Even though I grew up in southern California, water is not my favorite element. I enjoy rafting, but kayaking terrifies me. I’ve tried it once, and I’m willing to try it again, but it’s certainly not “my thing.” Land adventures are far more my speed. At CampBighorn in western Montana, where I work, there are two ropes courses—a higher and a lower—and two challenge elements called Jacob’s Ladder and the Vertical Playpen. These four elements—known as the Challenge Course—are my wheelhouse. I could spend every second of summer there. Last summer, I spent the majority of my time on the high-ropes course; the growth, risk, vulnerability, and community of individuals I witnessed were enough to make me a firm believer in the power of these activities to change lives.
My first encounter with the Vertical Playpen was during training. Before setting out, climbers were encouraged to think about what it means to effectively facilitate a group through an adventure. How do we teach about community and ourselves? Why bother? Why use adventure? We were asked to write words on our hands that we wanted to dwell on through this adventure. I wrote “committed,” “community,” and “perseverance.” All week long I had doubted that I belonged in this adventure community. I felt like the weak link on teams attempting to complete these activities. I was almost ready to pack my bags and head home.
On my first encounter with the Vertical Playpen, I climbed with another staff member, David, and one of the college interns, Frank. I was definitely the weakest of the trio, but no one else seemed to notice. David and Frank continually reminded me that I was doing great and that I was even providing help and stability for them when they needed it. At one point, we stopped, and David asked the climbers to look at the words on our hands. I was committed to finishing—not like I had a choice. David and Frank wouldn’t let me quit! I was a part of this small three-person community—an equal part! I was persevering through physical struggles and emotional feelings of inadequacy for the good of the group.
We kept going. A few times I fell and, out of panic, grabbed David’s shirt. Each time I said, “I’m sorry!” He replied, “No! You’re good! Keep going.” By the time I reached the firecracker ladder—the last element to conquer before getting to the top—I was toast, but
Frank was already there, so turning back was not an option. David and I quickly figured that I didn’t have the strength to master the wooden rungs loosely attached to the rope, so he held each rung to provide some stability. After a break and a few misfires, David made it to the top of the ladder, and the three of us stood on that platform 60 feet up, fist bumping, smiling, and looking at the words on our hands. One of David’s words was “enjoyment.” I scoffed, “Oh gosh! I’m sorry! Did you really enjoy that?” “Yeah, I did!” Another word on his hand was “sacrifice,” which I know he did for me.
A Perpendicular Path
Later in the summer, I was facilitating the high-ropes course for a group of junior-high boys. I noticed Zach sitting quietly by himself while his friends went and enjoyed the challenges of the course, especially the thrill of a huge zip line. I was standing on the ground rather than on my favorite spot on the course—the zip line platform, where I love to affirm and coach campers as they prepare to make their leap of faith down the line.
Eventually, Zach confessed that he was terribly afraid of heights. While we watched the others go through the course, we talked about his fear, and I encouraged him to at least climb the net to the first element’s platform. Two and a half hours of the four-hour block had elapsed before he decided to try it. I arranged to have Zach’s counselor Eric meet him at the top of the net while I waited at the bottom. Zach started climbing. About halfway up, he stopped. He was crying. It was incredible to see this young man cry in front of his friends, but there he was, crying, putting one foot in front of the other, and ascending the net. He made it to the top where Eric gave him a huge hug and a high-five. Zach sat on the platform, regaining his composure. All his friends, who were either on the course or on the ground, were cheering and clapping.
Zach sat there for about 20 minutes before descending. I suspect he and Eric discussed trying another element. I’m also sure Eric reminded him that victory was in trying, not completing this epic challenge. Zach’s feet touched solid ground, and he was greeted with more hugs, high-fives, and smiles, but they paled in comparison to his own. He looked at me and said, “My dad is going to be so impressed. Next year, I’ll try more.”
Zach and I shared similar experiences that summer. I reached my adventure zone standing on a platform 60 feet above the ground; Zach found his on a platform 20 feet above the ground. We both learned we’re capable of far more than we thought. We learned that community is the key to trying new adventures. We learned we cannot allow fear to win. When we try but fail, our friends are so excited that we actually made the attempt that “failure” is often met with encouragement to try again. I look forward to the next opportunity Zach has to conquer his fears. I hope he takes his experience from the ropes course and uses it to grow into a stronger, more confident version of himself. When Zach returns, I want him to remember what he learned and is able to rejoice—not necessarily in the completion of the course, but in conquering his remaining fears. If he experiences the rush of the zip line, I want to be on the platform to send him off and see his beaming smile as he soars through the sky and trees.
Jessica Simon is the registrar for Camp Bighorn in Plains, Mont. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.