Experiential Therapy at Excelsior – Rock Climbing

“Comfort Zone”

True Accounts from Excelsior’s Summer Outdoor Rock Climbing Program – with Women’s Wilderness

By Diana Gonzalez – Therapeutic Coordinator, Excelsior PEAK Project

“I can’t do this.” One of our participants said, face flushed red from the arduous hike up the mountainside to our rock climbing site.

hikingYes, you can. I know you can. Of course, we’re in no rush. Take a break, have a sip of water, and trust that you can put one foot in front of the other until you reach your goal,” an Excelsior staff member replied reassuringly, wiping sweat from her brow. It was only 10:00am, but the sun was beating down with the heated promise of growing stronger throughout the day. There was not a cloud in Colorado’s bluebird sky, as the group trekked onwards through the switchback-filled trail overlooking the town of Golden.

As we stopped for a water break, I pondered the metaphorical power of that statement: Trust that you can put one foot in front of the other until you reach your goal.

Once the hiking portion of the day had been completed and the climbing location found, clients were instructed in harnesses and helmets fitting, as well as how to do a safety check for both themselves and their partner. Belay commands were practiced, climbing shoes fitted, and the kiddos were ready to go. The term “belay” in the rock climbing world stems from a French nautical term, meaning “to hold fast”. In current climbing practices, it is used as part of a verbal agreement between the climber and the person controlling the other end of the rope, confirming that both parties are ready to partake in the safety practices of climbing. Cautiously, participants began volunteering to climb. One by one, and at various paces, they ascended and descended the gray cliff in front of us. After a few runs, participants began to step to the side for a lunch and water break. I noticed there was just one participant left that hadn’t climbed yet, and although she had remained stationary during her peers’ climbing, now looked intrigued by the intimidating 50 foot rock face.

rock climbingchanged copyStepping forward and gingerly touching the dynamic purple rope in front of her, she gave a sideways glance to our instructor. Quietly, she asked, “Can I try?”

Within minutes, our participant was locked, loaded, and ready to climb. Or so we thought.

“I can’t do this,” came the familiar self-doubting voice from five feet above us, voice muffled by the large slab of granite that she was nose-to-nose with.

“Yes, you can. I believe in you. What is your goal for this climb? You don’t need to go all the way to the top if you don’t want, just as far as you’d like to go” replied the Women’s Wilderness guide, gesturing to the various potential stop-points along the route.

The young lady eyed the imposing chunk of cliff in front of her warily. “Half way. I only want to go half way,” she replied in a decided tone. Taking a deep breath, she reached out a tentative hand and began pushing and pulling her way upwards.

I watched our participant climb slowly, hand over hand and with audible breath in the hot summer mid-day heat. When she reached the halfway point, her pre-decided goal, I glanced at our instructor that had her on belay. We locked eyes and with a quiet “shh…” and headshake, I gathered to not inform our climber that she was both above and beyond the goal she had set for herself. As our climber reached the top, giving a smack to the carabiner anchor and an ululation of success, cheers erupted from the group of youth and staff below.

Upon her return to the ground and after a round of congratulatory high-fives, our participant enthusiastically scanned the climb she had just completed. With a deep breath and a grin, she said, “I can’t believe I went all the way! I didn’t think I was strong enough to do it! I guess I was able to do it all along.”

The Women’s Wilderness instructor and I exchanged a knowing and proud smile, nodding at the recently realized power this young lady had just discovered in herself.

And THAT, I thought to myself, is exactly the point of Experiential Adventure Therapy.


Experiential Therapy at Excelsior: While providing a safe environment for youth to address specific treatment-related issues, Excelsior’s Master’s level clinicians offer alternative therapy groups that promote healthy social interaction, self-confidence and an active lifestyle.

Our rock climbing program is facilitated by a partner organization, Women’s Wilderness, that facilitates a multitude of outdoor experiences including camping, map and compass work and rock climbing.

Additional experiential therapy programs offered at Excelsior include: Animal-Assisted Therapy (Canine and Equine), Expressive Art Therapy (Art, Movement and Shapedown Weight Management Program) and programs provided through SOS Outreach, which are typically year-round, multi-year mentoring programs providing experiential opportunities like snowboarding and kayaking.