A rope was attached to Kyle Faulkner’s waist, helping ensure he wouldn’t fall 67 feet to injury or worse.
The 20-year old stood on a platform above the forest floor at Mount Vernon’s Hillcrest Park. He stepped into the air and shot down a zip line. After his ride was brought to a halt, he climbed down a ladder that his friends had carried over.
“Oh, that is intense. Boy, that is intense,” he said, giddily running his hand through his hair. “Oh, my gosh.”
On a cloudy February afternoon, Faulkner was ignoring a light mist to spend time at Eagle Rock Challenge Course, a large city-run park, for a team-building exercises hosted by Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The challenge course, like others of its kind, imparts a little wisdom as it pushes people to overcome obstacles.
Challenge courses started popping up in the United States after 1962, slowly entering the mainstream by the mid-1990s. Spurred by educational programs hoping to get students outdoors, the courses offers a fantastical take on the athletic experience, like an Ewok’s playground.
Upward of 10,000 courses speckle the country today, according to the national Association for Challenge Course Technology.
Mount Vernon’s parks department often markets its course to nonprofit organizations and to corporations, but any group of eight or more can reserve time at the site. The course attracts sorority outings, bachelor parties and friends looking to get outdoors.
While the appeal is partially tied to adrenaline-producing thrills, there’s more to it than that, challenge course designer Valdo Lallemand said.
“Fun is somehow the tip of the iceberg,” Lallemand, president of Vision Leadership in Seattle, said. “The main reason we do it is because they are very powerful tools for leadership and team development. Otherwise people wouldn’t spend the time and money to build them and go on them.”
Lallemand praised Eagle Rock, which cost about $100,000 to build, as the best facility of its kind in the area. Granted, he’s a bit biased: He designed it and is a ready advocate for challenge courses.
“I think they’re wonderful tools,” he said. “I think they’re the tool that has the highest ratio between perceived risk to real risk. It’s important to have. The real risk is almost zero.”
The idea of risk, or a lack thereof, often comes up at the course itself.
Kyle McPherson, who manages the Mount Vernon site, explained to Faulkner’s friends that the ropes they were attached to could hold the weight of a dozen people. He said activities that seemed death-defying were “safer than the drive here.”
Incidentally, the Mount Vernon course isn’t all thrills. The course’s “low” elements have names that feel lifted from a Disney theme park, and look similarly tame. There’s the Wild Woozy and the Walk of Friends, both which involve people balancing on ropes low to the ground, holding or leaning on a friend for support.
And not everything involves ropes. For the Whale Watch, two groups stand opposite each other on a large, broad seesaw. Once the seesaw is even, everyone slowly moves to the other side, trying to keep the platform from tipping to the ground.
Each activity, regardless of its height, is meant to impart a little lesson.
“We’re hoping that the high experiences, both as a group and as an individual, are a metaphor, and can be applied to real life,” McPherson told one group.
Metaphorical worth aside, an obvious attraction is the sheer glee of leaping from platforms like an oversized squirrel.
On the Trapeze Jump, participants, each wearing a harness and a helmet, scale a 35-foot high log that wobbles gently under their weight. Once at the top, they have to climb onto the log’s narrow tip, stand up and leap into the air, grabbing a trapeze bar that dangles a few feet in front of them.
Now, sure, a device like that may teach something to an individual, perhaps about the ability to overcome fear. But it’s also fun, even for someone with a mild case of vertigo.
As Ben VanGorder, 28, climbed the log in February, his friends urged him higher, despite his obvious nerves. After jumping, the Oak Harbor resident’s harness caught, and he was lowered gently to the ground.
“That sucked,” he spat.
The grin plastered to his face implied otherwise.
Reporter Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455 or e-mail email@example.com.