Wilderness Ventures Leadership: Mike and Helen Cottingham-Founders, Directors, Educators

By wpdev January 12, 2012

Wilderness Ventures is the lifelong passion of Mike and Helen Cottingham, who founded Wilderness Ventures in 1972 with the vision to connect people to the outdoors as a way to teach practical life lessons and to instill a lifelong passion for conservation and the magic of the backcountry.


In 1972, as idealistic school teachers from Cincinnati, Mike and Helen were short on financial resources, but they had a strong founding vision and, importantly, the ability to convince others of the priceless value that a summer in the outdoors can have for any teenager.


The notion is as true today as it was 40 years ago. With over 20,000 alumni, many of whom hold the top positions in their fields, the overwhelming evidence is that connecting teenagers with the outdoors in a way that asks and empowers them to accomplish goals while working and having fun together as a team is the most powerful and consistent way to build young leaders. Four decades later, as young people face increasing ploys for their ever-decreasing attention-spans, the importance of bringing young people into the outdoors has never been more paramount.


Taking a historic road trip over their founding summer in 1972, Mike and Helen scouted what they considered to be the most stunning wilderness environments in the western United States and Canada. The beauty of the environment (the Wilderness Ventures classroom) has always been an important factor in the success of our programs. Armed with knowledge, passion, confidence and a vision, Mike and Helen returned in the fall to convince 10 sets of parents to send their children off on Wilderness Ventures’ first summer-long expedition in 1973. Over the years, the program grew rapidly under Mike and Helen’s leadership. The couple relocated full-time to their beloved Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1974 where they continue to manage the day-to-day operations of what has become an increasingly diverse and innovative array of outdoor teen programming.


Upon making the first leap to leave their teaching jobs and relocate to Jackson Hole, the Cottinghams spent the first few years renting a cabin at the White Grass Ranch – what, at the time, was a privately-held property within Grand Teton National Park. Eventually, they bought land near the tiny town of Moran Junction (30 miles north of the town of Jackson). Mike and Helen designed and built a small cabin there which functioned as both their home and Wilderness Ventures world headquarters. As their first son began to stretch the family beyond the capacity of the modest dwelling, the Cottinghams moved closer to town, where they continue to live today – just a short walk from the Wilderness Ventures office between Teton Village and the town of Jackson.


For their first nine years in operation, as the program grew, Mike and Helen led trips in the field themselves, eventually giving up the field to focus on the 24-hour-a-day logistics of running the dynamic summer operation. After having raised two sons here in the valley, trained 40 seasons of WV leaders, visited countless alumni families across the country (many of them sending a second generation of students), scouting trips in dozens of new countries and executing on the continued innovation that is required to remain relevant to today’s young people, it’s easy to see why Mike and Helen view Wilderness Ventures as their life’s thread and their legacy to the world.


Mike and Helen with early Wilderness Ventures groups: