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Climbing programs teach students to conquer fears

DAN ENGLAND/Greeley Tribune

GREELEY ” Looking up at a telephone poll that seemed to scrape the sky, Andrew Grossnickle wasn’t exactly comfortable with what he had been asked to do.

The people with the ropes wanted him to climb up the pole and walk across two wires to the other side. He was attached to the ropes to prevent a nasty fall, but the pole was at least 25 feet tall. And to 13-year-old Andrew, it felt like 100 feet.

“I’m kinda scared of heights,” he said.

But that’s the idea behind Greeley’s Youth Initiative climbing program, said Jim Stiehl, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Northern Colorado.

The program places students in difficult situations, so when they’re faced with challenges in their lives they will have the confidence and skills to deal with them, he said.

The program also nurtures students who are walking the tightrope between graduating and dropping out of school.

“If we could do it through chess, we would,” said Stiehl, who runs the program at John Evans Middle School in Greeley. “But we know the outdoors, and it’s a valuable way to teach them those things.”

A similar program operates out of Adelante Alternative School. Both are sponsored by the city and the university.

Students work on indoor climbing walls, then end the course with a trip to the university’s ropes course ” home to the towering pole Andrew was facing.

When students climb a wall or pole to the top, they feel empowered. If they are belaying a fellow climber, students are responsible for another person’s life. And if they are tired, terrified or troubled on the ropes, students must work through their fears.

All the lessons can be applied to life.

“The activities we do have an uncertain outcome, and (students) have to learn how to deal with that,” Stiehl said.

Manuel Rodriguez, 13, wasn’t sure about the climbing walls at first.

But now in his second year, he has conquered the “back wall,” a climb that challenges even the most experienced climbers.

“I had to climb upside down on it,” Manuel said. “I was a little bit scared, but now it’s started to get fun.”

The instructors like climbing because all the kids start on the same foot.

“In basketball, you’d get some players who are really good and others who have never played,” said Christina Sinclair, an assistant professor of exercise science at UNC. “But usually no one has ever climbed before.”

Magaly Rivera, 14, is so shy that she covers her face with her hand when she’s the slightest bit embarrassed, yet she climbed a towering telephone pole and maneuvered through the wires with little hesitation.

“I feel brave,” she said after the climb. “That’s what I kept telling myself as I was up there, that I should be brave.”

Missy Parker, an exercise science professor who runs the climbing program at Adelante, can’t wait to take her kids to the mountains to climb a real rock wall. She has enjoyed seeing the students’ reactions in past years when they first saw the big walls and huge peaks.

“All these expletives just pour out of their mouths,” Parker said. “Many of them had never seen a rock face before.”

By the end of the program, students have learned to trust adults and each other. They also learn how to get others to trust them.

Kristie Gerdes, 14, thought it was tougher to belay ” to be in charge of someone’s life ” than to climb a wall.

“You’re handling another person,” Kristie said. “You’re responsible for them. You can’t drop them. That makes me feel important.”

As for Andrew, he tackled that towering telephone pole, then ran to the next pole, one of four tall climbing obstacles in the ropes course.

“I’m determined to do them all,” he said. “Hey, I guess I’m not afraid of heights anymore. That’s pretty cool.”

On the Net:

Greeley’s Youth Initiative: http://www.ci.greeley.co.us/2/PageHome.asp?fkOrgID42


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