Project Ascent rises to the challenge for outdoor ed

By Brian Baxter


The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation recognizes fourteen mountains that are more than 8,000 meters or 26,247 feet high in elevation above sea level, and are considered individual peaks. All eight-thousanders, as they are called, are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Asia. Reinhold Messner from Italy, was the first man recognized to summit all fourteen peaks, as stated by the federation in 1986. In 2011, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner became the first woman to summit all fourteen eight-thousanders. Both accomplished these feats without supplemental oxygen, but not without trials and tribulations.

Challenges are also part of Project Ascent’s (PA) climb negotiating the avalanches, landslides, and tough, rugged country of northwest Montana. Economic obstacles and the organizational and operational barriers of running a non-profit group also provide challenges, but PA provides excellent outdoor educational and recreational programs for youth and adults anyway. PA is up to the challenges. They have a team of very special people who care about the kids, adult programs, and each other. They genuinely care for and respect their fellow colleagues, and it shows.

Project Ascent is a non-profit organization that gets young people and adults out on unique outdoor educational experiences and connected to nature. This exceptional group conducts a series of four to five day camps for area youth that feature overnight camping, outdoor skills instruction, exploration, wilderness activities, and interesting sessions with guest volunteer instructors.

The sessions focus on learning about local flora, fauna, wetland habitats, old growth forests, and many species of birds, mammals, furbearers, fish, plants, wildflowers, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. PA offers a Base Camp Program; a Backpacking Camp Experience; and a new Float Camp Adventure, all for youth 12 to 17 years old.

The team includes: Rob Christensen, Founder, Executive Director and Field Instructor; Angelo Alderete, Chairman of the Board, and Field Instructor; Andrea Christensen, Secretary and Field Volunteer; Anita Brown, Board Member; Ron Hawkinson, Board Member; Doug Padden, Board Member; and Simone Schilthuis, Board Member.

On a recent adult outdoor education program called “Autumn Wings, Woodpeckers, and Wildfire,” the early morning was cold and rainy. Over coffee, the group and volunteer instructor discussed the fall bird migration, wetland birds, and the specialized relationship between woodpecker species and recent fire damaged stands of timber.

Participants headed out to search for woodpeckers in a timber stand that had experienced a crown fire in 2018, and was partially salvage cut.

The four wheel drive  convoy jumped a Red-shafted flicker on the way up a logging road. Hiking into the site, the wind was whipping, and the rain was pouring down. The team of observers quietly blended in to the trees and awaited the calls, drumming, and movement of Lewis, Three-toed, Blackbacked, Pileated, Hairy, and Downy woodpeckers. The ashen trees added a primordial aspect to the scene, but all was relatively quiet.

The birders rolled on down off the hill and headed into a semi remote wetland and lake habitat. Again, the gang flushed a few grouse, but the lake was unusually quiet in the now slow but steady rain. The group persevered, and upon arriving at their next stop along the Kootenai River, the yellow orb appeared out of the sky, warmed things up, and the action increased. Before the afternoon was over, the Project Ascent adult birders spotted Mallard ducks, Common Mergansers, a few Canadian geese, a pair of Pileated woodpeckers, a very active Water Ouzel, a few songbirds, and several Bald eagles perched, flying, and fishing. Smiles appeared on the faces of the group as the rain gear was peeled off and the sun warmed them.

Angelo Alderete told The Montanian, “Our camp coordinators make a deliberate effort to model positive relationship development and respect for others as well as the environment. If there is a respect for the environment and the campers personal surroundings, it will inherently translate into other parts of their lives, and continue to be an influence long after they return from the camp.”

Andrea Christensen said that over half of PA’s funding currently comes from the community, raised through fundraising events that PA hosts throughout the year.  Anyone interested in supporting Project Ascent is encouraged to attend these events to support their mission and help keep their camps going.

“We also look for volunteers to help during our events,” Chrisentsen said.  If you are interested in volunteering, please contact PA’s Public Outreach Coordinator, Andrea Christensen at (406) 868-8875 or email her at projectascentmt@gmail. Additional information can be found at Donations are accepted directly and they are tax deductible.

As far as signing up kids for camp goes, Christensen added, “For parents that are interested in getting their kids outdoors with us, we will have the sign up availability on our website in March of 2020. We have a one page application that needs to be filled out and returned to us by May 1 that can be downloaded directly from our website.”

Due to some of PA’s funding restrictions, not all camps are available to kids from all schools, but the group is hoping that will change as they grow.

All camps are free, and so are all youth and adult classes offered by PA.

Founder Rob Christensen attributes PA’s success to his team.  He told The Montanian, “We are so fortunate to be surrounded with amazing people, and a lot of the success of PA and it’s programs can be attributed to it’s amazing team. The passion and dedication of it’s members is unwavering, and the commitment to excellence translates into everything we do.”

Christensen said that the group spends hours planning every detail of their programs to ensure participants a holistic positive experience.

“We strive to make the world a better place and know that it starts with being the best that we can be,” he said.