Wilderness Ordeals


When I was in seventh grade, my class went on an overnight field trip to an outdoor adventure camp near the West Virginia border. We will call this camp Wilderness Ordeals.

The premise of Wilderness Ordeals was pretty simple: You and your classmates, along with a couple of teachers and several parents who were serving as chaperones because they drew the short straw, would go out and do team-building exercises. For example, you would have to hoist your buddy through a hole in some ropes tied between two trees without touching the edges, or help each other build your tents, which was easier said than done since they appeared to be surplus tents from the Korean War.

I’m a fairly outdoorsy person. In fact, a large part of my job revolves around going out and taking photos of bugs and snakes and other critters.

Having said that, I did not enjoy Wilderness Ordeals. The problem, I think, was it combined a number of things I didn’t care for, such as being around 7th graders, team-building, enforced fun, and caves.

Oh, I was excited about the caves at first. When I heard we were going caving, I expected that we would walk up to a giant opening in the side of a mountain, perhaps with a few bats flying out. We would walk inside, enjoying the perfectly level ground, and poke around with our flashlights as we enjoyed the wonders of various stalactites and whatnot.

What I did not expect is that we would roll up on a hole in the middle of a field and be told to crawl inside, and then spend the next hour and a half alternating between slipping down muddy inclines and scrambling up them. It was a miserable experience, and all it taught me was that people who enjoy caving are insane. Caves are nature’s coffins.

My most vivid memory of the trip, however, was the zip line.

Wilderness Ordeals had a zip line, and looking back, I remember it being about five miles long and thousands of feet high, although I’m guessing those memories are not accurate.

You couldn’t just go on the zip line, however. The zip line was the grand finale to the entire trip, the last thing you were to do at the end of the second day. Not only that, you had to build up to the zip line. You started out balancing on top of a wobbly log, then you had to walk across a balance beam, and then you had to climb a wall. The idea was that by the time you did all that stuff, you were finally ready for the ultimate challenge of zip lining across three counties.

However, Wilderness Adventure had some kind of scheduling conflict, a double booking perhaps, so the only solution they could think of was to have my class do everything backward. Which meant that the moment we got off the bus, we were shuffled off to the zip line, and then at the end of the day, we all got to stand on logs.

I vividly remember climbing the metal scaffolding that led to the top of the zip line. It took forever. We were so high up, I half expected to see a satellite pass by within arm’s reach.

I remember standing at the top of the scaffolding, a helmet on my head, my safety harness doing its level best to prevent me from ever having children. There were four of us at the top of the scaffold: Me, my friend Rob’s dad, another classmate we’ll call John, and the college student/zip line operator entrusted with our lives.

John volunteered to go first.

“How much do you weigh, kid?” the college student asked.

“A hundred pounds,” John said.

Now it’s entirely possible that John did weigh a hundred pounds the year before. However, the summer had been a time of discovery for John, and the main thing he had apparently discovered was a pie-based meal between lunch and dinner. I’m not trying to be mean here, but a combination of a growth spurt and a healthy appetite probably put John closer to 150 or more.

“Huh,” the college student said.

Now the thing about zip lining is that in order to do it safely, the operator has to adjust the tension of the cable based on the weight of the rider. Apparently, the college student decided that it was easier to just take John at his word than follow proper safety protocols, so he set the tension for 100 pounds, hooked John’s carabiner to the line, and told him to let ‘er rip.

I had watched a few of my classmates go down the zip line, and all of them had enjoyed a gentle, almost leisurely descent down the mountain.

This did not happen to John.

From the moment John stepped off the platform, he began rocketing down the mountain like a bat out of hell. I remember hearing screaming, some of it from John, most of it from our horrified classmates below. He was moving so fast that I half expected to see flames licking off of him like a space shuttle re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

At the end of the zip line, the cable had been threaded through a series of tires, the idea being that if you were moving too fast, the carabiner would hit the tires and stop, thus preventing you from smacking face-first into a tree.

None of my other classmates had even come close to the tires. John, on the other hand, banged into the tires with the force of the meteor that leveled Tungunska in 1908. I remember watching him bounce around like a ragdoll on a string before slowing to a stop. He disconnected his carabiner and somehow walked away, clearly shaken but no worse for wear.

The college student glanced at my friend Rob’s dad.

“How much do you weigh, sir?” he asked.

Rob’s dad considered the question.

“Five hundred pounds,” he said.


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