Living life on the edge: Jumping off cliff is a few seconds that can change a life


SANTA FE, N.M. -- OK, so maybe 165 feet isn't all that high.

At 165 feet, an airplane just would be getting under way.

Buildings that size (about 17 stories) would be smothered by their neighbors in a big city's downtown.

But cup your toes on the edge of a 165-foot cliff above the boulder-strewn Pecos River of New Mexico. See the indistinguishable dots of faces below. Drink in the sun-splashed desert mountain beauty. Mentally fix the moment forever. Then lean or step forward into thin air.

In other words, jump off the cliff.

Oh, yes, you know it is perfectly safe. Instructors at the famous Pecos River Learning Center -- one of the leading practitioners of outdoor adventure education -- have double-harnessed you to twin strands of well-anchored steel cable.

You have seen how the system works. You have watched a dozen others be escorted to the edge of the cliff. You have seen them, hearts pounding, huddle for a private moment of confidence-building with the instructor. You have watched their safety tethers be disconnected. You have studied them standing alone at the edge of the abyss.

You have joined in the encouragement. More encouragement rose in thin cries from knots of spectators below. You have watched for the instant of decision. To jump or quit. To leap into the unknown or to slink back among peers, content at least to know that one has tested courage, gone absolutely as far as one can go, tasted the outer limits, had perhaps the courage to say no.

Or shall it be yes?

For now it is your turn at last. Severed from the instructor's safety line, you trust that you indeed are attached to a pair of wheeled trolley blocks on a well-proven "zip line" that will carry you like the others in a great, safe downward arc across the river and toward the arms of those who will help you down.

You feel no reassuring tug from your harness. The ropes and wheels are slack and out of sight behind you. You could look back to check to be sure, but you don't, for that would break the trust. You have placed your life in another human's word that everything has been done correctly, and now you must put those concerns past you and be content.

I never have been been totally comfortable with heights. I can be nervous atop a stopped Ferris wheel, the seat gently swaying. I never would lean into a vertical mine shaft. I may camp and hike in the mountains, but I don't flirt with unprotected edges. I never have climbed a sheer rock wall. Open helicopter doors were huge fun in the Army, but safety straps had to be hanging across them. I love hot-air balloons, but their baskets do have firm walls.

And I never have been anything but clumsy. My fear now was to stumble and fall at the edge, to lose my balance and tumble -- albeit safely -- too soon to fully experience and enjoy the ride. I couldn't bring myself to step the last 15 inches to the edge of the cliff.

I reached for my instructor's shoulder. Not for anything more than stability, I told myself. She was a slight woman named Susie Robinson, a stick of a woman who hardly could hold me by herself, but the sense of her shoulder was magic.

I felt her strength and warmth, her reassuring humanity. I relaxed and took my step to the edge.

"OK, John. Look around you now," Robinson said. "Feel the moment. Know where you are. Leave your gremlins up here. Think of what you are doing."

She stepped back, and I was on my own, free to say yes or no. Empowered, emboldened, I said yes and stepped into the one and only free fall of my life.

It lasted but milliseconds before the ropes gently bent the fall into an arc and I swung in an euphoric ride down and over the river. The faces on the ground grew near, exultantly cheering yet another man's small triumph. Then I was gliding past them to the place where the cable rose and broke the speed and let me glide back to an easy stop.

It was a small moment, maybe 10 seconds of a three-week vacation. But I never will be quite the same. Changes happen when you push back the margins of your world.

Thousands have known this since "ropes courses" were developed after World War II. The British military had noticed how certain members of the merchant marine lacked the will to survive and teamwork skills when their ships were torpedoed. A program was developed to make them mentally stronger.

From such training came survival courses such as Outward Bound, which now gravitate toward personal development and stress management.

Ropes courses were refined to include corporate team-building and leadership training as part of motivational courses at outdoor learning centers and retreats around the country. The Pecos Learning Centers, for example, has a ropes course at the Serbian Monastery of St. Sava in South Holland, a Chicago suburb, where executives from companies such as Kraft, Upjohn and Sears have undergone adventure training, says Elizabeth Wilson, Pecos president.

Not all courses are blessed with a dramatic 165-foot zip line like the one I experienced. Most use combinations of high and low ropes to solve group problems such as wall-scaling and bridge-building. All emphasize teamwork. Individuals grow by relying on companions in tests of courage and trust, Wilson said.

The Minnesota Vikings spent nearly a week last year at the Pecos Center, learning to work together. They didn't have the greatest football season, but they didn't squabble as much among themselves, Wilson said.

My group included a bipartisan bunch of New Mexico state senators and their spouses who were seeking new ways to build coalitions. Age and sex have no bearing, and the physical stamina required is moderate. Some courses are easily adapted for the handicapped.

One of the more comprehensive programs in the Midwest is conducted by George Williams College at Williams Bay, Wis. Three courses are available -- high, low and a combination for executives. Programs range from corporate team-building and leadership to schools, colleges, teacher training and therapy.

"We're seeing this become a fundamental part of upper-level physical education programs," said Rob Rubendall, director of program services at George Williams College. "It's already in Chicago-area high schools at St. Charles, Barrington, Lake Forest. Excellent programs are developing in parks like Wheaton and Olympia Fields. I know of one school in Ohio where the entire curricula -- including math and science -- is stress-challenge based."

Steve Hakes, who directs the Park District's Atwood Outdoor Center adventure programs in Rockford, Ill., says he doesn't view the training as recreation. "We look at it as a powerful therapeutic activity," he says. "Everyone can improve. This is not just an adventure playground."

Chicago's oldest ropes course is at the Iron Oaks Adventure Center on Vollmer Road in Olympia Fields, shared by the park districts of Olympia Fields, Homewood and Flossmoor. Half-day programs are available to all kinds of groups.

"We get mostly school groups, but anyone can come," says Sandy Mishur, a veteran instructor. "The challenge is to be authentic, be your real self, to take a chance, to have the guts to show people who you are.

"We want you to push your limits, get out of your comfort zone, take a risk, find out who you really are."

I found a part of myself I didn't know on a cliff above the Pecos River. That spirit will ride the zip line forever.

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