Facing Fears and Finding Strength in the Wilderness

A new high adventure activity at Heritage is getting rave reviews from staff and students. The Summit Program challenges students to do hard things in wilderness settings, creating memorable results.

The program was created and submitted by Michael Tilden, recreation therapist. As an intern he was asked to come up with a project that would contribute to Heritage.

“In my experience before Heritage I worked at wilderness therapy programs for four years and also ran outdoor adventure programs at college,” he said. “They helped build my self esteem so I thought it would be cool to bring one to an at-risk group.”

Michael said he was in a unique position to provide a high adventure program and do it safely.

“The leadership at Heritage liked the idea and said ‘when can you start?’” he said.

Michael has been at Heritage for about a year and has successfully completed three rounds of the program since March, two with boys and one with girls. He is currently conducting a second round with girls.

“We start off the six weeks with hiking, then we do a small rappel, then a bigger rappel, then rock climbing for a few weeks,” he said. “We progress to do a canyon in southern Utah where they put all the skills together. It’s a culmination of all the skills where they connect with nature – it’s great at building self-esteem.”

Currently the students who are asked to participate are in the Elevate program, boys and girls ages 14-17, with an average of eight students per group.

“We keep it small to keep it safe and individualized,” he said.


There are many benefits for students participating in this activity but one stands out.

“I think the main thing is that it shows they are capable of hard things,” Michael said. “There are a bunch of lessons they can discover. Being outside can teach you a lot about yourself. Everyone gets something different out of it. It shows you are capable of doing more and if you can do it in that area of your life, you can do hard things in other areas of your life.”

Michael said it also gives students the chance to bond with their peers.

“High adventure means high emotions and high connections,” he said. “It’s pretty universal with the kids – they look forward to it; they love it.”

Not all students are required to participate.

“We hand pick all of our kids, we don’t force kids,” he explained. “Some don’t want to rappel off 50-foot cliffs but for those who like that, we pick them. It would backfire if we forced them. We ease kids into it; sometimes we push a little bit but they are mostly kids who want to do it.”

Learning the physical techniques is just one part of the adventure. Applying those techniques in a wilderness setting is another part but a key component is seeing what a student takes away from it.

Christian, age 14, spoke of the physical and mental lessons he learned.

“I learned how to rappel and climb,” he said. “I learned that I enjoy doing these activities. I like adventure – the thrill, the fun, feeling alive and in the zone. I felt the canyon and nature were soothing and peaceful to me. I felt the rope was my support system.”

The culmination three-day trip takes place in the beautiful wilderness areas of southern Utah, usually in or near Capitol Reef National Monument.

“Therapists often come on these trips and do therapy in these canyons,” Michael said. “It’s very intense. It’s cool that the kids see the therapists doing the same difficult climbs and rappels.”

Michael said while the trip takes place on school days students only miss one and a half days of school time. He added it doesn’t impact academic credit too much and that many take homework and do it by campfire.

So far the only minor negative incidents have been kids getting anxious on the rope.

“But they face that fear and get over it,” he said.

Chris, age 16, said the thing he learned and will remember the most involved fear.

“I learned we should not be scared of our fears,” he said. “Fear is a fake barrier to our great opportunities.”

The hardest part for Jayden, age 16, was the third rappel.

“I got through it by closing my eyes, refocusing, breathing deep and said to myself: ‘I can do this,’ and then I did it. After the last rappel I realized I accomplished something great. It boosted my confidence. I will not be controlled by my fears anymore.”


Faye Nelson


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