Ben was 25 feet off the ground, clinging desperately to the smooth granite rock face. With one foot resting on an inch-wide ledge, his rope and harness were his lifeline.
"Hey, dude, don't forget I'm up here," he shouted to his rope handlers. "Don't let me drop," he said, his voice quavering.
"Hey, dude, when you're up there, you've gotta trust us," one of his peers replied.
Meanwhile, Tom walked hesitantly over to the second rope, took a deep breath, then slowly, methodically began his ascent up the cliff. Keeping his eyes glued ahead of him, he searched tentatively with his boots for the next foothold. "I can't look down. I'm too scared," he said quietly.
From the ground the group cheered him on. "You can do it, dude. Go for it," they encouraged. When he finally reached the crest, he was beaming.
Ben and Tom were part of a group of eight delinquent boys backpacking through the Joshua Tree National Monument wilderness. They were miles from the nearest road and three hours from the comforts and safety of Los Angeles.
As participants in a 17-day wilderness program called Rancho Outdoor Challenge, they were learning to navigate through the desert, rappel off 1,600-foot-high cliffs, climb rocks, cook their own meals and make their own decisions.
For this outing they had backpacks weighing up to 70 pounds each, water and food, and two trained instructors. What they hadn't had was a shower in the last five days.
The outdoor challenge program is run by Rancho San Antonio--a live-in juvenile detention center in Chatsworth that has educated, counseled and worked with troubled Southland teen-age boys for 53 years. Now operated by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, a Catholic order, Rancho is a private facility contracted by the county to care for juvenile delinquents.
"ROC is probably the first time in a long while that a lot of these guys feel good about themselves," said Doug Mahon, the ruddy-faced program director who believes that this sort of hands-on survival training works wonders when it comes to encouraging a sense of self-esteem. "It's probably the first time they haven't quit on themselves."
Joel Tubbs, admissions director for the 118-bed facility, said the wilderness program is a cram course in success. "ROC is tough, difficult and challenging for these boys, but they can do it," he said. "It's almost a coerced success experience."
As the boys sat in a circle cross-legged in the desert their stories began to unfold--stories that often centered around alcoholic parents or those who disappeared or disowned them. Chris said he was 9 when his mother was diagnosed as having cancer. Unable to cope with the pressure of her illness, his father abandoned the family, leaving a terrified Chris to take care of his dying mother.
They told of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, of being shuttled from one foster home to another and of failing at even typical adolescent hurdles such as boy-girl relationships or overcoming bad grades. Another common denominator emerged: drugs and alcohol used mostly, the boys said, to escape their problems.
For many, the drugs and alcohol led to repeated trouble with the law. Most have spent a lot of time in front of judges and in other court-ordered programs. Often, by the time they end up at Rancho they've been in the juvenile system so long they are adept at skating through it.
Unlike other programs, however, the outdoor challenge program requires the boys to do more than simply serve time. It pushes them and pushes them hard. Mahon said that because the wilderness is alien to these city kids, it breaks through their defenses. "We purposefully make their lives difficult--hiking them in the desert with heavy packs until all they want to do is throw their packs down. We push their frustration levels." With no place to hide, he continued, the youngsters are forced to confront their own behavior.
"Under pressure, personality shortcoming and problems come out," Tubbs explained. "Those things would never show up in a more relaxed environment like Rancho because we'd never push them that hard."
It is day five and the boys are tired, sore and uncomfortable. Several are grumbling about wanting to go home. "What you do in reality, the real world, is the same thing you do out here," said Tubbs, who is visiting the campsite to see how the boys are progressing. "You give up. You handle your problems so far, then give up. In life you have to grind away at things. Out here you do too."
"How many of you thought it was going to be a camping trip," roasting marshmallows and going over to the girls' bunks?" he asked.
A few of the teen-agers looked at each other sheepishly.
Rancho Outdoor Challenge was conceived of nearly nine years ago when Doug Mahon was a dorm counselor at Rancho San Antonio. Using $500 from the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund, Mahon--a longtime backpacker and rock climber--and 10 boys from Rancho Antonio signed up for a new wilderness program run by the Hollywood Boys Club.