Standing at 14,000 feet above sea level, I find myself struggling to catch my breath. As I begin to take in the panoramic vista of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, memories and images of over 25 years of Colorado wilderness adventures with students rush through my mind. One of the highlights of my ministry endeavors over the last decades has been leading hundreds of students out to Noah’s Ark for the adventures of a lifetime. There were certainly plenty of rush moments as students paddled through class four whitewater, overcame altitude sickness as they got to the top of one of Colorado’s 54 “14ers,” and stepped off the edge of a rock face with the ground far below during a rappelling exercise.
Yet, when someone recently quizzed me on why I kept wilderness adventure trips as a central focus of my work as an educator and pastor for so many years, my response went right past the adrenaline surge of doing things that literally take our breaths away. The word I kept using to describe what really happens was “transformation”- our high adventure activities are a catalyst to change the very core of student and adult lives. The mountains are a place of regeneration and renewal that God uses to help my students take amazing steps of faith as they become more devoted followers of Jesus. I’ve also seen first-hand the difference it’s made in my own ability to carry out God’s calling for my own life. Here are 4 components of our adventure trip experiences that have allowed God to accomplish transforming work in our hearts and lives.
Experiencing Real Life
Many truths of scripture have become suddenly real through our wilderness adventures, We experientially learn what it means to “bear one another’s burdens: (Galatians 6:2) as we lighten the backpack of one who’s struggling and put those supplies into our own already too-heavy pack. We figure out what it means to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) as we leave behind the world of people and noise. We gratefully pray “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) as we pull some rolls out of a bag we’ve carried on our backs during a 12-hour hike. And we follow Jesus’ call to “wash one another’s feet as He washed our feet” (John 13:14) as we wipe a wet bandana over the feet that have been walking the trails of the mountains for the past several days. Life lessons from God’s Word are powerfully taught by the elements and experiences we encounter and battle in this non-suburban, non-technical, non-hectic world with which few of my students are familiar.
It’s nearly impossible to hide who you are and what you’re feeling when you spend significant time in the backcountry. Each year I’m amazed at the remarkable people I see in my students when their facades and phones disappear. The wilderness is an amazing place of security, and in the beauty of our campsite we take turns telling our life stories, our struggles, and the difficult realities of our own spiritual journeys.
Building Community and Relationships
When you struggle through physical and mental challenges together, you build deep and lasting relationships. We do almost nothing alone. No one can shut the door or put headphones in. A 19 year old river guide, Cory Scheer, has become one of my closest and dearest lifelong friends after he led my students and me through an unforgettable wilderness adventure. I often think that my time with my groups in the wilderness is probably the closest thing to an Acts 2 church experience- as we daily study the Word of God, enjoy fellowship, pray, share our possessions, and are filled with awe at our Lord’s creation. Students begin to realize that it is okay to live in the stretch zone rather than the comfort zones that dominate their lives, and they see the growth that being physically and spiritually stretched produces.
Development of Student Leaders
Tremendous opportunity exists in wilderness settings for the development of communication and decision-making skills, in addition to building Christ-like character. The mountains become a laboratory where we help students gain vision, passion, and confidence for future leadership roles. They’re empowered to make decisions concerning the backpacking route, spiritual content, and group activities for the particular day that they’re the leaders. My leadership group has consistently returned with a passion to see mountains moved as they follow Jesus with a new sense of purpose and confidence.
I’m still so excited to bring students to Noah’s Ark every year. The moments of joy and laughter are everywhere. It’s a remarkable picture of the growth of the family of God and the progression of spiritually passing the torch that I long to see in my work with students. The mountains continue to leave a legacy of transformation on the lives that God has entrusted to me: and for me, that’s what makes the journey, the risk, and the adventure eternally worth it.