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Outdoor Education Philosophy
Outdoor Education Theory

The Adventure Alternative
- Colin Mortlock

James Neill
Last updated:
25 Jul 2004

The Adventure Alternative - Colin Mortlock

"The Adventure Alternative" emerged in 1984 by Colin Mortlock (from the UK) in his efforts to bridge the gap between pure mountaineering/adventure type literature and outdoor education literature.  Mortlock himself was a strong climbing and paddling adventurer and he took his can do spirit and belief in people's inner capacities to learn and handle challenge to what some may consider an extreme extent with novice students.  In this sense, Mortlock perhaps represents a British era-equivalent philosophical educational adventurer much as Willi Unsoeld was in the US.

Mortlock provides an adventure education philosophy which thrives on the energy and human possibilities which are released and realized when engaged with true adventure.  Mortlock is a strong advocate for exposing people to genuine risk experiences at the edge of people's abilities, whatever the form of outdoor adventure, whether on land, at height, at sea, or underground.

In the opening pages of "The Adventure Alternative", Mortlock recounts stories of various groups of adolescents he took under his wing and was able to rapidly equip them to independently undertake high adventure expeditions and experiences.  Mortlock's theme here follows in the tradition of Kurt Hahn, in that people are seen as capable of much more than they generally realize, but that due to post-industrial values and lifestyles in modern Western society, there is much less real physical risk and danger, resulting in fewer opportunities for people to discover their inner capabilities.

Mortlock adds an important qualification to his otherwise glowing depiction of the value of adventure.  Mortlock embraces to the heart of his philosophy his observation over the years that that what is adventurous for one person is a dawdle for another and is dangerous or harmful to another person - what is one's person's meat is another person's poison.  Thus, Mortlock emphasizes that is the subjective nature of an adventure experience which is paramount and this subjective experience stems from a combination of the objective physical task (including environmental conditions) and the person's capabilities and resources at the time.  In this sense, Mortlock's philosophy is closely aligned with John Dewey's theory of experience, viewing experience as emerging from the coming together of all that is accumulated from past experience and how that interacts surrounding circumstances e.g., the activity, the teacher, the environment, the group, etc.

Mortlock's adventure philosophy centers on proposing the existence of four basic "adventure states", which progress in intensity from:

Stage 1: Play: Characterized by little emotion through relatively easy participation in activities which are below the person's skill level

Stage 2: Adventure: (Characterized by enjoyment and excitement, where a person's is using his her capabilities more fully, but the person maintains control over the situation and his/her self

Stage 3: Frontier Adventure: Characterized by peak experience, which emerges from a person experiencing adventurous challenges very close to his/her limits.  If the person succeeds, then generally a peak experience is had, but there is real risk of pushing too far and falling/failing, leading  to Stage 4.

Stage 4: Misadventure: Characterized by a person choosing or being forced to participate in challenges beyond his/her capabilities, resulting in negative emotions (fear, hurt, etc.), possibly injury and even ultimately death.

Simon Priest extended Mortlock's conceptualization of the adventure experience, in the Adventure Experience Paradigm.

Review by Roger Greenway:

The shift from outdoor pursuits to adventure education was inspired by Colin Mortlock and his little red book entitled 'Adventure Education and Outdoor Pursuits' (1973). The Adventure Alternative (1984) marks the next big shift in the UK - the integration of environmental awareness into adventure education. This passionate book illustrates how much young people can achieve when given the opportunity. The educational principles in praise of adventure shine out from the meandering undercurrent of political and social commentary.


Mortlock, C. (1984). The Adventure Alternative.  Cicerone Press: Cumbria, UK.