Building A Case

By Bob Carver

In the early 1980s, while I was a manager of a Christian camp in Illinois, I heard of a new program called a “low-ropes” course. I didn’t have any experience in “challenge-type” activities, but the concept sounded interesting.

I searched for information, but all I could find was a book called Cowstails and Cobras: A Guide to Ropes Courses, Initiative Games, and Other Adventure Activities by Karl Rohnke (1977). It turned out to be a great resource.

With that book in hand, I set out with a group of volunteers to construct our first low-ropes challenge course. To say we had no idea what we were doing is an understatement.

One of the first elements we constructed was a zipline. Looking back, I know it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but we forged ahead.

We had the perfect spot at the back of our property. There was a large hill that fed down into a creek bottom filled with sand. Along the creek were several large trees. We selected two trees and ran a cable between them, trying to guess the angles, speed, coefficient drag and every other detail needed to make a successful zipline.

We rigged up the pulley with two rope handholds and tried to decide who would be the first to try it. Stan, a young local farmer, finally volunteered.

The entire system worked perfectly until Stan made contact with the large sycamore at the end of the ride. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any permanent physical damage, but I heard that he had dreams for weeks afterwards about a large sycamore attacking him.

It took several tries and a few weeks, but we completed the zipline, as well as eight other team-building elements. The course became an integral part of our programming.

As usual, there were a few detractors-- more or less due to ignorance -- but most came around after seeing the benefits.

That is, everyone but Bill, who was not convinced until a father-son retreat, at which his two boys wanted to go on the course, and they talked him into going, too. One of his sons was on a rope scramble about 6 feet off the ground, and Bill was spotting him. Suddenly, the boy lost his grip, Bill caught him, and they both rolled to the ground.

Bill was terrified, but his son was smiling. When asked why he wasn’t scared, the boy replied, “Dad, I knew you would catch me!”

Bill was finally sold on challenge courses.

Today, there are many books and resource guides on challenge courses available, and several professional companies have begun to construct, train, and inspect the courses. In addition, the Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) has entered the arena. ACCT promotes the concept of challenge courses, and develops industry standards for them.

A Defining Experience
This two-part series examines two of the three types of challenge concepts:

• Group Initiatives
• Low-ropes challenge courses

The third concept -- high elements -- will not be discussed. This includes climbing towers, ziplines and actual elevated courses.

Group initiatives are activities designed for team-building and interaction. The process begins when an initiative or challenge is given to a group of people (usually 8 to 12). After the perimeters of the challenge have been outlined, the group decides how to solve the problem. There are literally hundreds of activities that can be used to demonstrate this for a group.

Wikipedia defines a ropes course as “a challenging, outdoor, personal-development and team-building activity which usually consists of high and/or low elements. Low elements take place on the ground or only a few feet above the ground.”

Gaining Ground
It is important to note that the concept of experiential learning is used extensively in both initiative and low-ropes challenge courses. This type of learning involves “doing” something rather than sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher.

For example, one can talk about “trust,” but it’s quite a different experience to fall 4 feet backwards into the waiting arms of a group in a “trust fall.” This is experiential learning at its best.

Another concept in challenge courses involves “challenge by choice.” This means that, although no one is ever forced to do something the individual doesn’t want to, no one should make it easy for a teammate to back off when something gets tough. In fact, it’s acceptable to allow peer pressure to have some effect to balance the value of the group experience with the personal wishes of each participant.

“If I could do only one activity with an in-camp group, I would choose a series of group initiatives,” says Gary Colvin, director at Discovery Ministries in Eminence, Mo.

“When done with good facilitation, they bring the group together emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They also give practical exercise in developing good communication techniques.”

He adds: “Good facilitation is necessary and more important than having an expensive, professionally constructed course or portable props. A good facilitator will assess the attitudes and motivations in the group. The leader will clearly and creatively front-load the initiative so that success truly is achievable.”

While watching participants struggle to solve a problem, Colvin says, he evaluates how the group members interact. How well are they communicating? Are they listening to each other? Is everyone feeling heard?

“As communication difficulties surface, the group has the opportunity to rise to better levels of communication,” he explains.

Get With The Program
Group initiatives can be used as stand-alone or pre-training activities. As a stand-alone activity, they help develop teamwork, build group unity, and often result in effective individual challenges. Using them as a part of pre-training prior to an actual low-ropes course can be an effective way to gauge the group’s strengths and weaknesses.

Here are several effective group initiatives:

All Aboard
Place a small platform (about 2 feet square) on the ground. Challenge a group of 8 to 12 people to get on the platform at the same time. It can be done, but issues of personal space, a fear of falling, etc., all play a factor in accomplishing the task. When the group is finished, conduct a de-briefing session. This is a critical element in the concept of challenge courses that will be detailed in next month’s article.

Tennis, Anyone?
Gather 75 tennis balls, and direct the group to balance as many as they can on one person. The person cannot be touching the ground or floor at any time.

Use a PVC pipe with 12 ropes attached -- six at the top and six at the bottom. Ask each person to grab the end of a rope. Balance a softball on top of the end of the pipe. Direct the group to transport the ball from point “A” to point “B,” usually over and/or through various obstacles.

Bob Carver has been in camp management for the past 33 years. He recently retired as executive director of Camp Allendale in Trafalgar, Ind., to become the camp's marketing director. He can be reached via e-mail at