenings of the documentaries “Happy” and “Play Again.” (See related story.)

Guillaume founded Mountain Challenge at Maryville College in 1987. According to its mission statement, the program strives to “provide high-quality, safe outdoor experiences designed to change the world for the better, one person at a time.”

While the program serves students on campus, Mountain Challenge as a limited liability company (LLC) serves corporate clients. Customizing experiences based on the needs of individual businesses and corporations, Guillaume and his staff use a ropes course, a 55-foot Alpine Tower and other outdoor activities to teach employees best practices in teamwork, communication and problem-solving.

Leading corporate training experiences that are “180 degrees from the norm,” Mountain Challenge has taken home several awards, including the Tennessee Quality Award, which recognizes businesses and organizations for improved productivity and standards of excellence through quality management practices.

From team sports to individual sports

Guillaume graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Maryville College in 1976. He earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Tennessee and a post-graduate degree from the Kentucky University School of Medicine.

Outdoor activities during graduate school and working at the North Carolina Outward Bound School are what sparked and fueled Guillaume's interest in creating Mountain Challenge.

“As a youth growing up, I was involved in the traditional team sports – baseball, basketball and football, and I played basketball at Maryville College,” he said. “Those experiences typically end with a graduation.

“The transition from those traditional team sports to whatever’s next becomes important. For me, that was getting involved in outdoor individual sports.”

Another Maryville College alumnus got him into running.

“He took me on a five-mile run, and it kicked my butt,” Guillaume remembered. “I didn’t run the next day because I was so sore, but I got out on the road the next day.”

Soon, it was road races and trail runs. He took up cycling when an injury prevented running. After that, it was flatwater paddling, mountaineering in North and South America and cross-country skiing. Most recently, he’s taken up ocean sports like kayaking, surfing and body boarding on the recommendation of his sister.

Incorporated into the curriculum

And as Guillaume has expanded his fitness horizons, so has his program.

When he founded Mountain Challenge in 1987, he was the lone staff member and served roughly 30 participants, the vast majority being corporate clients. The next year, he doubled that figure with Maryville College students, and by the early 1990s, it was integrated into the curriculum with opportunities for academic credit.

Guillaume said that with Mountain Challenge, Maryville College was among the first colleges and universities in the United States to support a curriculum that takes all of its students outside.

“Mountain Challenge is one of the 20 oldest outdoor programs in the country, and possibly the oldest program in the South,” he added.

Incorporated into the College’s Orientation course for more than two decades, Mountain Challenge helps new students form friendships and support groups quickly while encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones and keep the “big picture” in perspective. Developing healthy habits for the college years is also stressed.

Every semester, Mountain Challenge offers at least a dozen weekend activities for students. For every five activities completed, students can apply for one physical education credit hour. Up to three hours of academic credit can be earned through Mountain Challenge and can fulfill the College experiential education requirement.

For the fall 2012 semester, the activities include canoeing, hiking, white water rafting, rock climbing and caving. In the spring, the schedule will include the annual Spring Break Bike Trip. Destinations differ from year to year, but recent groups of students, faculty, staff and Mountain Challenge alumni have biked across Tennessee, to Savannah, Ga., and North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“We average a little more than two Mountain Challenge trips per student every year,” Guillaume said.

Looking back, looking forward

Today, full-time Mountain Challenge staff members include Guillaume, Operations Manager Mary Steger and Program Manager Tyson Murphy. About 50 part-time employees round out the staff, with 10 to 20 being MC students. One of those is Guillaume’s daughter, Emily, who is a freshman at the College.

In total, Mountain Challenge saw 7,300 people go through its program last year. The most Guillaume and his staff have handled is 10,000, and that’s about the maximum number they can accommodate and still ensure quality. The recent economic recession has forced many businesses to scale back on training, he said, but he’s hopeful for growth in the coming years.

“We have helped groups and organizations from fields such as health care, advertising, manufacturing, food service, banking and government,” Guillaume said. “At least one-third of what we do is aimed at K through 12 school kids. We recognized a long time ago that it’s easier to teach kids about teamwork and pushing comfort zones than it is to someone who’s 40 and knows everything.”

Guillaume said he has enjoyed being able to experiment with different groups – seeing what’s effective with different populations, different ages and groups with different needs.

With Mountain Challenge at year 25, Guillaume said he takes great satisfaction in the recognition and reputation of the program. He’s also incredibly proud of the Maryville College students who’ve been a part of it and become confident, competent, problem-solving leaders as a result of what they learn – and pass on – in the outdoors.

“They push me,” he said of his student staff members.

Looking back, he’s most proud of building a unique, meaningful program that will survive him. Looking ahead, he knows that much of the next 25 years won’t include him.

“There are things that I want to go and do,” said Guillaume, who turned 58 this year. “So we have to have a succession plan. I’m thinking about it.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.