Reaching new heights: Challenge course encourages confidence, teamwork

Kathy Vu balances on a utility pole suspended 30 feet off the ground, her arms outstretched, legs visibly shaking as she edges toward the center. "I can do this," she whispers to herself, repeating the phrase over and over, a little louder each time. "I can do this!" she finally shouts.

Student Kathy Vu balances on a utility pole at SF State's ropes course.

Student Kathy Vu balances on a utility pole suspended 30 feet off the ground at SF State's Adventure Challenge Course.

Below, her classmates cheer their approval. "You got this, Kathy!" one calls. "Take a deep breath!" another advises. "We're all here for you!" "You're almost there!"

These students are tackling the Adventure Challenge Course at Fort Miley, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where youth groups and other teams go to develop confidence and build trust.

"The best part of the ropes course is that you get to see people being people," said Drew McAdams, the chief of programs for San Francisco State University's Pacific Leadership Institute (PLI), which manages the course. "They're scared, they help each other, they have empathy, they smile. There is a genuineness out there that connects people."

These emotions are out in full force as 35 students in McAdams' "Developmental Play Processes" class navigate the course. Like all participants, the group starts out with ice breakers and introductions before working up to the "low" elements, challenges that involve balancing, jumping and climbing, usually just a few feet off the ground, which help build camaraderie among the team. From there, they move on to the "high" elements, built into the trees, which include ladder climbs, balance walks and the course's best-known challenge, the zip line, a flight through Fort Miley's lush foliage that starts 45 feet in the air.

Students in a

Students in a "Developmental Play Processes" class built teamwork and confidence at the challenge course.

The Challenge Course was created in 1979 as a volunteer program by a group of adventure enthusiasts and teachers, including an SF State faculty member, and initially served a limited number of groups. As demand grew, the course needed a home base to expand its programming and was established in 1998 as the centerpiece of the PLI housed within the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism (RPT) at SF State.

The course serves a broad cross-section of the Bay Area community with a focus on diverse urban youth, McAdams said. Eighty percent of participants are under 24 years of age, and programming is geared predominantly to that demographic.

"This is really targeted at a population that we know can use these experiences but hasn't had access," said McAdams, who is also a lecturer in SF State's RPT department. "For a lot of urban youth, just being out in the woods is out of their comfort zone, so we build from there."

One unique element of the PLI's ropes course is that its leaders -- the staff who strap participants into harnesses, hold safety ropes taut, lead games -- are themselves urban youth ages 16 to 24. Many become interested in the course as participants, McAdams said, and for most, it is their first job.

"Most ropes course leaders are white, male, older. Our leadership team looks a lot different," McAdams said. "That makes our message so much more meaningful. Young people are being led by other young people who totally believe in what we do."

The concept of diverse youth serving their peers, McAdams said, is a natural fit for SF State, with its long history of social justice and values of equity and community.

One of these leaders is Miguel Medina, 22, who has worked at the course for about six months. Medina first visited while enrolled at a local continuation school after having been expelled from high school. Though initially afraid of heights, Medina liked being in the outdoors and the spirit of discipline and teamwork.

"When I was a kid, I always thought I would be a dropout because I didn't have good grades. I didn't know what I would do," Medina said. "I like working here -- the young people are really fun, and they remind me of myself. They look at me as a role model."

About 15 percent of the course's clients visit for private parties or corporate team-building activities. Since some PLI operations are based on sliding-scale fees, these types of groups help subsidize visits by youth groups, other nonprofits and SF State student groups and classes.

On this sunny Saturday at the course, the students gleefully zip between the five "high" challenges, buzzing with trepidation and excitement as they balance on wires, boost each other up wooden beams and take that final deep breath before a giant jump.

Once on solid ground after successfully completing the balance walk, Vu, who admits she has an intense fear of heights, is still trembling.

"I was so scared. I was thinking there is no way I could do it," she said. "But my peers were cheering me on, and that was really encouraging. I'm really proud of myself. I learned that eventually you will conquer your fears if you try."

Through their afternoon on the course, McAdams said, his students will come away with the sense of pride Vu describes, along with jump-started friendships and lasting memories -- and not just of hurtling down a 200-foot zip line.

"Even though you talk about the zip line, what you really remember is that person you didn't know too well cheering you on," McAdams said. "The person who was scared but still went for it and everybody intuitively got their back -- that is what you remember."

To learn more about the Adventure Challenge Course at Fort Miley, visit The course hosts community open days on the first Sunday afternoon of the month. For information, call (415) 338-6883 or email

-- Beth Tagawa

Kathy Vu balances on a utility pole suspended 30 feet off the ground, her arms outstretched
Student on a zip line at the Fort Miley Ropes course
Student smiling and waving her arm while she is connected to zip line ropes
Male student hanging on zipline ropes, suspended in the air next to a tree
Student swinging on wooden block, equipped with zip line gear and a helmet
Student laughing while hanging onto an obstacle course suspended from the forest's trees
Students cheering while waiting on a wooden platform for their turn on the zipline
Student screaming with hands in the air as she goes down the zipline
Students helping each other navigate through the climbing portion of the obstacle course
Students looking above, possibly directing a fellow student in completing one of the outdoor activities
Student group smiling and posing for the camera after completeing the Adventure Challenge Course at Fort Miley