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Schools & Program Visits - June, 2002 Issue #94 

A Towering Ascent
CEDU’s Ascent Wilderness Program

Naples, Idaho
(800) 974-1999
Paul Johnson, Admissions

Visited on May 21, 2002
By Loi Eberle, M.A.,
Educational Consultant
Editor of Woodbury Reports

Why hold back? Let me begin by proudly announcing, I CLIMBED THE ASCENT TOWER! Now that I’ve gotten the need to express that out of my system, I can explain how that same feeling of pride and accomplishment was also apparent in the adolescents I observed at CEDU’s Ascent program, located on a mountaintop in Northern Idaho.

It had been a week of the most beautiful weather, with bright sunny skies and lush vibrant green spring foliage framing rushing creeks full of mountain-snow runoff; the kind of days that remind people why they live in North Idaho. When the day arrived for the group of visiting consultants to experience CEDU’s Ascent program, not only was it pouring rain, it was barely above freezing! Obviously an outdoor program needs to be equipped for this type of situation, and indeed they were, passing out rain gear, hats, and water bottles - though there seemed to be plenty of water everywhere!

At the beginning of our tour, we learned that typically the Ascent program lasts six weeks, but that depends entirely upon how soon the student demonstrates the behaviors deemed necessary to “graduate”. We were told this co-ed backpacking adventure program for 13-17 year old adolescents combines emotional growth with physical challenges designed to interrupt negative behavior patterns, enhance feelings of self-worth, and provide tools to develop greater confidence. The program consists of an orientation phase that takes place in base camp, followed by the expedition phase, and a transition phase. The families are then reunited with their child at the Ascent Family Workshop, at the end of the program.

Later in the day, P.J. Swan, Family Workshop lead facilitator, explained that the two-day family workshop includes parent/adult education, directed family time, the opportunity to for parents and child to support each other in the challenging experience of the Alpine Tower, and the graduation ceremony. “Watching kids who were not considered responsible six weeks ago belay their parents on the 50-foot Alpine Tower, demonstrating accountability and newfound self-awareness, is incredible to witness,” according to P.J. She is currently working towards her master’s degree through Prescott College in counseling and psychology with and emphasis on marriage and family therapy.

After receiving an overview, the consultant group trudged down the path to where the base camp and teepees were located. The path was actually kept somewhat free of sloppy mud as a result of their use of well-placed wood chips on the paths, at least around the shower house (yes, showers!!) and bathrooms. When we arrived at the teepees where the students sleep, the consultants were divided into smaller groups who were then met by pairs of students who were in their last week of the program. The students took us into their respective teepees, which were large, with wood floors. They explained that in the winter there were pipes under the floor for heat. Additional canvas flaps hung on the sides of the teepees to assist with rain protection and ventilation. The students described how they were required to neatly roll up their sleeping bags and gear in the morning within a certain number of minutes, or they were required to carry it on their back in camp all day. They also explained how they were required to run, rather than walk, everywhere during this orientation part of the program.

One focus of the Orientation Phase is to help the group develop closeness and concern for each other while also preparing students physically and emotionally for their backcountry experience. This phase consists of two weeks in base camp, where they receive daily therapeutic care, with around the clock supervision. They have access to nursing and clinical supervision while they gradually develop their physical strength and outdoor skills. The girls spoke to us about their initial resistance to this part of the program, giving examples of kids who refused to cooperate with even the most basic requests such as putting their hair in a ponytail. However they soon learned this only prolonged the process. Eventually they became proud of their growing strength and stamina. During this phase the students are divided into groups for the remainder of the course, where they learn to communicate and develop team skills. Each group decides its name and identity, which seems to bring at least the group I encountered, closer, to the point where a member’s graduation caused joy as well as a little sadness.

The two girls speaking to my group were very willing to answer any questions the consultants and visiting psychologists fired at them. The girls seemed very open about the destructive behaviors that had landed them in this program, and clearly described the therapeutic process in which they had participated while at Ascent. One girl described how at one point in the program she had started to resort to her earlier self-destructive behaviors, and how she had learned to ask for help instead. The other girl described the restrictions she had received days before her scheduled graduation that resulted in a prolonged stay in the program. She had violated an agreement by passing a note to a boy, for which she received consequences because opposite sexes are not allowed to interact in this program. She was quite insightful about how this pattern of hers distracted her from doing the work she needed to do on herself. Both girls explained how their group had developed a real bond, and how their caring for each other helped the members tell another if they could see they were falling back in to their previous, harmful patterns.

When properly prepared, the team sets out for their expedition in the surrounding mountains, lead by certified Wilderness First Responders who remain in daily radio contact. When the groups return, participants enter the Transition Phase, which culminates in the Family Workshop during which students help their parents climb the 50-foot alpine tower.

One of the girls leading our group, who had previously been dealing with a mild eating disorder, was proud of the muscle mass she had gained while there. She had a slight build and a small frame, making it hard to imagine her being the one who would hold the rope to help belay the climbers on the infamous tower. Yet her strength of insight and experience with the program caused me to feel very comfortable when later, she was the one to hold my rope and guide me on my climb.

Soon it was time to hike over to the imposing climbing tower. I had heard of others who had climbed it, and a part of me wanted the experience. Another part of me knew I was afraid of heights, in addition to fighting a cold all week. I felt so much safety with the staff and students, I gave myself permission not to prove myself, to just watch this time. It was so cold I felt myself starting to tremble. Just for the heck of it, I decided to put on the harness, and be instructed on the safety measures, mostly just to watch how this aspect of the program was handled. I watched an energetic first climb by one of CEDU’s admission staff, which was impressive, and evoked in me a mixture of envy and insecurity.

Because it was so cold, many people’s fingers and limbs were not cooperating, and some were simply pleased to go part way up the tower and belay down. Some made it to the top with great glee. Though I was trying to be invisible, someone finally asked me if I wanted to attempt the climb. I thought, well, at least I’ll get on the tower, no harm in that. I decided I wanted to work with the small-framed girl who had gained so much from the program. After starting my climb, the helpful guidance and encouragement from her and the instructor somehow inspired me to try my best. I tried not to look down, and ignore the cold-wet sensations that were permeating my body. As I continued up, higher and higher, I admit I surprised myself that I kept climbing. Perhaps I was so cold and wet, I was distracted from my fear. I was somewhat amazed that I continued up the tower, with helpful suggestions from my guides when I hesitated while trying to find the next foot or handhold.

Needing to hoist myself over the platform to the top seemed like the final insult. But a mixture of excitement, adrenaline and terror, combined with encouragement from my guides standing below brought me “over the top”, and I emerged on the platform. After my initial rush of joy, I needed then to experience the most difficult moment of the climb. I had to LET GO, trust, and push myself off the platform, 50 feet above the ground, in hopes that the ropes and the girl at the bottom could truly hold me! I realized what a metaphor it was for my life – do everything I can to prepare, then “let go” and accept the outcome. In this case the outcome was a delightful ride down, guided by my belay partner on the ground.

I now realize that although I have been familiar with the Ascent program for many years, it was not until I actually experienced climbing the tower myself, that I understood the difference between theory and experience. I understood intellectually how this tool is used to develop esteem, perseverance, and confidence, but I hadn’t experienced how exciting it is to actually push beyond my perceived capabilities. And if I hadn’t made it up the tower, would I still have received such a favorable impression of this program? Yes, because of the tremendous sense of safety that I felt from the staff and students. They helped me feel that if I were there as a participant, I would be supported in developing my inner strength, as well as my physical strength and endurance, to enable me succeed in the work that I needed to do.

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