Thirty Feet in the Air

Cate O’Donnell

"Amanda, I know you can do this." The counselor Ashley held out both hands to the girl in front of me on the ropes course, looking her directly in the eye. It was good that Ashley had so much faith in her, but I was coming to the opinion that, in fact, Amanda could not do this. We were thirty feet from the ground and I, still tight in my harness, had long since sat down on the wooden platform between elements. Despite the wait, I wasn't particularly impatient to get down from the sky. Even sitting on the platform for a half-hour waiting for Amanda to move was new and different; nothing is dull at such a height.

Amanda eventually made it to the end of the course and down the zip line. I did too, and I found that despite that particular hiccup, the ropes course had a magnetic sort of draw for me. Following that fateful experience as a twelve-year-old, I rapidly fell in love with the rush associated with being tied onto a challenge course, leaping across suspended islands, and flying down the zip line at the end.

Fast forward eight years and this is my second summer as ropes course director at the same Girl Scout camp, yet the walk up the dirt path to the course is still full of the same excitement. In the quiet morning solitude at Camp Tanglefoot, I put on my own harness and snaphooks and climb the course to jump and pull on every cable and beam. The thing that strikes me about the harness, the rope, and the snaphooks we have is how simple they are. No hidden pieces, nothing that would surprise you at all, really. When at long last I've tied the figure eight knots and double-checked all of the helmets, it's pretty easy to teach the group of girls how to get them on properly. The difficult part is convincing this group of adolescent girls that really, truly, they can actually climb across the elements swinging above their heads, held up by only a piece of metal or two and some rope.

In my head I have a montage of each girl once they've climbed to the top of the tube net and look up to see the cable six feet above them, the cable they are going to have to clip into. Some get this fierce determined look in their eyes, hoist themselves out, hook themselves in, and jet off to complete the course. I admire those girls and make a mental note to recruit them as future facilitators, but I connect much more to the ones that look up at the cable with awe and fear, the ones who understand the magnitude of what they have gotten themselves into.

I myself fit solidly into the first group, the ones who feel only exhilaration once they find themselves up there, but I can't help but look back at Amanda all those years ago. I might have been more comfortable up in the sky than she, but I don't think I grew as much from the experience. I discovered nothing new about myself and my ability to face adversity. She fought her fear and conquered the inner doubt all kids that age have. I swung my feet and enjoyed the view, but perhaps I missed something important that first time. That is part of why I love coming back to Tanglefoot year after year; I redeem my lost opportunity by making it happen for these girls now.

And the girl up in the air? Somewhere inside, she knows she can conquer the course, but on top of this is a desire to impress her friends, the knowledge that the harness is incredibly unflattering, and a fear of falling. Watching from below is so difficult because I can't make her believe what I tell her — that she's strong, the ropes are solid, and she can do it. The facilitator watches over the rest of the girls on the course while I try to convince the girl, from thirty feet below her, that I actually know what I'm doing. Moreover, so does she; she just doesn't know it yet. Bit by bit, step by step, these girls walk along the ropes, beams, and cables that constitute the course. They think it's the snaphooks and other equipment that makes their feat possible, but I now know better.

Without our faith in the snaphooks and all they are connected to, we would be unable to teach our girls what the course is truly meant to teach them. As much as we pretend that we are there for each of the girls up on the course, to catch them when they fall, in all reality we are just cheerleaders. The girls, I know, will face many other "ropes courses" in their lives, things they will find impossible and make them cry and their legs shake. They will want to succeed but find themselves facing a daunting task in which they have nothing to rely on but themselves. I often have to stop and realize the most valuable thing they can take away from the ropes course isn't trust in us or the harnesses — it's trust that they can make it through any ordeal, even one that seems impossible when you're thirty feet in the air.

Cate grew up at Camp Tanglefoot in Clear Lake, Iowa. She's loved working there for four summers, and spends the off season as a fulltime student at Drake University. E-mail the author at