• Courtney Kirschaum

The secret seduction of the first climber

One summer, I worked at a high ropes course that would get the "real deal" nod of respect from any Navy SEAL. Clients varied. Corporate boards, cheerleading squads, Boy's clubs, Girl Scouts, summer campers and sororities all came through.

The "Telephone Pole" was often their first challenge.

You start on a metal ladder tightly affixed to the pole. At six feet, you transition to rebar footholds on each side of the telephone pole. You climb alone while your team waits their turn on the ground shouting encouragement: "You got this!" "Good move!" "Keep going!!" "YES!!!!" At 35 feet up, you feel it.

Now, you have to navigate what seems like an impossible transition to standing on top of the telephone pole.

It's about the same diameter as a paper plate. You look and often feel like a turtle on Vicodin. In a harness and on rope belay with your guide, you'll only drop a few feet if you fall. You'll be lowered safely to the ground. This does almost nothing to dilute your fear.

Make the turtle transition and you're balancing on a paper plate in space.

The course was remote and in deep woods, sun shining through the trees dapples the ground in moving shadows of leaves. Standing on top, climbers yell out to celebrate and to scare away a wolf-like fear, that only takes a step back. Make it here and you feel a magic other wordly-ness of being high and alone in triumph. There's more... Six feet in front of you, there's a wide metal bar hanging in midair. A trapeze swing. Your challenge is to jump forward, grab the trapeze and swing. A big jump from your perch is the only way to reach the bar.

It's designed to feel not quite doable.

Most people make it to the top of the rebar steps. Many fall transitioning to stand on top. You're pumping adrenaline. Add time pressure. Because all your team members have get through this challenge too. In early spring, our training group of new facilitators was at Telephone Pole, checking harnesses, deciding who would climb and who would belay, the course owner and lead trainer gathered us together and said, "Choose your first climber carefully. They set the level for the rest. If the first climber succeeds, it's more likely you others will make it. If the first climber misses... it's harder. I've see this play out hundreds of times." The first climber sets the standard. This proved true all through that summer. Consider:

  1. Who are your first climbers?

  2. Where are you the first climber?

  3. Are you comfortable in that role?

  4. Does your team encourage you to succeed?

  5. Do you encourage others?

  6. What needs to change?

Climb on.



The best thing you can do for your career is help someone else with theirs.

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