FARMINGTON — Alex Robinson sat frozen in a climbing harness, suspended 25 feet above the gym floor at the University of Maine at Farmington’s Fitness and Recreation Center.

The 18-year-old college freshman started to tug at his tangled harness, got some advice from an instructor and a fellow climber below, and then began to gradually slide to earth.

Back on his feet, Robinson gazed up at the rope, still swaying unsteadily back-and-forth high above, and explained how he made it through the ordeal.

“You’ve really got to trust the other person, otherwise it’s a little scary,” Robinson, a UMF physical education major from Topsham, said.

This is the kind of experience designers of the college’s high-ropes course, a series of climbing obstacles and puzzles, wanted to create for people, the center’s director Jim Toner said.

“It’s a neat experience to see somebody who might be afraid of heights be able to do it,” Toner said.


The center installed its unique indoor high-ropes course 10 years ago, modeling it after ropes courses more commonly seen outdoors at summer camps and recreational sites, according to Toner.

From Girl Scout troops to corporations, people in the community have taken on the course to build skills tied to self-esteem, teamwork and communication.

But the program ran into a road block four years ago when it couldn’t find skilled instructors, a problem that has affected the adventure industry across Maine.

The course on UMF’s campus in Farmington then went unused until last fall, when Toner and a local physical education teacher, Jacob Gerrie, teamed up to revive the program.

“There has always been an interest in bringing back the high-ropes course, and now we hope that the program can continue to grow again,” Toner said.

Gerrie, 33, said he started off slow with after-school programs for kids and courses twice a month for UMF students and community members. He hopes to build the program by adding more team-building features, which would draw more businesses and other groups to use the course.


Unlike some of the more involved ropes courses, the program at UMF is not “fully developed,” according to Gerrie, who teaches in Mt. Blue Regional School District 9 in Farmington.

Some of the obstacles at UMF involve problem solving and team building, while others are more recreational.

One obstacle, for example, has car tires hanging from a series of ropes and a team has to figure out how they can all make it across. A giant trapeze, however, sends people swinging from the ceiling like a carnival ride.

The adventure industry in Maine has tried balancing the competing interests of creating a challenging program and recreation for the past decade, according to Jon Tierney, the owner of Acadia Mountain Guides in Orono and Bar Harbor.

After the dramatic increase of high-ropes courses during the last 20 years, a lot of programs have recently started to lean more toward recreational activities, Tierney, 50, said.

He said he ran a “more involved” ropes challenge course at University of Maine Orono for 15 years, as director of the college’s outdoor program.


Businesses sign up for the courses where an experienced instructor guides employees through a comprehensive program, Tierney said.

The shift to recreational obstacles like zip-lines at many courses affected the number of businesses signing up, according to Tierney, making it harder to find instructors to run more traditional high-ropes programs.

Many of the adventure industry businesses are weighing the costs for skilled instructors, the demand in the region and what kind of course best suits them, he said.

Tierney said his business offers training programs but it doesn’t train many high-ropes course instructors any more. He said he focuses on teaching climbing and mountaineering skills to aspiring guides.

Gerrie said he was certified as a ropes course instructor while in college, at the State University of New York at Cortland, and he has run programs at summer camps for five years.

For now, the UMF program is taking “small steps” to combine the recreation with the more involved skills, Gerrie said.

“It’s all about the challenging process, but it’s kind of for fun, too,” he said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

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