A wise man once said, "experience breeds knowledge." He was right, of course, but we say it never hurts to have an expert show you the ropes when you're taking up a new pursuit. It also never hurts to seek out the best possible classroom. Steep skiing? La Grave. Expedition canoeing? The Boundary Waters. Mountaineering? Bolivia's Cordillera Real. Any questions?
Ski for a week in the shadows of 19th-century mountaineering pioneers in myriad bowls and chutes of virgin powder from your lodge-base in the 12th-century agricultural village of La Grave with one of the most talented instructors in the world. Bragging rights for you and your classmates include classics like the 3,300-foot, 45-degree Freaux Couloir and the 7,500-foot Girose, which starts with a glacial face plunge, continues with a 40-foot rappel over a frozen waterfall, and then ends with a couloir and a river crossing for good measure. The vertical is served by one main lift, but that's the mountain's only concession to convenience: There is no grooming, ski patrol, or avalanche control. Which is precisely why steep-skiing guru and outfitter Doug Coombs—pioneer of over 100 first descents in Alaska and two in Antarctica—and his guides make avalanche awareness, rescue, and terrain evaluation part of the daily agenda.
Outfitter: Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide, 307-734-0028, www.dougcoombs.com
When to Go: January-February
Minnesota: Expedition-Canoeing Schoolin the Boundary Waters
Think canoeing rates up there with river tubing for difficulty? Then you've never navigated the endless maze of deep, placid waterways of the 1.1-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. To go on your own, crack orienteering skills would be a must, and only proficiency in pry- and J-strokes would ensure you made it to camp each day before midnight. On this eight-day learning expedition, you'll master these techniques as well as how to portage, balance out 50 pounds in your craft, and identify the dull, thumping you'll hear at night as the mating call of the local ruffed grouse.
Outfitter: Voyageur Outward Bound School, 800-321-4453, www.vobs.com
When to Go: May–September
Florida: Live-Aboard Sailing Instruction in the Keys
For seven days a 46-foot Hunter sloop will be your classroom, and Hawks Channel, the four- to six-mile-wide strip of calm azure water that separates the Keys from the coral reef that runs their length, your campus. You'll learn navigation, engine mechanics, docking, and how to tack between Key West, where you'll stock up on merlot, and the reef, where you'll scout for dolphins. Pass the final written test, and you'll earn certification in basic and bareboat cruising. But by the fifth day, anchored off of Boot Key with the sun slinking over the horizon, you'll have long forgotten you're in school.
Outfitter: Offshore Sailing School, 800-221-4326, www.offshore-sailing.com
When to Go: Year-round
Bolivia: Learning Mountaineering in the Andes
After two days' training in crampon technique, crevasse rescue, and self-arrest on a glacier at 16,000 feet at the start of this two-week course, you'll pack your tent and leave your cozy lakeside hut for 17,000-foot-high base camp on Huayna Potosi. Front-pointing your way up the mountain's 55-degree ice sheet to its 19,870-foot summit is your midterm, and it's a lesson in extremes—the turquoise sprawl of Lake Titicaca lies below you to the northwest and 21,201-foot Mount Illimani is above you to the south. Take a good look: Illimani's sustained 45-degree slopes await the bite of your ice axe in week two.
Outfitter: Colorado Mountain School, 970-586-5758, www.cmschool.com
When To Go: July
Oregon: Whitewater Kayaking Classon the Rogue River
After five days of learning basic paddle strokes, rolling, and rapid scouting within sprinting distance of a hot tub and fireplace, you'll embark on a four-day, 33-mile, raft-supported journey down the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River. You'll navigate progressively more difficult Class I-III rapids, watching for bear, cougar, and great blue heron at water's edge. Evenings will find you pitching camp on wide, sandy beaches beneath granite canyon walls.
Outfitter: Sundance River Center, 541-479-8508, www.sundanceriver.com
When to Go: June–September