It’s a StepUP tradition to take our new fall students to conquer the ropes courses at Trollhaugen in Dresser, WI. The goal of the ropes course is simple, get from point A to point B. Of course, most of the course is made up of wooden platforms anywhere from 12 to 48 feet in the air, connected by bridges made of zip lines, tires, ropes and wooden planks. Our new students, their mentors, StepUP Peer Advisors and some StepUP staff suited up in safety equipment and took to the trees to kick off the new school year!
On the bus ride there, emotions were varied. Among the attendees we had hikers, mountain climbers, and people with a serious fear of heights (and everything in-between). “Not every fear needs to be conquered”, new student Tommy told me as the coach bus pulled into the parking lot. I told him that conquering a fear with no significance in your daily life may seem pointless, but it’s a good workout nonetheless. I say that now, but when I came to Trollhaugen last year as a new student, I convinced myself that we hadn’t enough time left to try one of the more difficult courses (we did), and that I wasn’t skipping it because I was scared (I was). This time I was on a mission: successfully complete the most difficult route.
After a quick run through the intermediate blue courses, another student and I approached the elevated platform that led to either the secondary blue course, or the black. We both decided to just hop up the ladder to the black before we could talk ourselves out of it. The first obstacle was a short set of monkey bars, 48 feet in the air. Even with the nearly fool-proof safety equipment, dangling from that height by our fingers was quite the barrier to entry. Ahead of me were two new students, Foster and Sophie, and behind me was another new student named Moses. While waiting for Foster to swing over to the next structure, I was able to divert some of my own anxiety by delivering a pep talk to my apprehensive new friends. The four of us all made it over and we were on our way.
About halfway through the course, Sophie had her first anxiety inducing moment. She wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, but bees were a different story. The two of us were sharing a tiny platform on a nearly 50 foot pole when a wasp took a keen interest in her. The only escape was to zip line across about 25 feet to the next platform, but she would have to wait until Foster was finished clipping to the next “element” of the course. After a couple tense minutes of buzzing, she finally launched off of the platform under siege, and on to the wasp-free one.
After the four of us completed the course, I met back up with Tommy, the new student with a serious fear of heights. He told me that yes, he had completed the course. When I asked him if it felt great to conquer his fears, he chuckled and told me no, it didn’t feel that great. I suppose that is the reality of pushing your boundaries of fear and proficiency. Sometimes you don’t get a pleasant rush as a reward. But it does often make it easier to approach something threatening next time, even in a completely different domain, like applying for a high status job, or being honest and vulnerable in a relationship. When I came to Trollhaugen as a new student, I thought I already knew my own competence and ability. My experience shows, however, that I have absolutely no idea what I’m capable of until I’ve measured my expectations against reality. That is- just try it. It risks sounding like a platitude, but most of the students I talked to had a similar experience on the ropes course. All of us had some expectation of what it would be like, and how we would perform. And to some degree, we were proven wrong. Here’s to carrying that memory into our recovery and our educations.