I was at Open Sky in the over 18 program. They were not abusive.
I was in the voluntary program, of course. In theory I could have left at any time. In practice, you have to walk ten miles to a phone with your 50-pound pack, which was not an option I seriously considered. You also get a guide haranguing you the whole way, and an ‘in case we need emotional blackmail’ letter from your parents. Apparently in the under 18 group they took everyone’s shoes at lights out to prevent runaways. [and encourage bedwetting, presumably.]
The guides in my group were pretty clearly sticking to the rules, and the policies were reasonable and safe, as long as never being unmonitored seems reasonable. They did have me strip, squat, and cough, but they never touched me. They made an itemized list of all the belongings I brought, taped the boxes shut, and stored them while I watched. While I was there, nothing escalated to the point where physical restraint would be reasonable, and nobody was allowed to touch anyone else, except for hugs when permission had been explicitly given. Obviously, packs were adjusted, blisters were taped, we gave a hand over rocks, but nothing hinky.
Nobody really got disciplined for anything much while I was there, except for things where you lost privileges like using a knife or going on extra excursions.
For me, Open Sky was 85% a waste of time and 15% helpful. It was basically really frequent group therapy, with a (fairly gentle) dose of boot camp, and wilderness mysticism. They keep you busy 24/7 – basically no unscheduled time. You’re either doing the basic hiking/camping stuff, or you’re working on self-reflection assignments. The assignments were not helpful for me. If you’ve spent more than 2 minutes in therapy, you’ve already done all of it, though maybe not in such an organized way, or with a whole group of people looking over your shoulder. Being required to journal every day was helpful.
Open Sky might have been more helpful if I had been dealing with substance abuse issues instead of depression. Maybe the incredibly authoritarian rules and emotional manipulation would have been easier to swallow if it actually had a purpose with me.
We didn’t spend much time with actual therapists – once a week, with a fairly defined script – not especially helpful. The guides did most of the heavy lifting, on a game plan they cleared with the therapists.
They did take into account individual capabilities. The most strenuous stuff we did was carrying firewood and water for our camp, and if you said you couldn’t take a full load, you would still have to carry a partial load. Peer pressure to carry your weight was definitely there, but we also helped each other out when we had trouble with physical stuff.
The other 3-7 people in your group are intimately involved with your work. They all have their own issues. Watching the other people in my group, I think Open Sky would have been totally useless if it hadn’t been my idea, and if I hadn’t gone into it wanting to do the work. Even starting from there, the almost totally inflexible rules and blatant manipulation kind of alienated me, and I spent a lot of time reminding myself that even though much of it seemed stupid, I had decided to try it their way, and it wouldn’t help if I wasn’t sincere.
I got the impression not everyone had that attitude; one girl in particular was incredibly two-faced – what we said around the guides and what she said to the rest of us were very different. Everyone was there voluntarily, but some people it was because they had gotten an ultimatum from their parents. The people who decided themselves got a lot more done; one of the other guys was basically just telling them what they wanted to hear.
Going in, I had no idea what it was actually going to be like. They didn’t give any hint of the ten-mile to a phone rule, and I asked about it. The receptionist I talked to gave the impression that a few materials like books could be kept if they got approval, and then they didn’t do any thing about the stuff I had asked them to get approved, so I have no idea if it would have passed or not.
All in all, Open Sky seems safe if not generally effective, but people definitely need to be wary.
In January 2016 it was reported that some of the young people attending the program had to be treated for frostbites. As you can read above they have a policy of collecting boots before night which is properly the key factor causing these injuries.
- Open Sky Wilderness in Colorado (Fornits Home for Wayward Web Fora)
- Open Sky chief says agency ‘deeply concerned’ about frostbite cases (The Durango Herald)