Val Burnell and her husband Terry have led a full life as mountaineers. It’s a life that has been filled with adventure and compassion.
The story began when Terry Burnell began his mountain climbing career in the 1960’s. He’d been on several British expeditions, first in the Himalayas, then in the Andes.
On his way back to Britain, Terry took a detour to California to go climbing in Yosemite National Park. There he heard about Outward Bound, which was just a boys summer program at that time. He applied for the following year, in 1967.
Terry returned to Britain to go climbing in the Lake District in the north of England where he and his climbing group used to go climbing; that’s where Val and Terry met. They were married in 1968.
They planned to stay in the U.S. for two years and but it’s lasted 52. They have two children, a son, 48, and a daughter, 45.
They lived eight years in Lake City at Camp Red Cloud, the Outward Bound School.
Val Burnell explained the Outward Bound program’s history, accomplishments, and goals. “Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) is one of several OB schools around the country and the globe.”
She said that “It was started in Britain in WWII to train and motivate young sailors” by giving them survival skills, including emotional strength. Val explained that many more inexperienced British sailors “ were perishing when their ships went down, compared to seasoned older sailors who survived because of life experiences that gave them inner strength.”
The Colorado version of the Outward Bound program started on the Western Slope. “COBS operated out of Lake City at Red Cloud for many years but now has a permanent base at Leadville,” Val wrote. “It runs courses in the wilderness for male and female youth, adults, veterans, and companies, led by competent outdoor professionals to engage their students in situations not for survival but to challenge their perception of their personal capabilities.” The concept is to use the mountains and outdoors as a tool for self-awareness, and to push students to achieve their goals.
“This program is exceptionally successful in positively affecting their future endeavors, “ she said. “OB students include disadvantaged youths from the courts, halfway houses, etc., and encourages cooperation between the nine members of each patrol.”
But their adventures have been sustained by other pragmatic pursuits. The Burnells own a Montrose business called “Mountain Highwall Concrete”. It involves concrete work and micropile drilling for soil stabilization. He works with houses and buildings that are settling, a common problem in the this area. The company works in Montrose, Ridgway, Crested Butte.
Val taught school for several years in England before emigrating to the the United States. But she didn’t have a degree and license in the U.S. when she arrived. So, she did substitute work in every grade from kindergarten to high school in the Montrose schools. “I really liked the high school,” she said.
“But at that point Terry and I were leading treks to Nepal every fall,” she added.” 1999 was her first time. “We would go for 3 to 4 weeks. I love it and I love the people.”
“We were camping then, but now we stay in lodges. It’s very busy. That’s why we go in November because that’s when the weather’s best. You’re assured that you’ll see the view, there’s no cloudiness, no rain. And it’s warm during the day.”
She became close with Nepalese, both in Nepal and Montrose. She is president of a group known as the Western Colorado Friends of the Himalayas, a (501 c 3) non-profit corporation. “We came into some money left to us in a friend’s will, and when the earthquake occurred in 2015 in Nepal, we had raised considerable funds. Altogether we managed to send, without any middlemen, $94,000.”
She has been an Altrusa member for 32 years. For many years the Montrose Altrusa Club, a service club, and an international organization, has included up to $1,000 in its annual budget for the Altrusa International Relations Committee request to carry out specific humanitarian projects. They’ve had recipients in Mexico, Africa, Asia, in the past. Their most recent projects are in Nepal and the $1,000 contributes 25% to 30% to an annual major project initiated by Western Colorado Friends of the Himalayas.
“Over the last three years we built the first showers in this one village that we go to,” Val explained. “They’re off the beaten path so they don’t get trekkers coming through and donating money. It’s like going back 200 years.
“We’ve donated steel cook stoves that are double walled and burn fast and hot, and there isn’t the smoke to bother their eyes and lungs.
“We’ve taken them clothes, and built the first showers at the school— solar heated. The following year, we put new toilets in the school.“This year our project was community showers in the village”
In honor of their compassion and dedication, they won the Altrusa District 10 “We won the Altrusa District 10 International Award.”
At 75, she has two hip replacement surgeries. “That slows me down a little bit. In Nepal there’s no going uphill without going downhill. And some of them are steps. If we’re on the Annapurna side there’s a lot of steps and I have to use a stick. On the Everest side, although it’s up and down, it’s not quite as severe.”
“My life’s been mostly centered around children,” she mused—”my own children, my grandchildren, children at school—in Nepal and here.”