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Expedition Roundup 2013

Conceptualizing, Spartan Challenge

"You can get all As in school and still flunk life", this statement pierced through my ears as I endured the last 100 push-ups, demanded by the same SAS officer who uttered the motivational truism. I was then a Royal Marines cadet, being punished for my indiscretions during a morning drill, those words escaped my ears at the time, but little did I know it would resonate with me for the rest of my life.


As I was designing the Spartan Challenge program, Captain Sloane’s advice reverberated in my mind, how could I design an extracurricular program that supplements and adds value to the existing high school curricular? What can I do to help young people discover their true potentials? How do I give them the software necessary to overcome the numerous challenges that is endemic to the human condition? Most importantly how do I help them succeed in their chosen endeavors?

My answer to that is to design a multifarious program, which aims to aid each participant in discovering their true potentials, to bring out their intrinsic passion, to help them construct a vision for themselves and to instill the discipline necessary for achieving their goals. In order to realize such lofty ideals, the program must impart timeless values such as: empathy, perseverance, resilience and self determination. And that is exactly what Spartan Challenge is about.

The name Spartan Challenge in itself carries much significance. I am reminded of the Battle of Thermopylae, the most critical battle in the Second Greco-Persian war, where 300 Spartans made a heroic stance, giving their lives to the highest ideal of freedom and equality, thereby delaying the invading Persian army, a feat that secured the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. This incredible achievement was only made possible through extreme physical training, utmost dedication, effective teamwork and strict discipline. Spartan Challenge embodies the same ideals and experientially cultivates such noble qualities in our participants.

SC consists of 5 main elements and is designed with the multiple intelligence theory in mind. We combined drama, cultural appreciation, adventure sports, physical challenge and community service into one cohesive force geared towards affecting a paradigm shift in each participant.

The Journey

On 17th August, 18 Spartans in training joined us in Guangzhou to embark on this epic journey. There we encountered our first major hurdle. Originally we have planned for the participants to travel overland to Yunnan to give them an authentic experience of traveling in China. However, this coincided with the sudden and complete breakdown of the Guangzhou train station. There 18 worried souls and 4 frantic instructors were met with hordes of raging travelers and absolute chaos in and around the station. To deal with this anomaly of epic proportions, we had to make a swift decision, to wait for the trains and risk changing our entire itinerary or to take charge of our own fate by exploring other travel options. Strings were pulled, investigations were made, and we manage to procure the last 22 seats on a China Southern airlines flight to Kunming. Although fate was playing a twisted game with us, it also gave us a way out and set the scene for the shape of things to come.

Arriving in Yunnan after the ordeal, the students were given one day to plan for the trekking phase of SC. Split into teams of 5 students, they must decide what food and equipment to bring for the 4 day trek in and around Laishihai. The rustic trek takes them to one of the most scenic and untouched location near Lijiang, and they must have enough provisions to make it through as there are little possibility of replenishment along the route. Indeed, our staff at Zen Quest were well prepared to provide extra food and equipment if needed, but this was unbeknownst to the students. The appearance of duress and challenge is designed to wean off young people’s dependency and to instill the importance of self-determination, responsibility and planning onto our participants.

Lashihai is truly breathtaking, surrounded by ancient mountain ranges, hospitable and lovable ethnic population, with a prime view over Lijiang city. There, we trekked for 4 days, carrying all our equipment on our backs each weighing over 15KG. I still remember walking behind Cherry, a petite girl who is assertive and strong with a hint of feminine touch, the backpack was so big that it obscured her entire upper body and head, giving her a spongebob square pants appearance.

There, the participants were given the chance to apply their orientation skills, which at times led them in the wrong direction, our facilitators did not interfere unless time was of the essence or if carrying on in the wrong direction carries imminent danger. This principle of self determination instills in them a sense of responsibility and success, yet it also wears them down physically. Each evening, we will iron out all the problems and reflections through a sharing session, where students and staff were encouraged to speak freely, without the artificial boundaries of age and status.

One of the most memorable trekking moments took place on the third day. We started from Wenhai and had to get up to a ridge that was 3500 meters in height. There were multiple routes leading to the location, and each team decide to take a different route. For some who took a more direct route, they were met with slopes nearing 70 degrees steep, on a dense forest infested with blood sucking leeches and slugs. Nevertheless, they persevered and succeeded whilst our instructors watched out for their safety. For many it was a challenge of a lifetime, using a rope to reach the top of the mountain in such altitude and in such treacherous terrain. The satisfaction on the students’ faces when they took the last step in reaching the top is something that warms my heart till this day.

That night we were also surprised by the ethnic hospitality offered by the Yi people, a tribe that traditionally inhabit deep in the mountains. There we sang and danced with them around a bonfire. It was an unprecedented moment of joy and elation, an expression of true happiness from everyone that no money can ever buy. We could not have hoped for a better grand finale to the trekking phase of SC.

After the arduous trek, we reached the old town of Shaxi, to perform community service for the local Bai people. It seems that our passion was contagious. As the students engage in road work and grass cutting, hordes of local people joined in the endeavor, all working towards providing a better environment for the local inhabitants. Much like dancing with the Yi people none of this was pre-arranged, the dedication of the students is what moved the local people. It’s true I thought, “actions do speak louder than words”.

Prior to embarking on the program, participants had to attend a drama camp, and they wrote 3 plays to be enacted in front of a Bai zhu audience. Stood atop a 500 year old theatre, the students had to surmount the language barrier and perform their plays using body language and other innovative ways of communication. The play was a success and an enjoyable affair for all that were present.

The final phase of SC took us to Liming, a relatively new rock climbing location, where our CTO Eben Farnworth have been instrumental in developing new routes. Surrounded by sandstone towers and an exposed landscape, the students engaged in rock climbing and abseiling. The highlight of the experience was the first 55 meters abseil ever rigged in the area. Getting down the sheer rock face was a daunting task psychologically, it required each participant to conquer their inherent fear of heights. All managed to wrestle with their demons and successfully got down. Overcoming psychological fear is a deliberate design, it is geared towards making them realize that limitations are the product of the mind, one can achieve anything if they rationally eliminate fear, the prime emotional hinderance to success. In the evening sharing session, we made sure that they had ample time to reflect on the experience and to understand the greater meaning behind the abseiling exercise. Such resilience and courage is an integral part of success in all of life’s endeavor.

Spartan Challenge 2013 is a big step forward for both our participants and for Zen Quest. It was our first major expedition, despite the numerous set backs and hurdles, the program was a success. As I am reading the afterthoughts of each student, I realize that my goal has been met. They grew to become more self sufficient, more ardent in reaching their goals and the program gave them the apparatus to tackle the numerous obstacles that lay ahead of them. Moreover, they have discovered their true selves and their passion, now they can choose the direction best suited for them with an unwavering attitude.