A new course asks why there ain't no mountain high enough

Rock climbing

Eleven climbers lost their lives attempting to summit Mount Everest this season, leaving some to question whether it’s worth risking death to pursue extreme sports like mountaineering.

And some of those questions came from students in a new course at the UO, which is examining how adventure endeavors and recreational activities have transformed landscapes and cultures. “Is it okay to risk your life having fun?” is one of many questions they’re probing in Hike, Bike, Skate, Ski, Surf — Geographies of Adventure and Active Leisure, a new class taught by geographer Nick Kohler.

Kohler designed the course to introduce geographical concepts and social issues through a collection of outdoor activities. He saw an opportunity to use immensely popular pastimes as an educational platform for students to consider how people experience place and how geographical locations have been shaped by outdoor recreation.

Other questions the class considered include weighing how adventure tourism affects indigenous cultures and local economies, and pondering the ways gender, race and income influence an individual’s access to sports and places.

“These pursuits have all spawned large industries and captured vast amounts of people’s time for ‘fun,’” said Kohler, who received support from the Oregon Humanities Center to conceptualize and teach the new class. “In turn, landscapes and cultures have been fetishized, transformed and fiercely contested. This class takes a geographical and interdisciplinary approach to examine the emergence and significance of these pursuits.”

The course was offered for the first time this spring, with online lectures and self-guided field trips to local trails and parks to delve into how such concepts are realized in the region. Kohler explains that Lane County’s forests, mountains and beaches provide ample opportunities to observe or participate in many types of adventure sports and to see how they’ve shaped various parts of Oregon. 

For example, in developed areas of Eugene and Springfield the class looked at skateboarding’s influence on urban architecture, which is sometimes referred to as ‘hostile architecture’ by skateboarders. 

“If you know what to look for, you’ll see it everywhere,” Kohler said, and then rattled off a list of benches, ramps and other urban features that were designed with bumpy or uneven surfaces to dissuade skateboarders from rolling across them or using them for tricks.  

Kohler is not lacking examples of how outdoor recreation has shaped places and people. He points to concepts like how hiking has expanded the network of trails that meander through the wilderness, how indigenous technologies like kayaks and surfboards have been adopted or appropriated for recreation, how skiing played a role in the birth of vacations, and how extreme sports, like climbing monstrous Himalayan mountains, are flirting with the edge of death.

“These sports occupy large swaths of people’s time and attention,” he said. “They reflect and amplify important cultural, geographic and economic transformations.”

The class traces the sports to their origins, which largely date back to the late 1800s when leisure activities started to emerge. As they examine the history of each activity, they assess how ideas about nature, wilderness, gear, culture and access have also changed over time.

“Take the wilderness, for example. It used to be this terrifying place full of unknowns, and as people have recreated in the wilderness our perceptions have shifted to view it as a more inviting and desirable place to spend time,” said Kohler, who spends plenty of time recreating outdoors. He is an avid skateboarder and skier and has dabbled in all of the sports he teaches about.

As he talks, he rifles through a glossy array of magazines on his desk, which is covered with copies of popular periodicals like Outside, Surfer and Backpacker. Students turned to these publications, alongside cultural artifacts including advertisements, movies, memoirs and social media feeds, as well as archival materials, to investigate the geography of adventure travel.

They also used digital mapping tools to document the international spread of concepts that represent the evolution and impact of these sports, like the growth of ski resorts and the geographic spread of surf music and culture.  

Kohler hopes to continue offering the course after its inaugural run this spring.

“Cultural interest in the outdoors is not waning,” he said, “nor are the opportunities to use adventure travel to examine the many question that arise through the development and growth of recreation.”

By Emily Halnon, University Communications