Climbing is not a solo sport on the new Alpine Tower, a multi-obstacle ropes course rising 50 feet into the air on Washington and Lee University's back campus.
The teepee-shaped tower, which is topped by a raised, triangular platform, can handle 36 participants at one time, including climbers and belayers. Designed for leadership training and team building, the course is packed with challenges, from rope swings and cargo nets to unstable ladders and an aerial teeter-totter called the Diabolical Seesaw.
Sitting on a patch of open land beside the Student Activities Pavilion, the tower faced its own challenges before opening on October 13th. Installed in July, it had been open for only a week when the derecho windstorm ripped a 70 mph path through the back campus.
During the storm, a pine tree fell on one of the tower’s stainless steel cables, which was connected to a lag bolt in one of the tower’s supportive utility poles.
“When it fell on that cable it actually split one of the top supporting poles,” said James Dick, director of student programming and campus recreation and ropes course manager. “We had to drop the whole tower on its side again, remove the cracked pole and one of the main struts. Two cranes were involved, so it was kind of a process.”
How challenging are the obstacles? The Corporate Ladder gives a nod to the problems students will face in the workplace. “It’s a set of cables with boards across it, like a ladder, but each rung of the ladder gets further and further apart,” said senior Joseph Moravec of Normal, Ill, an Outing Club Key Staff member. “They start around 3 1/2 feet apart, and they end at 4 1/2 feet apart. As you climb, it becomes more and more difficult.”
Sophomore Margaret McClintock of Tunica, Miss was impressed by The Floating Poles — free-hanging telephone poles with handholds. “I had to jump onto that and then climb… and swing in the air,” said McClintock. “You have someone belaying you, but it definitely feels like you’re going to fall off in mid-air, and it was just kind of scary. It was the hardest one for me.”
The Alpine Tower is a key part of W&L’s evolving leadership development program, which will be called the General’s Leadership Academy. The idea for organized leadership training at W&L was hatched in the 1990’s by Mike Walsh, W&L’s athletic director at the time, and Burr Datz ’75, former director of leadership development.
Walsh and Datz subsequently worked with Scott Fechnay ’69 to develop W&L’s first ropes course, the Fechnay Challenge Course. This course, which opened in 2002, contained a series of high and low elements, or challenges, scattered through a stand of white pines near the Pavilion. It was designed by W&L graduate Karl Rohnke ’60, a leader in adventure education and co-founder of Project Adventure. Many of these original course elements were destroyed during a microburst storm two years ago. After the derecho, the remaining trees and elements were removed.
Fechnay provided funding for the original ropes course as well as the Alpine Tower, which was built by Alpine Towers International. His goal? To improve leadership training for W&L students, particularly student athletes and team captains.
“I was a soccer captain at W&L and, in retrospect, I could have been a much better leader if I had been properly trained,” said Fechnay, who served on W&L’s Board of Trustees and the University Athletic Council. “I did not understand the concept of leadership until I was in Navy basic training and flight school.” He received additional leadership training in business school.
As president of Alliant/Atlantic Food Service Inc, Fechnay used what he had learned to improve the company’s culture and bottom line. He also provided training for his employees. “We started with a ropes course program which broke down the barriers between our departments and created a real sense of team and company-wide responsibility.”
In the coming year, captains of W&L's varsity athletic teams will be encouraged to attend climbing workshops before their respective seasons. They will supplement their outdoor experience with classroom training. “A certain number of times per year our captains are going to be exposed to, and involved in, more of an understanding of what it means to be a leader, and study what leadership means,” said Athletic Director Jan Hathorn.
Ropes courses, with their destination points and obstacles, force participants to communicate and to trust their team members. Learning to communicate effectively is particularly important for sports captains who have “to work with people who maybe don’t agree on the goal or don’t think they can reach the goal or don’t have enough confidence in themselves to know what to do to get the team to the goal,” said Hathorn.
The tower is also open for use by on-campus organizations. Students who completed the Ropes Course Facilitation P.E. class in October were trained as ropes course facilitators, and they can assist at climbing workshops.
But the Alpine Tower is not all about leadership training and problem-solving. According to Moravec and McClintock, it’s already become a place where students can simply let off steam and enjoy on-campus camaraderie.
“You don’t have to commit to whole day…you can just go and be outside. You get to meet new friends, meet new people, [while] doing something a little physically challenging and mentally challenging,” said McClintock. “It’s a really neat course.”
— by Amy Balfour '89, '93L
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs