I’ll take the low ropes, you take the high ropes

As fun as all my field trips have been, I am actually a student here. And one of my classes is the utterly unique Outdoor Pursuits, run through the Conway Centre. One day a week, I join a group of 10 in completing various physical challenges against the backdrop of the North Wales landscape. Up here around Anglesey, where the centre is located, there are mountains and ocean tides, perfect for gorge scrambling, mountain walking (what I’d call hiking), abseiling (the British word for rappelling) canoeing, surfing… Basically, we’re using North Wales as a giant, rain-soaked playground for outdoor activities.

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Because this is Wales, the Centre on Anglesey doesn’t just have a ropes course, supply room, and parking lot; it has a 4,000-year-old burial chamber on its front lawn.

Outdoor Pursuits (OP) is about challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone, to challenge yourself, and to grow as a person. It’s only the second week and I’ve already started to crawl out of my comfort zone on hands and knees.

Week 1 freaked me out a fair bit, because it included an entire afternoon of the high ropes course. Key word being ‘high’. And heights are guaranteed to make my hands shake and stomach drop while all rational thought and coping ability drains from my mind.

First up: Jacob’s Ladder. A 90-ft  “ladder” constructed of logs strung between two trees, with the rungs growing further and further apart as it leaves the ground.

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I made it to the 4th rung, which is “average”. From the first rung, my mind was switched to white, blank panic mode. I clung to the second rung with my eyes closed, not wanting to move. With the encouragement of the group, I pried myself up and managed to go a little further. It got better as I made myself swing a leg up, then another, and my head began to clear enough to cheer on some of the others. But nothing compared to the feeling of solid ground beneath me again.

I met the next challenge, “walking” up a diagonal log and running back down it so that my harness had me doing a Tinkerbell. The final challenge, however, I didn’t make: Climbing to a treetop platform and leaping 60 feet back down (with a harness on). For me, it’s not the idea of falling that scares me; it’s the climbing high. I helped with the belaying, then I climbed halfway up and jumped off there. I disliked doing less than everyone else there, but I didn’t have the slightest interest in scaling the tree, which terrified me. I’m proud that I tried it, at least.

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Week 2, the winds were around 100mph as we stayed inside, at one of the best indoor rock climbing places in Wales. Just looking up at the steep, tall walls, with their bright little multicolored grips, was enough to churn my stomach. Why couldn’t we go canoeing instead? But as we warmed up with bouldering (no harnesses, lower to the ground) and Crazy Climb, and finally tried out belaying and climbing, I felt better.

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What turned the tide for me was the challenge. When you’re trying so hard to figure out where your next hand- or foothold is going to be, you don’t have much time for freaking out. The first time I actually had to work at it, when I couldn’t figure out how to go up any higher, I suddenly wanted to go up, to figure it out.

And after that, it got fun.

I was still a little freaked, but now I was doing it because I wanted to. And each time I pushed myself farther than I thought I could go, I felt more confident.

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Andy, one of the instructors and an expert climber, gave a fantastic pice of advice:

“Success is doing better than you thought you could.”

He was right. On the Crazy Climb section, where all the rock walls were wacky and creative, I made it all the way to the top of a rock wall and pressed the big red button at the top. I didn’t intend to go that high when I got on, but about halfway up I looked down and realized I was already unnerved from being so high; I may as well go the rest of the way up. Crazy Climb favorites: a transparent climbing wall allowing two people to race or mirror each other’s movements, a zig-zag wall you had to climb up inside like a chimney, and best of all, a drainpipe that, when I scaled it, made me feel like Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief”.

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The team-building aspect of OP is a blast. In week 1, we completed a low ropes course very efficiently, prompting our (English) instructor to say that Americans are “always” better than the Brits at teamwork exercises. We all laughed, but it occurs to me that, for all that we talk about individualism in America, we drill in how to work as a team from a very early age. We should be good at teamwork; we get enough practice at it in school, at work, in sports… And it really does matter. Group work at the university here is just not on the same level as at home.

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Thumbs up for the Purple People Eaters! They keep us dry… and stylish.

So here’s to facing fear, even when you don’t want to. Because each challenge faced and met is what makes character. And because I am so proud of what I have done, proud that I kept going.

But I’m still hoping that next week’s adventure is on the water, where I know what’s what!

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