Fernie is home to quite a unique and hands-on educational opportunity that is going into its 28th year, the Mountain Adventure Skills Training program (MAST) through the College of the Rockies. Originally developed and run by Brian Bell for its first 25 years, when he retired the reigns were passed on to a new Program Coordinator and Instructor – Sarah Osberg.
This program has been a stepping-stone for many who live, work and run businesses in our community today. From ski patrol to river guides to technicians with Avalanche Canada, these individuals put the skill sets gained from the MAST program to use and add value to our community in countless ways.
Knowing Brian and his background, and then meeting with Sarah and learning about her own path to this position, is extremely impressive. As someone who considers themselves a mountain enthusiast (or used to…) the education, personal experience and work experience they have gained is clearly what allows them to excel in leading a group of students through 14 industry certifications alongside in-class instruction on subjects such as Risk Management, Natural History, Guiding and Leadership, Adventure Tourism, Wilderness Travel Theory and Entrepreneurship.
Sarah had the opportunity to grow up in Vancouver, where her parents exposed her and her siblings to the outdoors. “It’s what united them as a couple,” she tells me.
One of four girls, she believes her dad’s hobby building strip canoes was enhanced by a need for some quiet time.
“We took wilderness canoe trips that would span three weeks from Port Hardy. It was pretty unique, camping on remote beaches. We also did a lot of hiking and skiing, the North Shore is incredible for recreation and its access to the Sea to Sky corridor,” she adds.
Once out of High School, Sarah attended the University of Victoria studying a Bachelor or Education.
“Half-way through I went travelling to Central America and then did the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training program at Strathcona Park Lodge on Vancouver Island. That is what got me started on the outdoor career trajectory,” Sarah says. “My only jobs have been outdoor-oriented. I worked at an outdoor education centre teaching outdoor education and guiding adults and families. I started an outdoor hike and canoe program in the Gulf Islands. I went to the Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability in Education. Summers I would work for Outward Bound out of Washington State. As a lot of outdoor work is seasonal, I was able to be a ski bum in winters and fell in love with backcountry skiing.”
Sarah’s list of training and job experiences is so impressive, I can barely keep up especially as many are new to my ear and I’m learning alongside feeling a bit of awe.
She also worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School, an American Organization where she did training in Wyoming. “Ski touring in the Tetons is phenomenal,” she shares. Sarah also had the opportunity to travel to Patagonia, Washington, BC and Alaska to work.
Somewhere in this outdoor trajectory, Sarah went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to complete her Masters in Science in Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainability Education. Of course, she brought her backcountry and winter camping gear travelling around parts of Europe. “It was so good,” she tells me. And while my backcountry dreams in Europe are more from a bike, I’m still jealous.
There is so much more that can be included, but you get the picture – Sarah has done and continues to do a lot in the outdoor recreation field making her an excellent fit with Fernie’s MAST program. But just how did she end up here?
Along the way, Sarah worked with a variety of people who had graduated from the MAST program.
“I knew about it from the time I was 21. They were all so skilled and competent and easy going. One of the guys I worked with always skied with his eyes, and it made me pursue backcountry skiing. I came as a shadow for the MAST program and met Brian, working on lake water instructor training for the Recreational Canoe Association of BC. I was intrigued. I was on MAT leave with my second child when the position came up and learned even more about the program when I applied as I did a lot of research on it.”
Now in her third year with MAST, Sarah says it’s such a well set-up program that she hasn’t changed it, just adjusts here and there so its suited to the class. “What is my audience?” She asks herself. Each year she and the other instructors are introduced to a different group with a different set of strengths and interests.
“It is a unique program internationally. There are a few other programs in BC offering something similar but different. The MAST advantage is that we are in Fernie. It is incredible what we can do from our doorstep, it’s all here. We have committed, incredible guides and our tuition is affordable when compared with competitors, especially when you take into consideration the number of certifications students gain upon completing the program.”
The minimum age for the program is 19 years old, and the range is typically from 19 to individuals in their 50s. They typically have a quarter to half female students, depending on the year.
“I feel very lucky to teach them. They are all motived as it’s exactly where they want to be. It’s a challenging, experiential program that requires you to be active, thoughtful and calculated,” Sarah adds.
Now in her third year, with a good grasp on the program Sarah’s goal is for MAST to be known Internationally as technical, skills-based training with an incredible reputation and a robust waitlist.
“I don’t see the need to change the program’s structure, just to continue to match the program with the students coming in so we are challenging and offering the best programming for them. Of course, I always would like more equipment and hope to see additional housing opportunities so that the program can continue to be offered here.”
Knowing the caliber and number of MAST alumni already making an impact in Fernie, it is obvious this is an excellent program and we look forward to seeing what the class of 2024 move on to do… hopefully in the Elk Valley!
Visit cotr.bc.ca/programs/mountain-adventure-skills-training to learn more about MAST.
1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here?
I arrived in 2020 in June and the MAST program brought me here, as the Program Coordinator.
2. Who do you remember first meeting?
Anita Palmer at the College. I love her connection to place and growing up in Grasmere and the leadership she has.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie?
I think it’s just such a beautiful valley. The first thing we did was go down to the Elk River, wade in the river, throw rocks, admired the Three Sisters and the natural spaces in Fernie.
4. What keeps you here?
The mountains, community, just the incredible opportunity for my family, and the engaging work… I just love my job.
5. Do you have a favourite pastime?
My most favourite thing to do is backcountry skiing. Absolutely. And maybe powder skiing, that feeling of flying in the snow.
6. What time of the year do you love most and why?
Winter because of powder.
7. Where do you see or hope to see the Fernie in five years.
I still consider myself new to Fernie, it’s an inviting community and a very engaged outdoor oriented community. People really care here. I would like to see people stay here, for there to be less of a financial barrier for people to stay.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
A cup of coffee and giving my little humans big hugs. I wake up to snuggles.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
I love a good project. I like doing creative problem solving… home renovations are actually fun for me or figuring out how to fix a stove or repair a dishwasher. I love figuring out how to resolve a physical problem.
10. Quote or saying that you live by: It is a Kurt Hahn quote, who started Outward Bound – There is more in you than you know.