A tribute to Karl Rohnke
Written by: Margo Nottoli
It was a cold and foggy day, in fall 1969, the first time I drove up to the Table Rock Base Camp. I’d been told there was no educational model as potent as Outward Bound’s. That lives were changed for the better through some alchemy of challenge and wilderness. That I simply had to see the place for myself. The road was rugged, the office—a gnarly brown trailer, and staff housing—mostly platform tents. Yet despite the rustic state of the place, base camp felt drenched in a subtle sense of the extraordinary. I walked up the trail toward the rock climbing site wondering who, from this humble platform, could lead such life-changing experiences. There suddenly emerged, from dense fog and rhododendrons, a spartan-looking fellow, covered in ropes and a climbing rack, lost in a reverie that looked like a cross between bliss and triumph. I recall thinking “yes, of course, THIS is who.” That man, it turned out, was Karl Rohnke.
Karl worked at NCOBS as Senior Instructor from 1969 to 1971. He embodied courage, boundless creativity, and a tenacious commitment to discovering one’s best. Karl passed away in September 2020. We pause now to remember this giant of man, and to give thanks for his inspiration, his professional contributions, and above all, his lifelong commitment to making the world a better place—a student at a time.
During his time at NCOBS, Karl carved a legacy of innovation and inspiration. Directed by a deep commitment to learning through challenge and adventure, Karl instructed courses, trained new instructors, designed the first high ropes course at Table Rock, set many challenging climbing routes, and inspired everyone he met to reach for their best.
In the early 1970s, fresh from his leadership role at NCOBS, Karl became one of the founders of Project Adventure—an organization that exerted a seminal influence upon the field of experiential outdoor education. Among his many contributions during this period, Karl’s books—starting in 1977 with the famed “Cowtails and Cobras: A guide to Ropes Courses, Initiative Games and other Adventure Activities”—provided a wealth of activities for experiential programming. He was best known for developing the Challenge by Choice ideology which he actively practiced with his students on ropes courses for several years before it became widely adopted. Perhaps most endearing to his colleagues, though, was that Karl coined the term FUNN (Functional Understanding Not Necessary) to emphasize how well fun fosters engagement and interaction.
In the early 1970s, fresh from his leadership role at NCOBS, Karl became one of the founders of Project Adventure—an organization that exerted a seminal influence upon the field of experiential outdoor education. Among his many contributions during this period, Karl’s books—starting in 1977 with the famed Cowtails and Cobras: A guide to Ropes Courses, Initiative Games, and other Adventure Activities—provided a wealth of activities for experiential programming. He was best known for developing the Challenge by Choice ideology which he actively practiced with his students on ropes courses for several years before it became widely adopted. Perhaps most endearing to his colleagues, though, was that Karl coined the term FUNN (Functional Understanding Not Necessary) to emphasize how well fun fosters engagement and interaction.
Thousands of educators and their students were positively impacted by Karl. His influence is immeasurable:
“When I was a young and impressionable field instructor learning my way through group facilitation, Karl Rohnke’s books acted as my bible, my toolbox, and my headlamp all wrapped into one. Through Karl’s writing, ideas, and activities, I practiced, experientially, how to teach, how to lead, and how to learn. With those wonderful-sounding titles like Cowstails and Cobras, Quicksilver, and Silver Bullets, Rohnke introduced me to a world and a philosophy for learning that I carry with me to this day…In his writing, there is deep understanding and insight about facilitation, leadership, and teaching that apply across a range of fields and lines of work. And, perhaps most importantly, his work beautifully expresses the simple but transformative power in having fun and working together.”
Jay Roberts, Ph.D., Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Warren Wilson College
“Karl Rohnke was one of the key leaders of experiential education in the US and internationally. I do not know all of the awards and honors he received in his distinguished career but some of the highlights are these: The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) “Kurt Hahn Award “ (the AEE equivalent of the Nobel Prize); AEE’s “Michael Stratton Practitioner’s Award;” and then, AEE created an award—the “Karl Rohnke Creativity Award.” These awards are presented at the AEE International Conference every year. Karl also received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Unity College, Maine.” (see xxx for full remembrance)
Jasper S. Hunt, Jr. Ph.D.; Professor Emeritus of Experiential Education and Leadership Studies; Minnesota State University
We are deeply grateful to Karl. He forged a values framework not only for NCOBS but for generations of outdoor educators. Peter Young, NCOBS Instructor during these formative years, says “Karl’s active caring, love for everyone, and for life infused his being”. Karl’s legacy carries forward at NCOBS each day. As we turn into the historic challenges before us, we honor Karl and draw courage and inspiration from his life’s work. It is with the deepest gratitude for this strong mantle that we press on.
“I graduated from Washington & Lee University in 1960, with subsequent academic time spent at Cal State Long Beach and Humboldt State. Bolstered by a degree in biology and graduate work in education, I impulsively signed on as an ordinary seaman/wiper in the Merchant Marine (banana boat out of Baltimore), followed by an illogical segue as an oil field roustabout(ARCO, Long Beach, CA), culminating with two interesting years as a drafted medical tech in the U.S. Army. Upon discharge I took advantage of my biology, medical, and education background by accepting a position as an outdoor education teacher in Southern Cal . . .finally, something occupationally concurrent with my training. Since that time (mid-60’s), I’ve been an eager “player” in the field of experiential/adventure education. I served as a watch officer at Hurricane Island Outward Bound in 1967, and chief instructor at the North Carolina Outward Bound School until 1971. I left Outward Bound to become one of the founders of the Project Adventure program in Hamilton, MA and worked there continuously until 1996.”
“It was a memorable morning the day Karl brought me to NCOBS. Tomorrow, November 1, 1969, was our mountain-top wedding date. Today was the day of introductions: Meeting in-laws to be, observing the awesome display of autumn leaves, and breathing in as I embedded an everlasting memory of the remote beauty of my pending home.
As Karl urged me along to the office trailer, he indicated the rustic Phillips Building. It would soon be transformed into our historic wedding site when Mother Nature intervened and sent a gully-washer rainstorm compelling a change in plans. For now, we were heartened by the welcome of a warm and inviting staff, our guests, and my new community.
Living on-site at NCOBS was a life-altering experience; everything from lifestyle changes and diverse social-cultural norms to environmental challenges and course demands. The introverted ‘family man’ with fun and adventurous tendencies that I knew and loved was developing a new perspective of himself and his capabilities. He was totally engaged in his role, absorbed in the grueling program, and prioritized his colleagues. Karl was a big presence, and his expectations were in line with OB philosophy.
Reality taught us, “To serve to strive and not to yield” sometimes needed negotiated qualifiers. Throughout our relationship, those events in life that undermined one’s life and peace of mind were referred to as “Obies”. We faced several over the years. All preparation, as Karl’s, and my, biggest Obie was developing; heralded by the random symptoms that took doctors over ten years to diagnose as Lewy Body Dementia with Parkinsonism. We colluded to identify “Lewy” as a separate entity, allowing space for Karl to be himself rather than his illness. Karl’s indomitable spirit remained, even as his comprehension waned. He led with humor, persistence, and retained what the family had dubbed his ‘Rohnke charm’. Deeply missed, Karl will forever be my hero.”
Gloree Rohnke, Bottomless Bag Publications, LLC
“Karl Rohnke, recently deceased, was one of the key leaders of experiential education nationally in the United States and internationally. I do not know all of the awards and honors he received in his distinguished career but some of the highlights are: The Association for Experiential Education “Kurt Hahn Award and Address” (the A.E.E. equivalent of the Nobel Prize), A.E.E. “Michael Stratton Practitioner’s Award”, and A.E.E. created an award named after Karl, the “Karl Rohnke Creativity Award”. All of these awards are presented at the Association for Experiential Education International Conference every year. Karl received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Unity College, Maine. Karl was one of the founding directors of “Project Adventure” an internationally recognized educational organization. Prior to starting Project Adventure, he served in senior leadership positions at North Carolina Outward Bound School. Karl published widely in experiential education and his publications are recognized as essential resources for experiential educators.”
Jasper S. Hunt, Jr. Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Experiential Education and Leadership Studies, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota
“So many memories of Karl – all positive, even inspirational! But one that comes back repeatedly occurred with a crew on a long hike. Karl was instructor, I, assistant instructor; we had crossed the gorge and were scheduled to hike for 4 days to Mount Mitchell. As we trudged along, Karl said, “I’m bored.” After a short discussion, we proposed to the students that, if we made the hike in 3 days, they could have the 4th day off. So, we busted it and made it in 3. Karl called the school; a van came to pick us up; we went back to the School.
After an hour on the 4th day, Karl said, “I’m bored.” We roused the students, who were none too thrilled, but we promised going to the ropes course. Part way through the obstacles, rain bucketed us; we had to exit the course. So, Karl says, “Pete is with this half and I’m with the other half; whoever gets to the top, wins. We all haul ass uphill. Then, who can get to the bottom first; then the top; then the bottom; then the top. By which point we were all drenched and caked in mud. We ran to the Phillips building just to run and yell at the cooks. Then down to the dip pool, plunge in, laughing, exhilarated, spent.
We returned the students to their tents. They were massively psyched! As always, Karl juiced the group into vibrant activity and camaraderie. His active caring, love for everyone, for life infused his being.”
Peter Young, NCOBS Instructor, 1967 -1970,1974, 1984, 1986, 1985- Climbing Instructor
“I was also fortunate to work with Karl during the 70, 71 years. What I remember is how Karl was always challenging himself personally to stretch physically, to think outside the box, to go in more creative directions. Being around him, you challenged yourself because you wanted to be like him. During those early NCOBS years, I felt we were literally inventing OB. Karl modeled and embodied this, so there were many creative “I’ll bet we could……,” then a week later you heard someone had taken their crew and done it. Instances I remember…. the first night of the all-women’s course/crews, we rappelled them into the caves under the chimneys and bivouacked…another crew all climbed a tree and roped each other in and spent the night like monkeys. While climbing staff drooled over “Royal Robbins boots” (expensive and royal blue), Karl advocated Hush Puppies which he usually climbed Table Rock in.
There were also lots of “competitions” to see if you could extend your own personal records….running DOWN the Bastard Trail toward meals after a day of Table Rock climbs, pull up and finger hang time on the chimney stones in the dining hall. Karl was also into snakes and kept a few in cages. I remember his teaching sequence on pit vipers where he demonstrated their striking heat. He would fill water balloons with hot and cold water then show how the snake struck the hot, or he also used tin foil, heated.
Karl’s ropes course builds were often evil genius. His flea jump scared me to death since the landing site was usually wet. The tire over tree problem was a great team builder. Who today would stretch 400 or 500 yards of steel cable behind a jeep, cross a ravine, secure it to a tree, then put a cable pulley on and jump out of a gigantic white pine for the zip line ride? Thank you, Karl, you inspired many of us to live lives out of the box and go for it.”
Chip Bell, NCOBS Instructor/Climbing Instructor 1970-1972
“We (Jed and Perry) met Karl at NCOBS in May of 1969. We came down to be instructors on the famous NC13 course – Upward Bound kids from Middletown, CT. Karl was a Course Director and worked with us on ropes and rocks. That was the course during which, among other things, the kids took over the dining hall in the Phillips Building. But when Karl got out one of the diamondback rattlesnakes to show them, they got quiet.
We spent the rest of the summer at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School but came back to NCOBS in September after accepting Murray Durst’s offer to be the Assistant Director. During that fall and winter, we did a number of seminars on-site. We lived in one of the “mobile homes” – as did Karl and Gloree. We had some exciting moments, not associated with any of the courses or seminars.
Karl took on the job of building a new ropes course on a steep grade, beginning with an inclined log that got one 20 feet or so off the ground in a hurry! My job (Jed) was to be Karl’s guinea pig. “Hey Jed, come out and try this new element.” Such things as the “flea leap” stepping downhill from one small platform to the next), the giant swing (put your feet on the knot and DON’T let go), and the zipline to end all zip lines at the time. “Karl, I don’t think there is enough drape to allow you to come to a stop before the pine tree the line is anchored to at the bottom.” Karl agreed. But he had a plan. Four or six students would hold sleeping bags up across at the end, about six feet apart from each other. The last sounds made before just about hitting the tree were, “Fap, Fap, Fap!” Well, it worked, but I don’t know if the insurance company knew about it – or how many years after we left in winter of 1971 it was used…
Perry: About mid-summer, we had a snake incident. Karl had a cage where he kept at least a few diamondbacks and copper heads. The cage had an angled framed glass lid, and the rig was directly below the floor level of the First Aid tent platform – which was close to our trailer. A metal box dropped down from the tent floor and broke the top of the snake cage and I just happened to be leaving our trailer when I saw all these snakeheads exploring ways to escape. I grabbed a broom and, being very pregnant, waddled quickly over to the cage and started to bat the snakeheads down, all the while yelling “HELP” until Karl arrived to take over.
Jed: Sometime during the early winter of 1970 – a month or so after our daughter Heather was born, skunks became an issue – because they could get into our trailers. One night I came back quite late from Charlotte where I was on a fundraising visit with Rufus Dalton, our Board Chair. I got quietly into bed, but Perry was awake. Perry greeted me with a story of skunks being in the trailer the night before. I waited for them to leave and put Jed’s climbing hardware over the hole they came up through (where pipes enter). Jed finally believed me when he had one sniffling and scratching in his hair. So, I got up carefully and went into the kitchen, and got out the wet garbage pail. The skunk liked it and hopped in. I closed the lid, brought it up to the office trailer, and put the contents in an empty 30-gallon pail. Back to bed. Perry said, “There’s another one.” This one was bigger and decided to check out Heather’s crib. This gave me time to set up another enticement—raw eggs and sour cream in the empty garbage pail. The skunk fell for it. I dumped it in with the other skunk and left a note for Karl: “Take garbage pail out to Jonas Ridge, empty contents, return to base. Do NOT open lid until time to dump.” Karl said, “The smell was so bad I could stand on it.” He was not happy with this assignment. But we did thank him!
So many other memories. These are some of the important ones for us, along with great conversations, social events with Gloree and the rest of the gang, and a sense of Karl’s deep commitment to learning through challenge and adventure.”
Jed Williamson, NCOBS’ Acting Director from 1969-1971 and Perry Williamson, NCOBS Instructor, 1969-1970
“When I was a young and impressionable field instructor learning my way through group facilitation, Karl Rohnke’s books acted as my bible, my toolbox, and my headlamp all wrapped into one. Through Karl’s writing, ideas, and activities, I practiced, experientially, how to teach, how to lead, and how to learn. With those wonderful-sounding titles like Cowstails and Cobras, Quicksilver, and Silver Bullets, Rohnke introduced me to a world and philosophy for learning that I carry with me to this day. Some who may not know any better might dismiss Karl’s work as “just about games and ropes course stuff.” Oh, but they are so wrong. In his writing, there is deep understanding and insight about facilitation, leadership, and teaching that apply across a range of fields and lines of work. And, perhaps most importantly, his work beautifully expresses the simple but transformative power in having fun and working together.”
Jay Roberts, Ph.D., Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC (Jay is the author of three books all published by Routledge Press Beyond Learning By Doing (2011); Experiential Education in the College Context (2016); and a new title out in fall of 2021– Risky Teaching: Harnessing the power of uncertainty in higher education)
“Karl was both model and mentor across a lifetime. In 1969, I was awed by his physical presence and his extraordinary skills. His humor and humility stood out. Over the years, he offered guidance and life lessons for which I am deeply grateful. I recall that the first day of rock climbing for the 1969 instructors was led by Karl. He took us to Rocks II. By way of demonstration, he climbed the right face that was slightly overhung. His technique left us gasping. He approached the wall, leaped to vertical handholds six feet apart and seven feet high, then literally did an iron cross in which he pulled himself up the face until he had cleared the overhang and could jam his boot toe into a horizontal crack half-way up. From there, he sprang to the top and mantled his body over the ledge. I never saw anyone do that on that climb again.”
Joe Beckham, NCOBS Instructor, 1969, 1972-1974
“Certainly, for those of us who were fortunate enough to work directly with Karl during the early, formative days of both NCOBS and our young lives, Karl was a giant upon whose shoulders we still stand. The first summer of NCOBS was spent primarily as a ’Sherpa,’ which was Karl’s term for ‘gofer.’ It is still the best summer I have ever spent because of the opportunity to learn from him and others. For me at least, he will always embody the true spirit of what OB is all about: exploring the bounds of what is possible within ourselves.”
Dan Madden, NCOBS Sherpa, Instructor, photographer, 1970-1974