In Search of Courage


What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything – Vincent van Gogh 

Emma Lehto and Kathy McKerrow 

Sweat trickles down my spine, my hands feel clammy, my heart is pounding, I feel nauseouyet also excited. Am I really doing this? Am I insane? My head spins and I think I may pass out. Okay… you can do this. Take a deep breath and steady your pounding heart. Over the edge I go... making sure I don’t look down. This is my first abseiling experience as part of my Outdoor and Adventure Education course. – Kathy  

I faced my fears and was able to complete the task even though I was afraid. I was brave. I had courage... but what is courage? According to John Graham, “courage is the ability to do the right thing, and do it well, even when you are afraid” (Graham 199799). He also goes on to state that the “amount of courage you need to cope with a situation is proportional to the risks you perceive” (107). 

Risk and reward – A delicate balance

Rock climbing is an adventure activity that is often used to promote change and personal growth in participants. The right amount of risk with the correct degree of competence allows participants to rise to the challenge. Get the balance between these two factors wrong and the result can be misadventure or even trauma. The interaction of risk and competence is modelled in Priest and Baille’s “adventure experience paradigm” (Priest&Gass 2018, 202). Even though risks in adventure education programs are carefully calculated, the individual response to risk is the x-factor. What scares the pants off me may not even cause another person to sweat. What’s important is to understand that fear generated from perceived risks vary from individual to individual. This fear is real. 

Self-leadership skills saw me trying to increase control over the situation by gaining more knowledge about rock climbing, practicing with equipment on flat ground, asking for tips from senior students and building confidence on smaller rock faces before abseiling with my class. I still had my heart in my throat as I went over the edge, but I felt more in control. My step-by-step progress as the challenge level increased gave me a feeling of mastery. I started to feel that I just might be able to do this rock-climbing part of our course. I thought I couldn’t, but I learned that I could by doing it. I surprised myself. 

As a leader of rock-climbing activities, you are responsible for creating the right amount of challenge for students by gradually increasing the level of challenge as the competence of the participants increases. Encouraging and creating a supportive environment for participants is key. Testing out new skills promotes personal growth by allowing challenge by choice.  

A bunch of students studying a tall rock climbing wall in a green forest

Carefully studying the wall before climbing. (Photo: Kristiina Desroches)

I had been indoor climbing a few times before we started climbing courses at Humak last spring. I was getting excited about learning all the knots for real, testing the climbing gear and getting on the walls finally. Indoor lessons went well, I felt confident belaying my classmates. Even if climbing was a bit tricky for me, it felt good. 

When it was time to do the same outdoors, I completely failed. I couldn’t find a grip anywhere on the rocky walls, I couldn’t control my moves, and after a long day of increasing the challenge level and height of the walls, I was completely out of faith. When it was my time to abseil a fairly doable but tall wall, I panicked. I did trust my skills and gear and I had all the support from my classmates and coaches, but my courage failed me. I did the abseiling, but I cried all the way down from fear, disappointment and exhaustion. I didn’t get the sense of achievement of overcoming my sudden fear. I wasn’t happy to have done it – instead I wished I had never even agreed to come down that wall… 

– Emma 

Challenge yourself and respect your limits

Courage, to many of us, means doing great things like climbing a mountain, jumping from an airplane or fighting a bear out in the wilderness. “Courage is facing what scares you, including risks that test your spirit as well as your body”, says Graham further on courage (Graham 1997, 107). But it also takes courage to do other kinds of things like making a difficult decision, standing by your decision when the others object, or saying no to something.  

I had to face my own limits and fears when abseiling that wall. One can find courage by finding meaning. The activities people do should make sense to them at the deepest level of their being. (Graham 1997, 107). To me, climbing made no sense in any level. I had to admit to myself that climbing is not my cup of tea. It was difficult and disappointing: my classmates could do it and they even enjoyed it, why didn’t I? After a long self-reflection I made the hard decision to drop off climbing from my curriculum and take in mountain biking instead. I understood that to be able to lead and coach others one day, I have to find both meaning and inspiration in the activities that I do. I cannot be a role model to anyone if I don’t enjoy what I am guiding other people to try and succeed in. 

A person is rappeling down a tall rock wall in a forest

That never-ending wall. (Photo: Aatu AdEd19)

People are motivated to participate in adventure experiences because of intrinsic feelings of enjoyment, well-being and personal competence they help achieve. This kind of feeling or state of mind is described as a ‘flow state’. It means that during an activity you are completely focused and involved in the activityuninterrupted, feeling that you are in control of things and you are using your skills in balance with the challenge. When risks and challenges are matched on individual level, a person can experience the flow state, and then also understand how to include positive risks in their lives. (Stremba&Bisson 2009, 169). Finding these flow moments in your studies, hobbies and life are special moments! They are the moments that keep you going even if something feels challenging and they are the things that gets you excited to do it again! 

Learning or teaching new skills isnt always easy. Challenging yourself and taking well thought out risks can lead to inner growth and it can be truly rewarding. Knowing your own limits and accepting your skill levels will help you plan meaningful activities and set goals that can be reached. You need courage to take the first step, but you also need courage to admit if something is too much for you. 

Courage is grace under pressure. – Ernest Hemingway 


Graham, J. 1997. Outdoor Leadership: Technique, Common sense and self-confidence. Mountain Books USA 

Priest, S. & Gass, M. 2018. Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, Third Edition. Human Kinetics. 

Stremba, B. & Bisson, C.A. 2009. Teaching Adventure Education Theory. Best Practices. Human Kinetics. 


Last modified: December 21, 2020