The rock, the rope and you.
Rock climbing is pretty elemental, but the experience highlights some of the most complicated components of life.
Nine students from Phoenix Military Academy climb an ancient tower of lava. These young men and women are rising sophomores and this climb at Interstate State Park is the final challenge in their week-long Voyageur Outward Bound Peer Leadership Expedition. Thanks to federal funding,the Outward Bound Expedition has become an annual tradition for Phoenix students. It’s day six, and the climbers have just stepped out of canoes after successfully navigating more than 60 miles of the Saint Croix River. They are tired, sweaty, dirty, bug-bitten and likely hungry. But none of that matters. Each of the nine is dialed in, totally focused on the latest adventure, rising to one more new challenge.
Their Expedition began in Chicago, when 38 Phoenix students and four adult chaperones boarded a bus bound for Minnesota, and the unknown. From that moment on, students were “Outward Bound,” and sailing into figuratively uncharted territory. 38 kids became four brigades, each setting out into the wilderness with one chaperone and two Outward Bound instructors. One brigade hoofed it over twenty miles of the rugged Superior Hiking Trail and three more paddled a collective 180 miles of river. Each day on course, students learn by doing: packing, carrying, hiking, paddling, portaging, cooking, pitching, navigating. The young men and women of Phoenix are “crew, not passengers.” New skills are learned and applied in the field. Day by day, students move toward leading the Expedition; they train, take on more responsibility and then apply what they learn. As technical or “hard” skills are practiced, another type of skill set develops. “Soft skills,” or social and emotional learning happens every second of every day on course. Now, standing at the foot of this rock, watching and listening, I see and hear character and skill. Conversation is emblematic and I race to record one liners that speak of big life lessons:
“Trust in the rope, that’s all I can say.”
“Remember: that rope can keep you on course if you let it.”
“You could pull the rope, but you’ll do better with your own two hands on the rock. Trust yourself.”
“Hey, Dude. Trust. In. The. Rope.”
The remarkable thing is, the Outward Bound instructors are quiet. The students do most of the talking, coaching each other through the new experience. And no one gives up. These kids are fierce with determination, quick with encouragement and precise with advice:
“Take your left arm, and use that flat muscle above your wrist–elbow to wrist–stick that in the crack and lean your weight on it. Twist yourself so you can get some rest. Then try again.”
A leader is emerging. After his own fifty-five minute climb, and ten minute rappel, he’s back down at the bottom, focused on his friend’s climb. His attention doesn’t flag until his buddy summits. The process takes a long time. His buddy tries and fails, tries again. Each attempt contains trepidation, bravery, frustration, commitment, calculation and risk. The kids on the rock are amazingly honest:
“My God, my hands are trembling!”
“I’m totally freaked out right now.”
“It’s irrational to climb”
“I’m thinking I can’t do this.”
“My brain’s kinda workin’ a little magic.”
And the kids on the ground are unfailingly supportive:
“You got this!”
“I know you can do it, Yo.”
“You just gotta go for it.”
“Look up, just look up!”
“Take a break; try again.”
Students on the ground are not just cheerleaders, they are part of a true team. The climber’s life is in the hands of her first and second belayers. Three kids on one rope, working to get each other up the rock safely. In less than an hour, complete novices have become rock climbers, transformed by action.
The action starts with kids climbing into harnesses and helmets, sizing and adjusting their own gear while an instructor talks them through. A few kids help each other, but the instructors don’t touch the gear until it’s time for a safety check. They hike down to the lava tower. Taylor’s Falls is a beautiful place to learn to climb, but students hardly notice the rest of the classroom; the 1.1 billion year old rock commands their attention.
“We’re climbing that?”
“It’s a real rock!”
“We’re climbing a cliff!”
“I’ve never done this before.”
Waiting climbing instructors greet each student by name, then it’s on to a knot lesson. Instructor Ben is affable, easy, confident. The kids don’t laugh at Ben’s jokes– Ben is funny, but the kids are staring at his hands. Ben demonstrates slowly. “Pretend it’s a Ferrari. You don’t want to take it off road, keep your beautiful car on the road, keep it clean.”
Jesse, another seasoned climbing instructor steps in. Ben and Jesse begin to model belay skills while the kids watch intently. Nobody talks or squirms.
“Real rocks come with real danger,” says, Ben, knocking on his own helmeted head. “We have to be safe, right?” Students nod. “So now we need to talk about the verbal contract. Eye contact, words.” Ben turns to Jesse, “Hey, Jesse, am I on belay?” Ben turns to the kids, “See, now I know I’m responsible for myself again.”
Jesse nods, “You are on belay.”
Ben turns to the kids, “And you always gotta finish the contract.” He turns back to Jesse, “Am I off belay, Jesse?”
“You are now off belay, Ben” Jesse unclips the carabiner and holds it up.
When Jesse says, “Who wants to try it?” six hands go up. The students try, fail, try again, succeed. This is a mini model for Outward Bound’s progression of learning: skill introduction, skill development, greater autonomy, greater challenge, repeat. You try something new, you keep doing it, you get better at it, you see your potential, you strive.
Before they hit the rock, Ben and Jesse walk them through the 4 Hs of climbing one more time: Head, Harness, Hardware, Heart. When Ben gets to the fourth H, he presses a fist to his chest. “Hey, I’m really glad you’re here.” Ben looks each kid in the eye. “My heart’s in this.” He smiles, “Now who’s gonna be first?”
Nine hands shoot up toward the sky.
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