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Jim Himmes

Caramie Schnell

It took Jim Himmes a year-and-a-half working as a mechanical engineer in Illinois to realize that he’d rather be skiing. One day Jim was talking to his boss and realized something profound, yet simple.”I had a revelation that all of this high tech stuff I was doing wasn’t doing anything towards helping our society,” Jim says. “Technology, at that time, seemed to be getting us into more problems than out. I had a flash one day while I was sitting and talking with my boss. We were discussing what happens to the two layers of molecules in the head of a thermacouple when hot metal passes through them. I realized I didn’t care, at which point I went home and wrote 12 letters to 12 ski patrol companies across the western U.S.”Jim made the decision to become a professional ski patroller and Vail was one of the resorts to which Jim sent a letter. Not long after, Vail replied and after being interviewed, Jim accepted the job. It was 1969.”I’m here because of the skiing,” Jim says. “I got my degree from Marquette University in mechanical engineering. I also learned how to ski back in college and I decided I liked skiing better than engineering.”For 25 years Jim patrolled Vail Mountain every winter and spent summers working various construction jobs or traveling around the country. During one of those summers, Jim backpacked for five months through the western part of the country with his future wife-to-be Elizabeth.”We went down into New Mexico and into a wilderness area for seven or eight days, came back out, jumped in the car and we’d move to the next place and backpack there for four or five days,” Jim says. “We did that whole thing up through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and eventually ended up in Seattle. I got a good five months worth of backpacking in over that summer, it was a fabulous summer.”Meet the Wilderness began 30 years ago with a discussion between Jim and a group of priests out of his hometown of Chicago.”We were talking and my wife and I had done a lot of backpacking over the years and I said, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be fun to bring a group of kids out of inner-city Chicago to backpack? They looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ So in the summer of ’74 they loaded 20 kids in a yellow school bus and drove out here and a another friend and myself didn’t have a clue what we were doing but we took them out backpacking,” Jim says.During their backpacking trip it rained (always during dinnertime) and the equipment they used was less than adequate, Jim remembers. But more importantly, the kids who took part in that backpacking trip enjoyed the experience and that was enough of a reason for Jim to do it again the next summer and to keep doing it.A few years after that initial summer, Jim was able to find the funding necessary to take groups out over the entire summer, one week at a time. For those first few years it was a small program, just getting started but as soon as Jim and the other co-founder of “Meet the Wilderness,” Greg Earle, realized the programs potential they began to focus the curriculum.”We realized that what we had was a program for personal growth, for helping kids really grow, build self-esteem, understand trust and responsibility and all of those kinds of things,” Jim says.For quite a few years Jim worked ski patrol during the winters and focused on Meet the Wilderness during the summer and had time off in between the two. Jim had found what he knew he’d been missing when he was back in that office in Illinois: time in the outdoors.He also earned the chance to do something that makes a very real difference in other peoples lives.”I see kids grow; I see them learn a lot about themselves,” Jim says. “It’s kind of hard to get kids attention lately, they’re off in their own worlds. The backpacking and the wilderness experience is the one way to really get their attention.”Today the program works with nearly 2,500 children a year and three quarters of those kids come right from Eagle County, which is a variation from when the program first started by busing in inner-city kids from out of state.”I think what I’ve seen in Jim is he’s a very altruistic person, he’s very giving of his time to help others in the community. No only has he worked for non-profits for 30 years, he’s also involved in his church (St. Patrick’s Parish), he’s been on the board for Habitat for Humanity, and he volunteers his time for other community events,” says Joe Schmitt, executive director for Meet the Wilderness. “If you ever needed to rely on somebody for help, he’s the guy you want in your group. He’s going to do what it takes.”Jim and his wife Elizabeth have two children they’ve raised in this Valley: Catherine, 20, who is a junior majoring in philosophy at Colorado State University. Their youngest daughter, Annalise, is entering her senior year at Battle Mountain High School this fall.”My first priority is my family, family comes first, above all else,” Jim says. “I’ve got great kids, all I want is for them to follow their hearts and do what they want to do. A lot of people find a career and then they go where their career takes them. I did it the other way around, I found out what I really liked, found a place I really like to do it in and here I am.” VTMeet the Wilderness celebrates their 30th birthday Aug. 27. For more information about the program contact Meet the Wilderness at info@meetthe wilderness.org.


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