“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
― William Faulkner
I just returned from hosting two Avalanche camps back to back, one in April and the last in May. During the last few days, while I recouped at home, exhausted to the bone, I had a chance to meditate, ruminate, process, and marvel.
When I started the Avalanche wilderness camps eight years ago, I really didn't know all the ways it would be transformational for the girls. I certainly didn't know I would be impacted, nor did I know that those reaching out with me would be changed. I didn't even know how it would work. I just knew, as I gazed at the pristine beauty of the uninhabited lake, the surrounding mountains and the swathes of jungle, rivers, and generous sky that this was a setting where great change could happen.
Of course, I created the camp for the rescued girls. Surely this was a place they could heal. Camp Avalanche would hit the pause button in their lives, and, much like a gasp of fresh air, their brains might literally “re-set” and hope and beauty and the memory of unadulterated freedom of a few days might just give them the boost they needed for the next big decision of their real lives.
Over eight years and fourteen camps later, I realize the camp does so much more.
One of the many activities at Avalanche Camp is rappelling. Girls and staff rappel down a thirty-foot rock face with a waterfall to their right and a waist-high pool at the bottom. A staff member is waiting below to help girls land in the water and disengage their carabiner from the rope and get across to dry land.
During the April camp this year, one young lady was terrified to rappel down the rock face. She had already been to the camp several times before. She had repelled each time. Yet this time seemed like the first. After cajoling and encouraging shouts from the staff and other girls gathered around, and expert advice from the seasoned staff leading the rappelling, she stepped off the cliff backward and edged her feet slowly down the wall. Halfway down she froze. Her body began shaking and she was unable to move. The moments seemed like an eternity. She couldn't force her body to climb back up, nor could she go down. Finally, listening to the coaching, she eased her way down toward the water.
As a US team member caught her, she went limp and stopped breathing. Her face was white and her eyes rolled back. A little foam appeared at the corners of her mouth. All was panic as she was brought to shore. The US team witnessing the event quickly gathered around. Still, she didn't take a breath. Clearly she was unconscious. One team member began giving her CPR. Finally, two minutes after she fainted she took her first breath. She recovered quickly and was calm though drained for hours afterward. Witnessing her extreme reaction to fear was difficult; the team thought she was going to die.
I have watched girls experience the same shock reaction three times before. Once, a girl was in a kayak and fainted in the middle of the lake. We pulled her back to safety and she came around, only to faint a couple more times as we walked the trail back to the camp. Another time after the foot washing, a girl seizured severely. A night walk where we're instructed to turn off our flashlights caused one girl to instantly start sobbing. Later we found out she had been held for many days in a dark hole with no light in a brothel.
Real fear pushes our limits. The camp embodies huge challenges for girls who have never experienced nature: Kayaking, rappelling, crossing streams, swimming in waterfall cataracts, hiking long trails over difficult terrain, sleeping in a tent, walking in the dark, facing the elements of rain and cold, any of these can trigger deep trauma. While our intent is not to bring girls to a catatonic level of fear, occasionally it happens.
The physical duress of our three days in nature brings all our most basic drives to the surface: insecurities, fear of failure, desire for safety and protection, need for comfort, inability to trust, fear of the unknown. The camp drives all of us to the edge of our comfort zone. Then, as we move through the thing that makes us afraid, we conquer our fears. Girls emerge stronger, more confident. They are able to trust. There is great joy in the aftermath of the challenge. They experience freedom.
I realize that everyone who comes to the camp, the U.S team, the Indian chaperones, the staff from other homes, and me, we are all transformed. The camp is for all of us. We come, thinking we are there to help the survivors of trafficking. But almost immediately we are out of our depth.
We step away from the flurry of our lives, the day-to-day, the rush of momentum that we often cannot control. We disconnect from the phone, the computer, from our music, and endless activity to experience something utterly new. It's uncomfortable to have all our props taken away. Our comfort food. Our routine. The shops, cars, coffee, church, family, and work that define who we are. The things that create the image we have of ourselves. We struggle to bridge language. Culture. We feel inadequate. We are extraordinarily tired.
And in the moment that we abandon all that we know, we stand exposed and unable to control our surroundings, good things begin to happen. We are stripped of our way of operating, and we have to trust each other in new ways. We discover things about ourselves that we never knew before. Sometimes we are elated by what we find. Sometimes we are sobered. Most of the time we find we are far stronger and more resourceful than we ever imagined.
I love the camp for pushing us to our limits.