When Dolph Kuss first arrived in Durango in 1953, he says he was "one of the few people other than cattle people who'd ever go into what is now the Weminuche Wilderness Area. I'd come back and people would ask me, 'What did it look like up there?'" Kuss says.
Thanks to Kuss and a band of followers, students at Fort Lewis College today don’t have to ask those kinds of questions.
An avid and competitive Nordic and alpine skier, Kuss is no stranger to the backcountry or adventure. Born at high altitude in Leadville in1930, he soon grew into an outstanding skier, representing the Rocky Mountain Division in the first Junior National Alpine Championship in 1948 and earning awards for his contributions to junior skiing from the U.S. Ski Association. While in the Army during the Korean War, Kuss also won alpine and Nordic ski championships in the Far East.
He brought that competitive spirit with him to FLC, where he taught from 1964 to 1990. He was a Nordic ski coach for the U.S. Ski Team from 1963 through 1972, including the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He help develop both Durango’s Chapman Hill and Purgatory Ski Area. And as FLC’s men’s ski coach from 1965–76, his skiers earned several NCAA championships and All-America honors. He also organized the 1975 NCAA Ski Championships, held at Purgatory.
All this would already make Kuss a legend in Durango and beyond – which is why he was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1990 and the FLC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995. But what Kuss is best remembered for on the FLC campus is his instrumental role in launching FLC’s Outdoor Pursuits program in 1977.
By the mid-1970s, Kuss, then a Physical Education professor, could see outdoor recreation booming – but he could also see many of his students staring longingly toward those nearby peaks, often lacking the gear or know-how to get out and see for themselves what it looks like up there. So in 1976, Kuss and one of his students at the time, John Byrd (Mathematics, ’77), persuaded the Associated Students of Fort Lewis College to fund the Outdoor Pursuits program to run trips, offer training, and loan outdoor equipment to students, faculty, and staff.
“Outdoor Pursuits provides outdoor and social experiences emphasizing environmental awareness, outdoor education, challenges, personal development, managed risk, and a sense of community and fun,” said the original proposal to ASFLC. “The program will act as a clearing house for information on skills and trip possibilities in the local area. It will also try to make available expensive or specialized equipment needed for some activities.”
At its birth in 1977-78 school year, Outdoor Pursuits was located in a small room in the College Union Building, says Walt Walker (Physical Education, ‘78), another of Kuss’ students, who after graduating returned to run Outdoor Pursuits from 1980 to 2000 and today is the Risk Manager for La Plata County. "When I showed up there were ten backpacks, ten sleeping bags, and ten tents. And that was it."
In spite of its humble beginnings, Outdoor Pursuits boomed along with the popularity of outdoor recreation. Today OP is housed in the Student Life Center and warehouses an expansive variety of outdoor gear, including skiing, backpacking, boating, and bicycling equipment. The program has some 800 members, making it one of the most popular activities on campus, and offers up to 35 trips per year, as well as frequent clinics, movies, service projects, and outings for all skill levels.
“We have a saying, ‘Let the mountains, deserts, and rivers speak for themselves,’” says present OP Coordinator Brett Davis. “I think we are able to, through this program, get students out there and facilitate experiences that are physically and emotionally safe, but that expand their worlds. And that's why I, and all of us here at OP, do this work -- to be out there with the students, using the natural world as opportunities for learning to happen on a bigger scale, on a life scale.”