Mobilization and Events

Changing the World One Youth at a Time: Q&A with Backpacker’s Jon Dorn

bcm coverThere’s a saying within some philanthropy circles that goes, “you can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one person.”

According to some estimates, 1.3 million youth drop out of high school each year. That’s 3,500 students a day who enter the real world without finishing a basic education, much less developing any skills in leadership or teamwork. Reversing those kinds of numbers, would require big government programs, lots of politicking and many meetings.

Big City Mountaineers would argue otherwise; they take America’s inner city youth into just one meeting. But this meeting is not held in a classroom – it’s held outside. Wayyy outside. BCM takes at-risk youth on mountaineering trips where they experience the harshness and beauty of the outdoors, many for the first time. It’s like shock therapy, except that on the other side comes leadership skills, self-esteem and a new drive for life.

Aiding this organization in their mission is former Editor in Chief of Backpacker Magazine, and current SVP of AIM Media, Jon Dorn. Dorn is no stranger to BCM as a one time head of the organization. Now, he helps raise funds so other climbers can replicate his efforts. I had the opportunity to chat with Dorn on his latest fundraising efforts through BCM’s Summit for Someone program.


Yoon Kim: Summit for Someone. How does this fundraiser work?
Jon Dorn: It’s kind of like the mountaineering version of ‘Race for the Cure’. Each climber is required to raise $3000- $4000 for BCM and in return, get professionally guided climbs from Whitaker Mountaineering and Sierra Mountaineering International along with some free gear from Mountain Gear. Everyone does it at cost or pro bono, so fundraising is effective.

Because of this model, Backpacker has driven thousands into the program. It started in ‘05 or ‘06 and now it’s up to 150 – 200 climbers a year and generating a lot of revenue.

YK: You have 60 Backpacker readers joining you this month for a climb. How did that happen?
To back up, last April, I organized eight friends to climb Mt. Whitney as a BCM fundraiser. We went out, raised money, but didn’t summit. There was a high avalanche risk and it was called off, which was smart decision, but, it started eating away at me.

Last summer, I decided it was time to get Whitney back on the calendar. But instead of taking buddies, I decided to take some backpacker readers. So in the August issue, I took a quarter page asking readers to join the climb. The deadline was mid September, maybe 2-3 weeks out, and I figured maybe we’d get six to seven people. 75 people total applied. Kurt Wedberg [owner of Sierra Mountaineering] only had 40 spots [allocated to him] in all of April. So he went to Forest Service and got permitted for up to 60 people.

So I went back to the 75 – and said whoever plunked their $250 deposit got the spot. Out of that 75 – the first 60 were in – and BCM is working to place the other fifteen.

YK: Tell me a bit about the trip itself.
JD: There are six teams of ten. One team comes down, one goes up, and they’ll meet each other somewhere along the way. In the meantime, great outdoor companies supply gear to help fundraising. DeLorm is distributing 20 beta tests of their new inReach device and letting readers keep them when they’re done. The North Face has two pro climbers to lead teams: Cedar Wright and Peter Athens. We have a bunch of boots from Lowa.

I’m doing climbs two through four. Cedar and Pete are doing five and six. Cedar did one of his expeditions for BCM that brought more than 10k. He grew up as a BCM kid and was what he’d describe as a ‘punk youth’. He had some substance issues then discovered climbing. He’s a good fit for BCM and a previous supporter.

dorn1YK: Looks like you’ve been doing this for a while. How’d you start?
I’ve been doing this for four years. I was asked by colleagues at Backpacker to volunteer for one of BCM’s weeklong trips which proved profoundly life changing for me.

I saw the degree to which the wilderness experience changed their perspective and possibilities in life. I knew that when you’re teaching leadership in the wilderness, you’re instilling critical life skills – if they can learn to read a map as a group and work through the backcountry – something we do – then they’re learning leadership, collaboration, and problem solving.

The first kids I worked with were in South Florida – a particularly hard area. This group of kids was 14-17 years olds, many from broken homes. The second year we went to South Central Los Angeles. That really opened my eyes.

YK: How does BCM track progress?
JD: There’s an independent third party analysis that BCM goes through to document changes. There’s some key categories social scientists look at like self esteem, appreciation for rights of others, and communication skills. All those are key skills and give kids the confidence to stay in school, off drugs and out of gangs. BCM scores really high affecting those behaviors. After more than a decade, I could really see the effects of the research and curriculum.

In the early days, the curriculum was just me flying by the seat of my pants. But, over time, I learned what was effective, so I modified the curriculum accordingly.


YK: What are the climbers doing to raise funds?
JD: I’ve seen people do bowling nights, raffles, cupcakes sales, massages, professional services to gear. I’ve even seen a golf tournament. One time, we even had a wine distributor use his contacts and availability to sell off a stock of wine.

Every now and then, people ask their friends, family, and even tap their company for matching grants. There are also donations from local foundations but by and large, these are $25-$100 donations so lots of different people are touched by 60 climbers. That’s an awful lot of people hearing about BCM.


Where does BCM find the youth?
JD: Local youth agencies network throughout major metro areas. For instance, Denver, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland have operations managers who know and hire from Boys and Girls Clubs and school administrators. The simple answer is a lot of networking.

YK: How can Millennials get involved?
We’re always looking for more people to volunteer as mentors. We need them for one and two day activities, as well as the week long trip. We need people with the outdoor skillset, but don’t quite need the professional climber quality. We’re looking for people who want to give back to kids, provide advice, and participate as mentors.

There’s one specific opportunity to participate at

. For the next 10k in fundraising that come in through my page, every dollar will be matched. Last I checked we were at $8,500 in donations.


YK: Any last words?
JD: I’ve been asking around, and I haven’t found a mountaineering event on US soil that has this many people in one event. It’s funny how the appeal has become 

so great. I wonder what next year will bring? We may do a different next year. Maybe we talk to Outdoor Nation and make it an event for 15-25 people instead of 25-50 backpackers. There’s definitely something here.

Check out what’s next for BCM.