Learning and teaching the ropes
Jess Rothe squints through her sunglasses into the January sun, looking upward as her classmate Kelsey Delph inches her way up a 30-feet high telephone pole.
That’s the methodical process Delph follows as she climbs and stands on metal staples, about the width of her foot, protruding from the poll.
“I have to make sure Kelsey hooks the lobster claws into every Leading Edge Anchor Point (L.E.A.P.),” Rothe explained, keeping her eyes on Delph. “I have to make sure she is clipped into everything and is never unclipped from the entire pole.”
“Never unclipped,” she emphasizes.
Rothe, a Radford University senior from Clifton Forge, is a student leader on this unseasonable warm day, helping Delph and fellow classmates safely navigate the tall poles and high wires at the RU West ropes course, preparing them to be student leaders soon in the Radford University Adventure Based Learning Experiences program, or RU ABLE, as it’s commonly known.
The students here are all Recreation, Parks and Tourism majors with concentrations in outdoor recreation and leadership. They are participating in a five-day workshop that is part of the RCPT 441 advanced challenge course programming class.
Guiding people up and down the four poles at the accompanying ropes course can be a little distressing and intense for Rothe, even with her experience, but not nearly as much as it was in the fall semester when the same students where in RCPT 421, the introductory course. They had little or no experience in climbing, let alone clipping and unclipping.
“In the RCPT 421 class, I’m pretty much lying on my back all day and watching them,” Rothe said. “It can be nerve-racking because you’re not up there on the pole to talk them through it. And sometimes they freak if they unclip.”
Rothe is an avid rock climber and wants to be a climbing instructor and college professor. She became a student leader and RCPT work study student at the invitation from Recreation, Parks and Tourism Adjunct Instructor Fred Pierson. She helps teach the 441 class.
Pierson is the director of RU ABLE, which serves as a resource for schools, community groups, families, businesses and anyone else looking to explore relationship and teambuilding concepts. It is part of the university’s Experiential Learning Lab and has been operating since 2004, running more than 100 programs a year.
“If a group comes to us and wants to go through the experience, they are going to do some team-building, and then they will do the high ropes course within four hours,” Pierson said. “These guys here, our students, will be their facilitators, and they will run the whole experience from contacting the group, to setting up the experience, to guiding the participants through the course. They do it all.”
Running through this morning session on the ropes course marks Day Three of the workshop. It includes hands-on training in indoor and outdoor ropes courses, team-building exercises, and rescue techniques at the university’s Selu Conservancy. “There’s going to be someone dangling from a rope there tomorrow (simulating a participant needing to be rescued and lowered to the ground) and we have to go get them,” Pierson said, explaining the urgency of the rescue training.
The workshop teaches students to be facilitators within the RU ABLE program, leading groups of mostly inexperienced individuals through the ropes courses.
“We actually have students teaching students here today, which is awesome,” Pierson said.
Throughout the 441 course, students learn to guide others through the team-building activities RU ABLE offers. They focus on running the program as students, and they each must have 20 hours of group contact to do so.
“This is our experiential learning lab,” Pierson explained while looking around as his students guided one another up and down telephone poles and across cables slightly bigger than a finger.
Part of the experience is getting some skittish climbers used to heights. Thirty feet off the ground may not seem so high looking up, but looking down is a different story.
It can be frightening when you’re walking slowly, one foot after another, across a rope, holding with both hands on to a similar size wire above your head. Arms and legs are shaking. “Your legs can quiver like Jello,” said Issac Worrell, a senior from Carroll County.
It’s a big deal, especially, for someone who is uneasy with heights, like Delph.
“I don’t like heights,” the senior from Dublin said earlier in the day and minutes after planting her boots back on the ground after her high wire act on the high ropes. “It’s gotten a lot easier because I’ve learned to trust the equipment and our instructors.”
So, too, has Elizabeth Cornelius, who moments earlier had just landed from her turn on the ropes. “It’s a little nerve-wracking. Even though I have my certification (after completing the basic 421 course), I still get butterflies,” she said, unbuckling the carabiners and harnesses that connected her to the ropes. “I just power through it because we’re all stepping out of our comfort zones.”
Helping people overcome their fear of heights enough to enjoy the ropes course is one of their roles as RU ABLE facilitators.
“It’s just helping them step outside their comfort zone and doing something they don’t normally do every day,” said Michael Stump ‘17, an RU ABLE lead facilitator and coordinator. “Many times, once they do it, they have a blast.”
Meanwhile, back at the pole, Delph begins to make her way down.
Rothe is still talking her through the process.
“Be sure to breathe, too,” Pierson chimes in.
Keeping the climber calm and thinking clearly is primary focus, and an integral part of the workshop training.
“You have to walk them through it and keep nerves down,” Rothe said. “I know I’ve accidentally unclipped before and gotten nervous thinking ‘I’m not clipped into anything right now.’ That’s when your mind goes a little bit too fast. And then, that’s when your training here in this course kicks in.”