Nov. 9, 2006

Life is a high-wire act ...

"The weather," says Todd Miner, "is not what we had planned."

He's not kidding. Rain? Snow? Sleet? Wind? Well, they don't call it a challenge course for nothing.

Miner is executive director of Cornell Outdoor Education, whose facilities include the Hoffman Challenge Course. That's where 30 students from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations' (ILR) gathered Oct. 20 for a four-hour lesson in teambuilding, self-confidence and having fun ... even when you can't feel your fingers or toes.

It starts in the yurt, where a small fireplace gives off just enough warmth to peel off a few clothing layers and speed through icebreaker activities.

But the outdoors beckon (at least Miner thinks so) ... so on go the layers again: hats, gloves and cagoules -- giant waterproof muumuu-like garments made for just such occasions.

Wet snowflakes whip by, stinging cheeks and noses. Down the path and into the woods, the snow thins and the wind slows, leaving a white mist to hang between branches of tall trees. The McGraw Tower's wooden scaled-down twin looms at the path's end.

Most of the activities at Hoffman are actually low elements -- close-to-the-ground exercises that encourage creative thinking and cooperation. There's a giant maze, a spider's web, ropes, wires, balance beams, a mammoth seesaw. Almost every team, says Miner, comes up with a unique solution to the problem in hand.

There is far too much to do in a single day. The teams conquer two low elements; then, shivering and stomping feet to stay warm, they move on -- and up.

Tammy is first on the catwalk. She is afraid of heights, she says. But once harnessed she climbs quickly. At the top -- 30 feet or so above the spectators -- she plants her high-heeled boots on the balance beam and fixes her sights straight ahead. Classmates on the ground cheer. One foot, then the other ... and soon she has reached the other end.

Just down the path, as Tammy gets high-fives and the next climber takes her place, others are scaling the pamper pole: balancing on its wobbly top and jumping to catch (or miss) a dangling piece of colorful fabric just out of reach. With or without fabric in hand, they are caught midair by sturdy ropes and lowered gently to the ground.

The day winds down; it's getting dark. Shaking from cold and adrenaline, students jog back to the yurt.

"It's kind of neat to see what people do with challenge," says ILR professor Brad Bell, who brings his classes here every year. "The idea is to focus on the goal, and what can the team get out of it? That's what I hope they take away."