Swapping a pencil for a pickaxe

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16 Oct 2017

What started as a gap year turned into a career when Jamie Marr gave up the office life for the great outdoors.

Jamie Marr in the Darran mountains – experience is everything.

Time spent working in a rock climbing gym opened up new possibilities and instead of enrolling in architecture at university, Jamie signed up instead for Outdoor Education at the Ara Timaru campus.

Now in his third year of Outdoor Education studies Jamie has explored some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery, learned to guide and landed a job before even graduating.

On a recent road trip, he worked as a guide at Fox Glacier, was an observer/instructor for the well-respected Outward Bound in the Marlborough Sounds, and was awarded with a Tertiary Award for guides and instructors at the New Zealand Outdoor Instructors (NZOIA) Symposium in the Nelson Lakes.

The award recognises outstanding potential shown during studies; NZOIA is the nationally recognised industry and qualification body for nine outdoor disciplines. Jamie relished the chance to meet experienced outdoor instructors. “When you see how many instructors were there, maybe 130, the knowledge and expertise in the room is impressive – you have the people who have written the kayak handbook, the mountaineering guides, so you network and get your name out there.”

The Ara programmes, right from the Certificate in Outdoor Recreation to the Diploma in Outdoor Instruction and Management, are geared toward building practical experience, starting with technical skills in rock climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, tramping, mountain biking and skiing, and also in planning, organising and running a ten-day wilderness expedition.

This year alone, Jamie has spent some three months in the mountains with his tutors as part of his programme, plus more time out practising with his classmates. He has specialised in mountaineering and rock climbing but in every area of the industry experience is key, he says.

“Sash Nukada and Rob Dunn are two people I have looked up to a lot. Sash is into rock climbing and Rob is into mountaineering. A highlight was when the mountaineering third year students went to the Darran Mountains in Fjordland. We had four sunny days – we were so lucky. We got to climb the McPherson traverse, camped at the Gertrude saddle, and climbed Barrier peak and Marion Peak. It was good to get an idea of the area, it’s very adventurous.”

The Darrans offer “some of New Zealand’s most arresting mountain scenery,” according to New Zealand’s Wilderness magazine. Most visitors head straight to the renowned Milford Sound, but for mountaineers the complex range of granite peaks that make up the Darran Mountains provide unlimited opportunities, according to The Darren Mountains guidebook. “Whether you aspire to sport climbing, alpine rock climbing, big mountain routes or technical ice climbing the range and quality of established and potential routes is exhaustive.”

Being based in Timaru gives the Outdoor Education students access to mountains, rivers, forests and the ocean, at the heart of New Zealand's adventure tourism region. “The good thing about the course is that you are forced to go out and do rock climbing and do the fun stuff. We knew we were not signing up to party. Most people on the course live together and do things together. We have a certain number of outdoor days to complete to pass the year.”

It is a full immersion programme, but nothing less is required by the adventure industry. Pre-hospital emergency care (PHEC), risk management, environmental science, facilitation and leadership, and working with different client groups (disabled, different cultures, youth at risk) are all part of the diploma level studies, preparing graduates like Jamie for an adventurous and rewarding career.

As soon as he’s finished studying Jamie will return to Fox Glacier to work at the popular, West Coast venture. Some of the clients who visit Fox Glacier are new to the wilderness. “I love seeing people stoked to be on the mountain,” Jamie says.