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Outwild merges scenic beauty with self-discovery. (Dally Tram @DallyHue)
Outside: Your comfort zone
Community and event series Outwild pairs nature with self-discovery
This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

‘The outdoors on training wheels’: Outwild pairs nature with self-discovery

Think of nature as a metaphorical steel lever.

Imagine the outdoors serving as a tool to pry open your life and peer into parts unexplored.

Jeremy Jensen is explaining what the community and event series Outwild is all about.

He knows it can be difficult to grasp, this concept he co-developed.

“It’s always a hard thing to sort of describe what we do,” Jensen acknowledges. “But I think the best way is that it’s outdoor rec that’s sort of the crowbar that opens everything up.”

Outwild founders Courtney Sanford, Jeremy Jensen and Sanni McCandless (Cat Runner)
Outwild founders Courtney Sanford, Jeremy Jensen and Sanni McCandless (Cat Runner)

Sitting next to him outside a Summerlin cafe on a winter afternoon is Sanni McCandless, one of three partners in Outwild. She knows a thing or two about grasping difficult things — namely, perilously steep cliffs and massive rock formations.

An award-winning life coach and accomplished climber who once spent a year on the road immersing herself in the wilderness across the globe, McCandless is merging both passions in her latest venture.

The idea: to use a series of annual retreats as a potential gateway to a more outdoor-centric lifestyle as well as a platform for self-discovery.

You might scale a crag during the day and then do the same with your emotions back at camp later that night.

“You kind of tell people, ‘Hey, we’re going to take you outside, and that is going to be awesome,” McCandless says. “But once they’re outside, then you say, ‘How do you feel about your life? How are you doing? What’s really hard for you right now?’

One of the ideas behind Outwild is to get participants out of their physical and emotional comf ...
One of the ideas behind Outwild is to get participants out of their physical and emotional comfort zones. (Cat Runner)

“The outdoors are totally an important part of it,” she continues. “You’re creating peak life moments for them, ‘I went on this trip, and I went climbing, I went canyoneering, I went whitewater rafting,’ and it’s really memorable. But while they’re there, you dig a little bit deeper, and you use the outdoors to kind of create space to be like, ‘Who are you when you’re stripped away of all your normal surroundings — and it’s just you? And it’s just nature?’ ”

Nature can be a little daunting, though, if you don’t have an entry point, if you don’t have much experience with the outdoors.

Outwild aims to serve as this gateway for someone who might need it — someone like Leslie Hart, a Canada native who’s taken several retreats with McCandless, Jensen and company.

Outwild features guided activities like hiking and rock climbing as a means of providing an ent ...
Outwild features guided activities like hiking and rock climbing as a means of providing an entry point to the outdoors for those who need one. (Dally Tram)

“I don’t have anyone in my immediate circle of friends or family that do those activities. So, I was feeling really trapped and really unable to get at it,” Hart says of what drew her to Outwild. “It’s a pathway. It does take time to gain skills and knowledge, but you can have the confidence to get in the outdoors and do it safely. It feels sort of like the outdoors on training wheels.”

A blend of life coaching, intentional living and the outdoors

She calls it “the insatiable momentum of the ordinary.”

McCandless is elaborating upon the challenges of establishing some breathing room from the daily routine, of getting a break from the inertia that can sometimes be generated by catering to life’s myriad responsibilities — not in order to escape those responsibilities, but maybe just re-prioritize them, examine whether they’re truly leading to personal fulfillment.

“It’s hard to kind of, like, get out of that rut and into a different one,” she notes.

McCandless knows this from experience.

In June 2016, McCandless, then living in Seattle, quit her marketing job in the tech industry to embark on outdoor adventures across Europe with her future husband, Alex Honnold, an iconic rock climber best known for becoming the first person to free solo climb the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 2017. His quest to do so was captured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” which also chronicles the early stages of his relationship with McCandless, who would simultaneously shift her focus to become a decorated life and transition coach for outdoor-focused clients.

Jensen, a Utah native and die-hard mountain athlete, traveled a similar path, leaving a successful career in management consulting to pursue something that resonated with him on a deeper level.

“I did that for many years, and just realized it wasn’t for me,” Jensen says of his consulting past. “But I think that was a really hard realization to come to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working for me.’ ”

Jensen subsequently founded Crux Academy, which offers free online courses on various outdoor endeavors taught by industry experts, as well as the “Adventurepreneur” podcast, where he met McCandless for the first time after inviting her on as a guest.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s got this blend of life coaching, intentional living and the outdoors,’ ” Jensen recalls. “And I was like, ‘That’s my jam.’ ”

During the podcast, McCandless mentioned that she had an interest in doing retreats some day — an interest that Jensen shared. Together, with McCandless’ friend Courtney Sanford, a Colorado-based project manager and event producer she first met in Seattle, the trio launched Outwild in 2018.

Outwild retreats are aimed at getting clients to disconnect from the 9-to-5 for a few days in a ...
Outwild retreats are aimed at getting clients to disconnect from the 9-to-5 for a few days in a Wi-Fi-free setting to try to connect more deeply with oneself. (Oars Rafting)

Their mission was multipronged, with a central aim to serve as a potential entry point to the outdoors.

“Let’s just face it, I think the outdoors can be a little bit of an intimidating space right now,” Jensen says, “whether you’re a female and you want to go hiking alone and you don’t feel safe, or you’re a climber and you want to go to the crag and don’t have anyone that you know and there’s all these great climbers all around you. I think we all came together with that shared vision of saying, ‘Well, maybe we can do something about that.’ ”

Just as integral to the Outwild experience is disconnecting from the 9-to-5 for a few days in a Wi-Fi-free setting to try to connect more deeply with oneself.

“I think we both really zeroed in on this idea that it’s hard to do life design sometimes when you’re just so in the day-to-day, when you’re so in the routine,” McCandless says. “We both just kind of realized, ‘If you really want this work to be impactful, you have to really get people out of that.’ We kind of knew, ‘We want to be this entry point, but we’re gonna have to get people away from their desks and their homes and their routines for a couple days.’ ”

In November 2018, Outwild hosted its first retreat in Malibu, California.

A typical day starts with a yoga session, followed by a guided outdoor activity of some sort and then workshops that might range from Jensen speaking on flow states to guest talks from such climbing greats as Nina Williams and Tommy Caldwell or a visit with champion mountain biker Eliot Jackson.

A typical day at an Outwild retreat often begins with a yoga session. (Dally Tram)
A typical day at an Outwild retreat often begins with a yoga session. (Dally Tram)

“Our retreat is outdoor stuff, but it’s equally — if not more — the workshop stuff,” Jensen says. “It’s having these very intensive conversations. How do we live life a little bit more intentionally? Because, let’s face it, it gets away from all of us. You blink, and you’re in the place that you don’t want to be.”

‘You go deep, pretty quickly’

Is my life turning out the way I want it to?

Am I doing the things that I really want to do?

If not, how do I fix it?

These are the kind of keep-you-up-night questions that can be tough to ask when standing in front of the mirror.

Wouldn’t it seem counterintuitive, then, for you to somehow feel more willing, more at liberty to pose them in front of a group of strangers?

Yet this paradox — or what seems like one on its face — lies at the heart of what Outwild is all about.

“So many of the conversations that happen at Outwild go far, far beyond even life design related to the outdoors,” says Jeff Kirsch, a Washington-based design manager who’s participated in several Outwild excursions. “Once you start cracking into these vulnerable topics, people have some really heartfelt discussions that have very little to do with that. It’s how they’re feeling about — for me, at least — like, being middle-aged, and what have I accomplished? What do I want to accomplish? What does accomplishment mean to me? So, you go deep, pretty quickly.”

But why is this the case?

Part of it is the setting.

“It gives you an opportunity to step away from the day to day,” Kirsch elaborates, “all of the busy stuff that you’re just caught up in doing and then sort of inspect like, ‘Is this what I want to be doing? Is this how I want to be spending my time?’ ”

But there’s more to it than that.

As McCandless explains, using the outdoors to nudge people out of their physical comfort zone can be a catalyst for doing the same when it comes to their emotional comfort zones.

Outwild participant Kristy Hamilton takes in the view. (Ted Hesser)
Outwild participant Kristy Hamilton takes in the view. (Ted Hesser)

“If you take someone who’s like, ‘I live in the Northeast; I work in consulting; getting outside for me is maybe going on a walk in my nearby park,’ and you take them canyoneering outside Zion (National Park in Utah), they’re really frickin’ uncomfortable,” she says. “But then they come home that night, they come back to the retreat center, and they’re like, ‘I’m still here. I got really uncomfortable, and it was totally fine. All these people from the retreat were there cheering me on, and I kind of came to the other side and I learned something about myself. I learned that I could do something I didn’t think I could do.’ And it’s essentially prototyping the process of changing your life.”

The change that McCandless speaks of is often incremental.

Both she and Jensen frequently talk about the value of small steps.

With Outwild, they’re just trying to help spur the first one.

“We get people who have these really emotional experiences and breakthroughs at the event,” Jensen says. “It’s been the honor of my life to see that happen by just a little idea we had a few years ago, just by giving people the confidence that they can do something and prove to themselves that they can overcome barriers.

“I get chills, you know,” he smiles. “That’s cool work.” ◆

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