The 180 Degrees Trust is based in Christchurch, New Zealand, and focuses on rehabilitating teenagers who have self-excluded from high school. The Trust uses alternative education programming and is centred around enjoying and learning in the great New Zealand outdoors.
So we decided to sponsor and support them, to help them continue inspiring the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts growing up in New Zealand.
Luckily, at the end of every school year, the 180 Degrees Trust takes a select few young people on a traverse of the Southern Alps. When we heard about that we knew we wanted to tag along - so Elder, Ruby, and Laura (guides), and Joe (from the office) did exactly that, in December 2019.
Elder, Laura, and Ruby excited to get going at 180 Degrees HQ.
The morning of Monday December 2nd 2019 dawned bright and clear in Christchurch, but the feeling of nervous apprehension was palpable around the 180 Degrees HQ in the city. Not because the four of us aren't accustomed to testing ourselves in the outdoors, even Joe the office guy used to be a guide for Active - the nerves were due to the inbound 'weather-bomb' approaching the whole country that week.
When you work as a guide your life revolves around weather forecasts - 'Can we do the planned activity in the forecasted conditions? Is it safe? Will my group respond positively or negatively to the challenge?'
And so when the four of us, and Hayden, Jeremy, Dylan, Bunty, Charlotte, and Pauline, the 180 Degrees staff, saw the forecast, there was a collective and audible 'gulp' - and then a wry smile. The wheels were in motion, literally - no turning back now.
As a group of 4, we (Elder, Ruby, Laura, and Joe) were tasked with lots of the vehicle shuttle driving for the week - we'd start a trail in one place and finish it in another, and we'd need the vehicles ready and waiting when we did - that was up to us. We worked in pairs, and decided together who'd do which activities and who'd skip them in order to drive. First up a 17km bike ride on the West Coast Wilderness Trail at Lake Kaniere - Joe and Elder were riding, and the girls were on shuttle duty.
Once the bikes were set up and ready to go, the young people of 180 descended on them - we could tell straight away this was going to be a fun group. In the pouring rain at Lake Kaniere, on a day unseasonably wet even for the wild West Coast of the South Island, the young people were looking for the biggest puddles to ride through, cutting corners on the trail in search of shortcuts, and even, at one point, clowning around in a river beside the trail!
The ride was great fun, and so refreshing to see smiling faces, patience, and enjoyment despite the miserable weather and the fairly taxing ride. Hayden stopped the group regularly to regroup, to make sure we all rode together and nobody was left behind - "Start as a team, finish as a team.....Team!"
Laura looking as though she's regretting her decision
Having enjoyed hanging out with the group as excited, enthusiastic and energetic characters throughout the afternoon's ride, in the evening we began to see some of the challenges of their home environment influencing their interactions with one another and the staff.
Without the staff, whose skills in reading social interactions within a group (and sub-groups!), these youngsters would get nowhere. We watched, admiringly, as one of the boys was temporarily removed from the group, to a quiet space, due to a tirade of swearing, threats of violence, and a declaration that he wanted to go home - only to be reintroduced a short while later and go back to interacting constructively with his friends.
And they are friends, these young people. Even though they fall out often, and occasionally threaten to maim one another. They're kids from different areas of the city (several from different countries even), different schools, some having committed crimes, some with drug or alcohol dependency issues, others simply too disruptive to continue in mainstream education - but all unique. And yet all bonded on this journey with 180 Degrees, not just on their Southern Alps traverse, but evidently throughout their year of education together in a space more suited to the challenges they face and overcome every day, together, and individually. That's a testament to the remarkable staff, and it will stick with us now that we're reflecting on our adventure together.
The staff and the young people enjoyed flax weaving, one of many wet-weather alternatives!
The plan for the 5 day trip was to spend the first night at the aptly named 'Windy Point' in the Lewis Pass, and then tackle the 'big hike' which the whole group had been training for for months in the lead up. We were supposed to spend the night at Hope Kiwi Lodge, a 20-bed hut in Lake Sumner Forest Park, and then hike on to Lake Taylor Station, where we'd spend the final two nights, raft the Hurunui River, and then finish with a short bike ride from Spencer Park to North New Brighton in Christchurch City.
Unfortunately, the 'weather-bomb' we'd gulped collectively at on day one, arrived exactly as forecasted (when does THAT ever happen?!) - and so plan Bs, Cs, and Ds were put into affect. Aside from the weather we also had a flat tyre on the supply trailer, spark plugs on a support vehicle eaten by rats (really!), at least five broken mountain bikes, and a backcountry hut not open to the public!
Watching the staff of 180 Degrees take all of these issues comfortably in stride was great to watch. We still managed to call on the young people's training and hike to Cannibal Gorge Hut on the St James Walkway, where we stayed the night. Unfortunately we didn't manage to raft on the Hurunui river - which was running at an incomprehensibly high rate at the time of our traverse, however we managed to slot in an extra bike ride - through puddles so big we may as well have been rafting!
A colourful chain of hikers on St James' Walkway!
It wasn't only the staff who took all this in stride, but the young people too. They were clearly excited by the idea of being 'off the grid' for the 5 days - they even handed over their cell phones before we left Christchurch, and we only ever heard one complaint about that before they were given back on the final day!
The bad weather had the potential to derail the whole trip - these young people might have directed their frustration about the weather towards each other or the staff. Instead they seemed to all make the decision, individually, to allow it to be a connecting experience, and that seemed to surprise even the staff who work with them every day.
Charlotte and a few of the young people on another wet-weather afternoon, this one spent playing Uno!
On the final evening of the trip the whole group was encouraged to share their biggest challenge of the trip, one person who'd helped them, and one word to sum it all up. Some of the responses were predictable, but one or two were truly heartfelt, genuine, and well articulated.
The young man who was temporarily removed from the group on the evening of the first day, had a command over his peers which is difficult to put into words, but is something we've all seen before. When he spoke, everyone listened. He was the guy who made everyone laugh. He'd do all the stupid things they encouraged him to do, with total disregard for any injury he might incur (luckily never anything serious!) All of them seemed to look up to him as someone they should aim to be like - for good or ill!
So in the sharing session on the final evening, when he spoke, everyone listened again. And for him to say that he was sad the trip was over, after saying on the first night that he hated everyone and wanted to be back home, was a powerful moment - the magnitude of which didn't escape even the other young people on the trip. We expect there were a few satisfied glances between the staff in that moment too - though we didn't notice.
On the final day of the traverse, the young people did a short bike ride to North New Brighton, where they were greeted at the ceremony hall by friends, family members and carers.
Arriving at the finish line in North New Brighton, Christchurch
As a group they carried out the ceremonial pouring of the West Coast water into the East Coast's Pacific Ocean, and the traverse was complete! All that was left was to give certificates of achievement, and hear several of the young people, who had volunteered, give a speech about their adventure to the attendees.
Racing to the Pacific (East Coast) to empty out the West Coast water.
It was pretty clear to us that what this group had been through together was going to have a lasting impact on them. Some of these young people were moving on to new education (college), some to jobs, and some will return to 180 Degrees in the new year. Wherever they're headed, they'll be armed with new experiences and the knowledge that sharing in adversity and being willing to show your vulnerabilities is what leads us to meaningful relationships in work, in love, and in life - it's a lesson worth teaching, and we've never seen anyone do it better than the staff at 180 Degrees Trust.