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Capturing the Peak Experience

Tying Outdoor Experience to Personal Performance
By Rick Medrick

High above the Colorado plains on a grassy promontory, 1,000 feet below the summit of Broken Hand Peak in the Sangre de Cristo mountains a group of 24 adults (the size of mosttribal groups throughout history) raised and circled their arms in concert, emulating the flying motions of the eagle. After a few minutes of rhythmic movement - silent meditation on the awesome beauty of the alpine valley and the lakes spread below - and the opportunity to shed a sweater and have a snack the members of the group continued their slowly cadenced ascent, matching steps to the slope of the mountain, carefully avoiding loose rock pacing and spotting the person ahead as the terrain varied from grassy meadow to loose and rock scramble. By noon they were near the summit, reveling in the view from the top, satisfied in having worked together as team to minimize the risk of their climb and provide the support that made an ascent by such a diverse group possible.

Such an experience is not the usual way that most climbers make their way to the top of a Colorado peak, nor was this an average group of backpackers on weekend holiday. Physician, business executive, psychologist, author, college professor -- all were taking part in an eight-day workshop called "Breaking Through," a program offered by the Leadership Outdoor Training Seminars of Denver.

Drawing from such diverse influences as American Indian ritual, Taoist philosophy and meditation, deep ecology and modern relaxation and problem solving strategies, the group and its guides had explored whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and mountaineering as vehicles for expanding each person's capacity -- physically, emotionally and perhaps spiritually -- to reach beyond the possible, to explore new experiences, and function at a level of peak performance.

That this experience should culminate in a peak ascent is not accidental. In 1962, Abraham Maslow identified "peak experience" as a desirable aim for self-actualizing persons. The notion of expanding upon and realizing a person's human potential has been a crucial measure for the many forms of self-development that have been both the impetus and by-product of the past few decades. Presently, both individuals and organizations are exploring and are often dedicated to the notion of transformation: transcending barriers in many performance-oriented sports, making breakthroughs in technological fields, changing the mode in which organizations and corporations do business.

Nowhere is this evidenced more dramatically than in the number of different ways in which people of all ages are approaching the outdoors as offering avenues for self-renewal, making personal changes, escaping from stress, teambuilding, practice in problem solving, and group decision-making. Almost overnight corporate America is discovering the outdoors as the medium to shake the confines of the executive boardroom or sterile workplace and relate to fellow managers or employees in more open and cooperative ways. Through whitewater rafting, technical rock climbing, wilderness backpacking and back-country skiing, as well as rope courses and other outdoor initiatives, both individuals and groups are discovering ways to realign values, restructure priorities, and develop a community of sharing that can profoundly affect personal and professional lives.

What is it that can be gained from negotiating a series of rapids with a crew of six-to-eight fellow paddlers, climbing a peak amid such hazards as rock fall, foul weather, lightning, or swinging from a nylon rope across a rock face? While not easy to document, the roots are well established by those early pioneers who have explored our planet, climbing remote mountains, crossing arctic regions, sailing uncharted oceans and flying our skies in all sorts of aircraft. This is the lore of our age that contributes mightily to our image of human achievement, of what it means to be fully "human" and functioning at peak levels.

What this means when translated to human endeavors is the ability to function effectively under pressure, to draw upon all available personal resources which are being tested to their limits, to work cooperatively and without conflict with others engaged in the same task, to hone a fine edge in competition without losing perspective on the entire experience. Such emphasis is on vision and creativity, on maximizing the return on increasingly limited resources.

On a rock face, for example, you learn the fine art of staying in balance while constantly striving to move beyond your present position. Each section of rock is a road map to be read and traversed with all the skill of an aerialist while carefully conserving energy so you don't falter before reaching your goal. Likewise, the trust you place in your fellow climbers is so absolute that there is no question of their not coming through. The failure of a belay can be fatal. A person has the means, through such an endeavor, to test all those qualities of person and spirit and whatever self-imposed restraints may serve to limit a person's possibilities.

In more general terms, the outdoor experience and the many ways in which it can be explored, offer a valuable counterpoint to the narrowly confined ways in which we define our lives and our work, often estranged from the realities of our society and our environment. In nature, we are constantly confronted with circumstances and events over which we have little control, where we are forced to call upon resources and act with a decisiveness from which we are normally insulated.

There is little room for passivity on a mountainside in the face of an impending storm or when a raft spins out of control in the middle of a rapid. The goal of growth related training experiences in the outdoors is to bring these opportunities together in a focused situation where their relevance can be perceived. Such experience helps to train individuals and groups to make decisions and take action under stress, to cope with the unexpected, and to draw upon untapped reserves. It offers a paradigm that could profoundly affect the way in which we view our potential to work in harmony with our surroundings and with other individuals and groups.

Obviously not all outdoor experiences are suitable for all groups or individuals, either by physical ability or personal inclination. Fortunately, there are gentle ways to experience the outdoors as well as strenuous encounters which support group interaction rather than test personal capacities. Yet, in all cases, there are parallels that can be drawn to situations in other life endeavors, analogs that can be seen between learning in nature and functioning in the toil and turmoil of everyday circumstances.

One element stands out among all the others in outdoor experiential learning situations. The factor which most enhances the value of such learning and training is that we are tuning into patterns and energies that are embedded deep within our selves. Not only do we have all our human abilities and structures that emerged from natural models and forms, but the ultimate test of their viability is how they endure and function in harmony with the energy and wholeness that we experience on a mountain top or watching a sunset over the ocean. To recreate that feeling of belonging to the whole, the mythic oneness with your own actions, is what the peak experience is all about. That is the one essential ingredient of peak performance whatever the circumstances or setting.

Translated into the corporate context, what this suggests is a reexamination of corporate goals and values -- how they nurture the individual and the corporate community, how they contribute to the larger society, and how they harmonize with the needs of our personal and physical environments and the protection and restoration of our planetary ecosystem. While not all these ends can be accomplished through corporate training programs in the outdoors, they can certainly benefit from being considered in a setting conducive to self-examination and appreciation of how nature and people can live and work in harmony.

RICK MEDRICK, Ed.D, has a doctoral degree in psychology and experiential education and directs the Denver-based Outdoor Leadership Training Seminars for which he designs and conducts outdoor training programs for individuals and corporate groups.



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