I was  asked to share my personal Outward Bound experience at a fund-raiser to benefit the Washington D.C. Scholarships Fund for North Carolina Outward Bound.   The event was designed to provide scholarships to inner city youth in the D.C. area to attend.  Here are my comments:

October 13, 2010

I signed up for an Outward Bound Course in early 2000.  I was 41 years old.  I wanted to do this as a way to celebrate being in remission for 5 years from advanced stage Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  While physically I was in the best shape I had been since my Plebe year at the Naval Academy, I was not prepared for the depth and breadth of the spiritual and emotional lifelong lessons I would take away from the course.

Despite my personal experience as a combat veteran,  recovering alcoholic, and a cancer survivor, I found my Outward Bound experience to be as deeply a transformational experience as anything I had ever experienced.  Trust, respect, self-confidence, team building and a reinvigorated respect for community and family were reborn at a time when I thought I had all that figured out.

Here is just one example of my experience that week:

It was the second day of the weeklong Outward Bound course in the Colorado Rockies.  I stood, along with 19 other students I had met  the day before, at the base of a 70’ high rock formation, with eyes gazing upward.  After receiving safety instructions on properly fitting the harness, belaying, and basic rock climbing fundamentals, we broke up into small groups.  The nervous chatter was peppered with a few quietly confident quips.  Clearly some had rock climbed before.  I quickly realized the ninety minutes I spent at an indoor climb-nasium back home in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, did not place me in that category.

We each took our turn.  Most of us started on the less technical, “beginners” route.  Each climber was assisted by 2 or 3 “belayers”, that is, partners holding onto the belay line in the event a climber lost balance and fell.  Belayers were there to save the climber from plummeting to certain injury.   A cowbell at the top of the cliff was suspended in order for successful climbers to commemorate their ascent by ringing the bell.

I found the real challenge was to climb with my feet, not my hands.  My natural inclination was to find a crevice, and pull myself up.  This caused my arms to tire quickly. I made it to the top, then ‘repelled’ down the rock face I had climbed.  I remember thinking, “Repelling down sure looks a lot easier on TV than it is in real person!”   I was happy to be done with the exercise, to “check” that block and move on to the next adventure.  After rotating through most of the group, everybody had a chance to climb, as well as serve as a belayer.

A few people had drifted down to the far right to attempt to negotiate a steeper, more technical climb.  On the other end, to the far left, one obviously experienced climber began to make the ascent with a kerchief wrapped around his eyes.  He was blindfolded.

Initially I was not impressed.  “Frickin’ show-off”, I thought.  (This reaction would be repeated over and over again throughout the week as I was continually introduced to new twists on activities which constantly pushed my comfort level and personal boundaries. ) But as he navigated his way up the rock face, and my arms began to recover, I began to think I might give it a try.  I did.  Most of the group was down to the far right resting, snacking, and admiring the skilled climbers navigating the more technical wall.

I began my ascent.  Without the use of my eyes, the key was to locate the next toe hold with my hands.  It was awkward at first; but I  adapted.  This ‘handicap’ also forced me to focus on keeping my weight on the toes, not my arms.  I continued up the 70’ rock face.  It struck me that my trust of the ‘belayers’ below, people I had met on a bus just 24 hours ago, was unwavering.  I moved further up.  I could feel the warmth of the sun on my neck and back as I moved higher and higher. As I got to the last 10 or 15 feet from the top,  my line would occasionally rub against the bell, causing a barely audible ‘ting’ of the ringer.

At this point, with approximately 10 feet to go, I was suddenly re-charged with an incredible sense of joyful anticipation. Nothing could stop me now.  It struck me that this exercise was a metaphor for my dance with cancer.  As I moved closer and closer, with each ‘ting’ signaling my approach to the goal line, to remission, tears filled my eyes, my breathing deepened.

I inched closer with each new toe-hold, my arms reaching up – I rang the bell!    Below, my new best friends cheered, whistled, and applauded my accomplishment.  Few knew of my cancer story at that point; but it was wonderful to share this moment.  At the same time – the audible support and congratulations was almost a distraction to the torrent of joy, gratitude, and quiet, serene exhilaration I felt.  I reached for the bell, and rang it loudly again, signaling the arrival of a new man.  I stayed there for several minutes.  I smiled. I cried.

I know the word ‘transformation’ is often diluted by its overuse.  But like getting cancer and getting sober, my Outward Bound experience has served to heighten my awareness and appreciation of the community I strive to improve, the friends I support, the family I love, and nature I respect.

I do not possess the literary skills to articulate just how much Outward Bound altered the trajectory of my life.   It simply has made me better.  A better man, a better father,  a better husband, a better friend, and a better citizen.

If Outward Bound can do that for a middle-aged, middle-class white man – imagine what your support can do for the disadvantaged youth from the inner city.  You can make a difference; you can help a young man or woman ring their bell,  and help them make a difference in their world.

For more information on the NorthCarolina Outward Bound program, please visit www.NCOBS.org

One thought on “Ringing the Bell

  1. Patrick, despite your alleged “lack of literary ability,” you did an amazing job capturing climbing the rock and all the emotion that went with it. For all of us, clearly, it wasn’t just about climbing: it was about facing fear, uncertainty, lack of confidence in ourselves.
    I’ve written a lot about that day and those climbs, and you were able to write clearly about how you felt and what it was like for you.
    I hope all those North Carolina folks opened their wallets for you…

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