Photos Andy Calvert
“Of course it’s scary; you are leaning over a mountain. Can you feel the rope support you?” The ten year old nods nervously and meets Nathan Hicks’ gaze as his calm voice encourages her to lean a bit further off the ledge, ever closer to the 60-foot drop to the group waiting below. Hicks, co-founder of Higher Ground, belays while his steady words coax the little girl’s confidence to emerge, empowering her to trust in the strength and capability of her hands and balance as she makes her way down the vertical cliff.
Soon, her breath evens out and a smile broadens across her face as she marks the progress she makes. The look of personal achievement shines bright in her eyes as she touches ground and lets out a “Whoop!” that is echoed by everyone that moves in to congratulate her. This is a scene replayed throughout the morning, each member of the group experiencing the thrill and success in their personal but universal journey.
Rappelling is just one of many activities offered by Higher Ground, a company forged to transform lives by providing adventure-based experiences that honor Jesus Christ. Nathan and Tanya Hicks started with a dream, a passion for outdoor adventure, and a love for the Creator when they started Higher Ground in 2007.
With a network of talented mentors and field instructors they successfully built something grander than a simple outfitting operation. They support corporations, schools, churches, and families as they achieve personal growth, team building experiences, and transformation.
Executive Director Nathan Hicks describes the inspiration for Higher Ground: “I was just a boy, perhaps ten or so, when my father first introduced me to backpacking. He took me to Cheaha, Alabama, and I was hooked. I can’t say if it was the intrinsic nature of being outdoors and its calling for self- discovery or if it was the time spent alone with my dad that made such an impact.” As a young man, Nathan planned to go into seminary for youth ministry.
After a five month thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, at age 22, Nathan decided to switch his focus to outreach work in an outdoor setting. It was at a seminary school in Fort Worth, Texas, that he met Tanya, who was studying to become a missionary. Tanya too recalls childhood experiences in nature being formative in her spiritual development.
“My first memories in which I felt a strong connection with Him was while shadowing my grandmother in her garden,” she says. “We spent so much time outside talking. She taught me how to see everything that was growing and how that mattered. Later when I was a teenager, I went on a near-disastrous backpacking trip. I got hypothermia after crossing a swift river and getting completely soaked.
The experience took me back to the lessons learned in Grandmother’s garden. Nature is amazing, and it can be mighty. Nature is a reflection of Him. It should be revered.” Nathan and Tanya’s shared passion for theology and the outdoors led to an immediate connection. Unknowingly at the time, the footwork for Higher Ground began to take shape as the two teamed up, married, and welcomed a family.
Creating Higher Ground
Ten years later, the business launched with the help of many friends and colleagues. “We began with 12 trips that first year.” Nathan says. “Growing slow and steady, we were able to comfortably facilitate over 80 trips in 2019.” Activities such as backpacking, climbing, rappelling, and caving are a very small part of what Higher Ground offers. “Each one of these activities really is only a gateway into something much bigger, much more profound,” Tanya explains. “These experiences can push individuals beyond their perceived limits. They can teach you what it means to trust and what it means to be a good leader or partner. Adventure has consistently been a catalyst for growth, a place for reflection, and a vehicle to get to know God.”
As mentioned before, the mission of Higher Ground is to transform lives by providing adventure-based experiences that honor Jesus Christ. The most common transformation that trip leaders describe on these excursions is an individual’s discovery of their amazing capabilities while deepening their relationships with each other and God.
Kelli Duncan, program director, recalls a lasting impression from a recent trip. “There’s the picture of sitting around a dimming campfire as I listen to a dad vulnerably sharing his struggles and failures and great joys of attempting to be the father he knew he needed to be…and then watching his adult daughter embrace him with full forgiveness and love. All of this after spending five days backpacking together alongside two additional close family members,” she says. This kind of transformation is exactly what Higher Ground offers.
Ava Belle Holcombe, 14, participated in one of this year’s Adventure Day Camps. She offers this: “They gave me courage to try new things. Particularly Kelli Duncan, who was inspiring because of her strength, her warmth, and her positivity. I want to feel strong and Kelli encouraged me that I really am.”
Escape the work day
For couples entrenched in the bustle of day-to-day, work, kids, and household responsibilities can create a chaotic weight on their shoulders. Higher Ground’s retreats give a unique gift for couples, allowing them to unplug from all of the stress and pressure. “I’ve been on at least three of these adventures,” says Jeff Holloway of Rome. “Through these trips, my wife, Allison, and I have really discovered how much we need the calmness and disconnect from the life we live. The trips are always a reminder that clarity and connection in any terms (personal relationships and a spiritual relationship) comes through slowing down; stilling the heart and stilling the mind. Wilderness fosters that.”
Looking ahead, Higher Ground continues to support current partnerships with schools, churches, and camps. “I am excited to see us find new and creative ways to serve both our local and global communities through wilderness-based adventures,” Duncan says. “The kind of adventures where your phone is an afterthought, and it doesn’t have service anyway; where life is boiled down to its simplest terms and we are able to be challenged, and grow deeply because of it; where kids can be kids and adults can take a deep breath.”
As the afternoon wraps up on a brilliant day of rappelling and rock climbing, members of the group say farewell as good friends. Friends, who only a few hours ago were strangers embarking on an adventure, created memories together through a unique shared experience.
Higher Ground is offering a variety of open enrollment trips this fall. Be sure to check social media for their fall calendar of open enrollment trips. To book your next transformative adventure, contact Higher Ground at 706-409-2014, www.hgusa.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.