Being thrown out of your comfort zone is what Summit Adventure is all about. Whether you're scaling a mountain in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, volunteering in Ecuador or walking the Jesus Trail in Israel Summit Adventure will take you there with the sole purpose of bringing you back a changed person.
"Summit Adventure has been helping families, individuals and youth re-prioritize their lives to be based on what truly matters," said Graham Ottley, program director. "Working within a Christian context, Summit gives dads, youth, teenagers and even persons with disabilities an opportunity to challenge their perceived limitations, face their fears and create lasting memories through adventures together."
Summit Adventure is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The organization was started by Tim Hansel in 1973 and the main office was located in San Diego. However, in 1987 the Summit Adventure base camp moved permanently to the north side of Bass Lake.
Over the years, thousands of people from high school and college students to children and parents have gone through Summit Adventure's programs. There are a variety of program opportunities from summer excursions to accredited semester programs. A few of the courses are: Ecuador Service and Mountaineering, Holy Land Service and Trekking, climbing Mount Rainier, Leadership Expedition, and Adventures in Fatherhood. Participants learn important life lessons through rock climbing, mountaineering, and service.
Kelli Stansell came to Summit's Immersion Service and Adventure Semester (ISAS) at Bass Lake in 2009. A student at Berry College in Georgia where she was studying outdoor education and religion, Summit Adventure seemed like the perfect fit. She liked the organization so much that she became an assistant instructor right after college and is now the ISAS program director.
"I think there's work the Lord is doing through me in this ministry," Stansell said. "I believe in what we do and see fruit from the courses and growth through experiences, and I want to give more people the opportunity to engage in this type of experience."
The immersion course that Stansell went through and now directs is four months long and includes classes, back country rock climbing, mountaineering, and six weeks of service, teaching and mountain climbing in Ecuador.
"It's an experience that separates people from their day to day life," Stansell said. "It presents a challenge they wouldn't have otherwise and challenges make people grow. If we can face those (challenges) safely, it's a good opportunity for them."
Summit Adventure was not always a year-round program, nor did it always offer international programs. That vision began in 2004 when Tom Smith became executive director.
"I think Americans spend too much time in their comfort zones," Smith said. "Because we live in an affluent country, we're not out of our comfort zone. Our mission is to put people out of their comfort zones, because then they have a need."
Programs are open to people of all ages. Smith said senior citizens in their seventies have even walked the Jesus Trail in Israel.
"People say this is one of the most powerful experiences in their life," Smith said. "We're trying to offer a different experience. Unplug your laptop and put on a backpack."
Not only are participants shoved out of their comfort zones, they also learn about service.
"In Israel or Ecuador, adventure might be hiking or trekking, but service is emphasized more," Ottley said.
Summit Adventure even takes a group of Johns Hopkins University students to Ecuador every year. Smith said that even though the university is a secular organization, after volunteering at orphanages medical students return saying service is where it's at and their view on the world has been changed.
What Ottley appreciates most about Summit is that Christ is the context of all their activities, but they don't push their religious views on participants.
"We understand that some people have been turned off by church or hurt by so called Christians," Ottley said. "It's more about building relationships and showing compassion through actions instead of words."
Ottley said that because the program is so unique, they draw a lot of participants from across the nation. They recently finished their summer program, "Adventures in Fatherhood," which is a five day program. The program's purpose is to create a stronger bond between father and child.
The course begins at a log cabin in the woods before fathers and sons/daughters gear up for their trek into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
"When they step out of a vehicle at 7,000 feet, they are just far enough so that their iPhones read, 'no service,'" Ottley said forcing communication between participants.
Ottley said fathers spending time with their children has become a problem and some participants have said they spend as little as two hours a week with their children.
Over the course, participants camp, climb, rappel, and go through a number of steps that help fathers learn more about their children. There is also a duo night when father and child camp alone in the forest in order to bond.
Ottley said what is most important about all the experiences and challenges they offer is what each person takes home.
"Taking those experiences back home is key," Ottley said. "We want them to come home and say they've reconsidered their relationship with their family or God. We do adventure type things as a means to an end rather than just for the experience itself."