I stand atop the steel pole and take a few deep breaths. There is nothing to hold onto, and balance is key.

Then I jump.

The ropes catch me before I can even recover my breath.

I’ve done it. I’ve completed the Cougar Perch, the hardest part of the Challenge Course at Washington State University.

I agreed to navigate the Challenge Course and convinced my roommate, Bryn, to come along. But when we showed up and saw the huge structure behind the Student Recreation Center, I almost changed my mind. After staring at the ropes and tall metal poles for a few minutes, we forced ourselves to do it. In a way, we dared ourselves to face our fears.

There have been enough people facing their fears this year for the challenge program to gain quick popularity among students, faculty, and staff since it opened in August 2004. The program gives individuals and groups a lot of options for learning, developing, and bonding through physical and personal challenges. I completed the individual challenge and was on an adrenaline rush when I finished. I felt more confident about myself the minute I was back on the ground and taking off my harness.

Many WSU sports teams have completed the group challenge, and so have several fraternities and sororities. Some instructors have brought their classes to the course, and there is the possibility of an academic department challenge at the end of spring semester.

The challenge program was created after University Recreation (UREC) performed needs assessment surveys and conducted research to find out if students, faculty, and staff would actually use the course and if it was worth the money it would cost to build. The course cost $80,000 to design and construct. Funding came from monies made available through a shortage of SRC staff last year, dollars already in the UREC budget, and the student activities fee that every current student pays with tuition. Money for staffing and maintenance¬† comes from the student activities fee and from registration charges users pay when signing up for the challenge. It’s anticipated that future costs will come primarily from additions to the course rather than repairs or upkeep.

“We are the only all-steel-pole challenge course in the world right now,” says Francis Morgan-Gallo, coordinator for University Recreation challenge and instruction programs. “The whole structure will last 50 to 100 years, and most [challenge courses] replace their poles every 10 years.”

According to the challenge staff, the biggest misconception about the course is that working on group interaction means going on the “high stuff.” Groups are often disappointed to find out that the “high stuff” is meant for individual growth. For group challenges, a program staff member identifies the group’s goals, then formulates a unique set of activities designed to develop problem-solving skills and to teach group members to work together.

“I think the challenge is really big in the business world. It’s a taste of what’s going to be out there in the real world, and it takes education out of the classroom,” says Morgan-Gallo. “It’s using experiential education to meet individual goals.”

For now, the program is open only to students, faculty, and staff. As for the future, “expansion is possible in both equipment and in programs,” says Joanne Greene, UREC assistant director. Morgan-Gallo and Greene say the challenge program will soon be open to nonprofit organizations, businesses, and alumni.

Perhaps the biggest concern about the program is safety. But people incur fewer injuries doing the challenge than they do playing basketball for the same amount of time, says Morgan-Gallo. “Major risks are bumps and bruises and maybe a rope burn or splinter if they ignore the facilitator,” he says. “It’s about what you can do. [Challengers] don’t have to force their bodies or minds to do anything they don’t want to.”

The low rate of injuries may have a lot to do with how cautious the program staff is. To work on the challenge course, a staffer must spend many hours training. I felt very safe when completing the challenge, and I will be back to complete it again.