/ / Climbing For Change

Climbing For Change

Kim Wasserburger

Adventure therapy, therapeutic adventure, experiential education, and adventure education all took on new definitions for me in a moment of understanding and celebration of repentance. My adventure began when months of planning came to fruition. Seven adjudicated Native American boys, my friend (the guide), and I crossed state lines on a rock climbing trip. At the onset, crossing state lines with my boys, who wore ankle bracelet monitors, was phase one of our adventure: to climb for 7 days, with enough food for 3 weeks, not knowing the first thing about where we were climbing in an effort to create a life change. My thinking was to get them into a natural environment, hang them by a harness and rope 100 feet above Lake Superior at a known Ojibwe power spot, and somehow create a moment of epiphany for them to change their life paths. I had convinced them that the path they were on was leading to their destruction, and that was enough to have them buy into coming on the trip.

The first few days of the trip were glorious. We climbed, we ate, we climbed, we ate, and then did more of both. As we climbed, we cried on unnamed rock faces on our own made-up routes due to lack of a guidebook. We took our best guess, threw our ropes, lowered to the lake and climbed up with no option but success. On the third or fourth day, one of the boys complained about the lack of American cheese in the choices of five cheeses for the half-pound sirloin burgers. Something inside of me snapped and I decided what we needed was a minimal provision 50–mile hike into the Boundary Waters.

Upon return from the ranger station to obtain a backcountry permit, the boys had packed up camp and were sitting with sweatshirt hoods over their heads with headphones on. After considerable prodding as to what was going on, I noticed a puddle on the pavement beneath Walker’s knees. He said through his tears, “These have been the best days of my life, and my life has changed, but I know that if I do what you say we are going to do, I will change even more, so much that I will never be able to go home.” My moment of understanding came and the rain began to fall. We spent the day in the rain smudging ourselves in a cloud of cedar smoke and tears. Our circle began with me repenting for my arrogance—that somehow I determined that I knew what was best for them without truly understanding what each day of life held for them. We talked, we cried, we sang, we danced. We ate the remaining 4 days of food, then drove in the van instead of walking the miles. When passing by Smokey the Bear, who was boldly holding a sign stating that the fire danger was extremely high despite a drenching rain, Walker exclaimed, “Looks like Smokey F’d up again.” We all laughed hysterically. Then we went home, nine changed men.

A big part of the intentionality with this group of boys was the alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) issues involved, with 7 days high and dry away from the law (although one of the boys found out that there was a warrant out for his arrest 3 days into the trip—an intervening variable). We also used adventure tools off the charts (climbing, hiking, canoeing) to guide personal change toward desired therapeutic change.

The change was fast and dramatic. The problem came when further and more dramatic change was proposed. There was internalization on the part of the participants that transference was going to be impossible (with the change that had already been realized) based upon the context of “home” and not being able to fit once the change was fully realized. The central concept of this for me was my arrogance in providing what I determined was the remedy, without fully understanding how difficult generalizing the newfound behavior would be for the participant. In fact, their newfound self would be rebuked, beaten on, ridiculed, and perceived as weak.

A generation has passed since that first trip, and I have returned annually for the Tettegouche rock climbing experience. The size of the group grew from seven boys to over fifty participants and recently has settled into a more manageable thirty boys, girls and guides. A U-Haul truck, wedding tents and barbeque pizza night have supplanted the “minimalist” approach. I have maintained a no cell phone or showers policy for the five days, a doctrine that has limited the trip to only the most urgent climbers. Signs and wonder continue to play a major role. This year’s theme “Love Your Neighbor,” given the morning of our departure from school, was reiterated not by Smokey the Bear, but four hours and two hundred miles later on a billboard near the entrance of the campground“. It read – “That whole love your neighbor thing, I meant that “—God.

A rainy day limited our last day to a hike to the high falls and a stop at the original campsite for a moment of reverence and remembrance of the first “cedar circle” and the self-reflection required. In the rain and silence we paused until noticing a circle band of birch bark hanging in a tree at the site. In Ojibwe tradition, it is a sign that the travelers were on a good path!

Adventure therapy came to me, and daily I am still becoming, since I saw the first tear, the first smile. When the moment arrived, I am thankful I recognized it for what it was, a love unconditional. The “Therapy” was meant for me, within the lives and stories of those entrusted to my care. To teach me how to laugh, and to cry, and to know that all that really matters resides deep inside the heart. The adventure is within our own imagination, in what can be.


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