Building Confidence Through Achievable Challenge

By Jack Messerly

Achievable Challenge. It’s a term you hear regularly at Apogee Headquarters, both internally, when we’re planning trips, and also externally, when we’re talking to prospective families. It’s also a term that is relatively self-explanatory; it describes something that might push you out of your comfort zone but is not so difficult that it can’t be overcome. At the same time, I think the concept of Achievable Challenge deserves a little bit more love and explanation, since it is a major component of one of Apogee’s three core principles: building confidence. 

When I hear “Achievable Challenge”, one personal anecdote immediately comes to mind, and I think it represents a similar sentiment to something we hear from our leaders all of the time.

The year is 2014, the place is Trient, Switzerland, and the scene is that I’m co-leading our inaugural Alps Explorer trip, where our group is just about to take our first steps on the world-renowned 110-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). The first day is tough; we have heavy packs full of several days worth of food, and we kick things off with a long climb. It was a real challenge to get to the top of the pass, but we were psyched when we got there and were rewarded with our first stunning view of the pastures of wildflowers, snow-capped Mont Blanc, and the surrounding Alps.

Unfortunately, we still had several miles to our campground, and the long descent left our knees shaking and quads burning. We got to camp that afternoon, eagerly dropped our heavy packs, and I still remember how wiped I was. I’ll admit that the thought of 11 more days of trekking through the Alps was daunting, even to me.

Physical challenges like this one are the most obvious type of challenge we think about in an Apogee setting. Whether we’re summiting Mt. Katahdin, backpacking in the North Cascades, cycling up long climbs on the California coast, riding across Europe, or moving gravel for a trail maintenance project on a hot day, physical challenges are a regular part of Apogee trips. When we are building an Apogee itinerary and are considering the physical challenge level, we walk a fine line between too hard and too easy, especially when we pride ourselves on catering to students with a wide range of physical abilities and outdoor experience.

Back to the Alps: later that evening, one of my students (I’ll refer to him as Tony) who had next to no prior backpacking experience and had a particularly tough time with the hike, pulled me aside. He told me flat out that there was simply no way he was going to be able to finish the TMB. He wasn’t necessarily upset – it just seemed like something he had accepted at some point along the hike. I told him how proud of him that I was for finishing Day 1 and that we were going to take it one day at a time. The next day wasn’t much easier, but Tony persevered. He continued to make connections with his trip mates and was at the heart of this group’s positive and supportive atmosphere. Flash forward two weeks, three countries, and 100+ miles later, and Tony is leading the pack to the iconic pink church in Trient that marks our finish line of the TMB.

The summer of 2023 will mark the nine-year anniversary of that epic journey, easily one of the most impactful experiences of my life, and I’m confident that Tony (and many of the other folks on that trip) would say the same. The trip was hard – Alps Explorer still is our most difficult hiking trip – but with the support of his trip mates and a level of mental fortitude he didn’t realize he was capable of, Tony overcame the physical challenges and came out the other side brimming with confidence.

And while physical challenges may be the most obvious genre of challenge on Apogee trips, social and emotional challenges are just as important to consider. For some students, it’s not the hiking or biking that pushes them, but it’s the thought of being away from their family and home (and their dog!) for nine days. Or sleeping in a tent. Or going three days without showering while they’re in the backcountry. Or not having their phones for a few weeks. Or getting to know 11 other students who they just met.

I think that’s what is so meaningful about the concept of Achievable Challenge; each student has their own challenges, but at the same time, there is almost always at least one other student feeling similarly. And regardless of what each person considers to be challenging to them, the solution is always the same: rely on the community that you build with your trip mates and leaders. Nobody can do this on their own – or if they could, that wouldn’t be an Apogee trip – but we can all do it if we support each other.

During our final night together in Geneva, Tony and I were reflecting on the last three weeks, and he referenced one especially challenging day on the TMB where he was really on the brink of throwing in the towel. What propelled him through that day was when someone in our group (who was aware that Tony was both struggling on the hike and also a huge fan of musicals) broke out in song. The rest of us, obviously, joined in on our group’s rendition of Rent’s Seasons of Love, which eventually transitioned into Don McLean’s American Pie, and then onto Bohemian Rhapsody… and so on. This AX trip, which I believe represents Apogee trips in general, was the perfect example of an incredible group of people coming together to overcome all sorts of challenges – physical, social, emotional – and have an absolute blast along the way.