Participants commit to themselves, the group and safety. Pioche ties in Navajo culture with smudging, using herbs, and an activity called "Res Life." "Buzz rings," shown here, represent keeping energy up throughout the day.

Trust-builders, low elements

Since participants rely on each other all day, it's important to establish trust. An activity involving spotting techniques is introduced here, and then the group participates in low elements, such as "Moby Deck."

High elements

After lunch, the group participates in one or two high elements. These elements usually require quite a bit of time to set up and then carry out. Because of that, this portion takes up most of the rest of the day at the challenge course.


At the end of the day, the group comes together and discusses the day's events, including what they learned, what they did well and what could have gone better. They also talk about the real-world applications of those lessons.

SHIPROCK — Ten children, ages 6 to 15, donned red helmets and blue harnesses and obediently lined up along a rope on the ground on March 25.

Their classmate, 10-year-old Elenee Foster, had her harness attached to a cable hanging from above.

"Ready!" yelled Orlando Pioche, manager of the Red Eagle Challenge Course in Shiprock. "Haul away!"

As the children pulled back on the rope, Foster, who held the other end, steadily rose in the air.

She was the first of the group to try "The Screamer," one of Red Eagle's new elements. She did not get high off the ground before she yelled down "OK stop!" and slowly released her end of the rope.

The next contestant, Brianna Benally, 10, couldn't be hoisted high enough.

At left, Orlando Pioche, manager of the Red Eagle Challenge Ropes Course in Shiprock, and Recreation Specialist Brian Sandoval, right, break down the ropes
At left, Orlando Pioche, manager of the Red Eagle Challenge Ropes Course in Shiprock, and Recreation Specialist Brian Sandoval, right, break down the ropes course on March 25 after hosting three groups. (Molly Maxwell — Special to The Daily Times)

"I like going high," she said after her turn. "I wanted to go higher."

Red Eagle Challenge Course, originally built in 1991, is part of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program of the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock. But use of the course is not limited to patients of the hospital, or even residents of Shiprock or the Navajo Nation.

Pioche said state, tribal and federal organizations go through the course, which hosts mostly community programs. Red Eagle hosts these programs for free, and the program is booked until August.

"If someone cancels, there is someone else waiting to get in," said Orlando Pioche's wife, Arlene Pioche, who manages the scheduling.

Last year, funding from substance abuse and mental health programs and medical social services from the hospital allowed the course to be rebuilt and new additions to be installed, Orlando Pioche said.

The course still stands where it always has, directly behind the Northern Navajo Medical Center. But the large wooden posts and metal cables that make up the majority of the course are new. In addition to "The Screamer," "The Heebie Jeebie," in which harnessed-in participants balance and must cross each other on a cable, and a low element called "Moby Deck," where participants work together to balance a rocking platform, are all new.


Red Eagle also offers river tours, mountain biking

Despite its name, Red Eagle Challenge Course isn't just a challenge course. In fact, the company also offers several other outdoors programs for group looking to explore the Four Corners.

River tours: The program offers river tours with the program's eight rafts and five tandem inflatable kayaks. These run throughout the summer, mostly on the San Juan River from Farmington's Westland Park to Kirtland. The tours have also been known to visit the Animas River in Durango, Colo., as well as the Chama River.

Bike rides: Thirty-minute mountain bikes make up Red Eagle's "Wellness on Wheels" fleet. The program often uses the fleet to run multi-day mountain bike tours in the Four Corners area.

Also added to the climbing wall was a lift arm that allows physically challenged participants to be lifted up or lift themselves up the wall using a 4:1 weight ratio.

Most of the high elements at Red Eagle use a dynamic belay system, in which the belayer may move along with the participant, so traversing elements is possible.

"The Screamer" and the other 18 elements at the challenge course, though obviously fun, create more than a large-scale playground. Each group crafts specific goals. Ideals like teamwork, communication, leadership and trust are the backbones of every facilitation.

For example, "The Screamer" involves everyone in the group and encourages them to work together. For a drug rehabilitation patient, the act of letting go of the rope may represent "letting go" of old habits, said Orlando Pioche, who has been working at the course since it was built and has managed it since 2002.

Alcohol and drug abuse, as well as diabetes prevention, are Red Eagle's primary targets.

"We are all about prevention. The hospital sees them in-stage, for chronic illness. We work to prevent that by telling them about nutrition, staying fit," Orlando Pioche said.

The children on the course on March 25 were on their spring break, and they came to Red Eagle with the Office of Diné Youth, an after-school program that had activities planned for each day of their break.

"I think they're enjoying themselves. They are ecstatic to see what comes next," said Sharon Yazzie, the office's program project specialist.

For more information or to book a facilitation, call Orlando Pioche with Red Eagle Challenge at 505-368-6318.

Molly Maxwell covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at