Climbers reach new heights at ropes course
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
School groups and corporate teams are reaching new heights at the Challenge Sonoma Adventure Ropes Course in Eldridge, where personal achievements are made high within a redwood forest.
Set within Sonoma Mountain above the Sonoma Developmental Center, the course welcomes about 40 diverse groups a year.
Programs for at-risk youth, CEOs or community groups embark on specially-designed programs that encourage problem-solving, self-determination and teamwork.
The highlight of most programs comes skyward as participants gingerly climb logs, ropes and platforms some 30 to 40 feet above the ground.
With harnesses, safety helmets and encouragement from teammates and facilitators, participants of all ages are stepping way beyond their comfort zones and conquering their self-doubts and perceived limitations.
The challenges are both physical and mental and the process often is inspiring.
The four- to eight-hour programs are so successful that they end with a time for reflection, says Diana Rhoten, the longtime manager at the course.
“The change is usually really unbelievable,” she said. “We try to do debriefings because it’s so powerful.”
Rhoten was introduced to the ropes course movement in 1985 when her son, Jeremy Rhoten, participated in local ropes course challenges through his school. It’s been Diana Rhoten’s passion ever since.
She leads a team of about 20 volunteers who complete a rigorous training and apprenticeship to serve as ropes course leaders.
They receive small stipends from the nonprofit Challenge Sonoma Adventure Ropes Course that’s been in continuous operation for the past 30 years.
The real rewards come from watching anxious participants work with their peers – often classmates, coworkers, community groups or family members – as they gain skills and confidence.
Groups begin with ice breakers, team games and exercises that help build trust among partners and within the entire group.
They tackle imaginary obstacles like traversing a dangerous river of scalding hot chocolate (actually a dusty path between two ropes) or execute a plan to get every member across an imagined ravine using a real rope swing while transporting a bucket of “explosives” in an exercise called Nitro Crossing.
Other low elements include walking across an aircraft cable suspended about two feet from the ground as teammates serve as spotters.
After mastering agility and teambuilding activities, participants progress to the high elements.
Spread out among winding trails and across Sonoma Creek, the course was completely rebuilt in 2000 with the support of community members and businesses.
It’s as scenic as it is scary for those with a fear of heights.
“It’s the one fear we’re born with,” said Rhoten.
She stresses that no one is pressured to tackle a challenge.
“We never, ever make anybody do something they don’t want to do,” she said.
Most groups visit the ropes course for personal development, fun and adventure, with the hope of improving communications, strengthening bonds and building overall team coalescence.
Programs are designed to meet the objectives of specific groups.
Sonoma Charter School brought its eighth-grade class just before it promoted to high school. The day-long event was both a celebration and an analogy of sorts for students’ upcoming experiences as freshmen.
“They’re graduating and going on to new challenges,” said math and science teacher Jim Caruso, a former ropes course leader.
“That’s what the ropes course is all about, challenging yourself.”
Many of the 21 students admitted to having some apprehension about climbing up ropes and poles suspended between redwood trees.
“I do have a fear of heights but the people around me are going through the same thing so it makes it easier,” said Tyler Sievers, 14.
“That’s what this trip is all about, it’s to trust.”
Craning their heads upward to their web-like challenge, Jensen Hedley, 14, and Kiana Janson, 13, hesitated only momentarily before starting their ascent, the first in their team to step up.
After 10 minutes, the friends were back on the ground, giggling and high-fiving their classmates.
“It’s so much harder than it looks,” said Kiana. “It’s really scary, too.”
Jensen said the climb wasn’t “super, super hard” but acknowledged it required teamwork.
“You have to work with your partner a lot,” she said.
Rhoten said most participants leave the ropes course with a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t scale the higher challenges.
Not everyone will conquer their fear of heights, but that’s not the goal.
“It’s dealing with the fear in a different way,” said Rhoten. “You evaluate it and work through it and try.
“It’s kind of like life. When you think you’re getting a groove going and then you’ve got to change.”