A Rocky Try at Reshaping Lives

updated 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Many of social psychologist Richard Kimball's clients would scare the hell out of most people, but they don't alarm Rocky, as they affectionately call him. He takes them hurtling down white-water rapids on tumbling rafts, dangling off cliffs and trekking through hot deserts and frozen mountain forests. His clients are murderers, rapists, child molesters, armed robbers, former drug addicts, prostitutes, schizophrenics and juvenile delinquents. He believes that by confronting them with daunting obstacles, he may help turn their lives around.

Kimball, 33, heads the nine-member staff of the Santa Fe Mountain Center, a nonprofit, open-air therapy clinic based in Tesuque, N.Mex. The Center's goal is simple, and dramatic: to shake people up, in a way conventional rehabilitation programs never could, to rearrange their lives by subjecting them to a grueling—and, with luck, confidence-building—experience. Says Rocky, "The element of stress, the stakes we impose, the fear of death—doing things that are life-threatening, like Tyrolean rope traverses—that's potentially growth-producing. To grow involves a metaphor of stretching; it doesn't happen during times of comfort."

On a recent morning, for example, Kimball, decked out for a therapy session in parka, knickers and cross-country ski boots, stood by a map and invited four pedophiles, referred by a state hospital for mentally ill criminal offenders, to take a gander at a proposed climb up nearby 12,600-foot Sante Fe Baldy. There was burly Ed, 23, institutionalized after molesting the two sons of a woman he had been living with. Mark, 19, had been sent to the hospital for evaluation after having been charged with molesting children. The third member of the group, Tom, a 22-year-old ex-carnival roustabout who reckoned he has had sex with no fewer than 108 young men, was at the hospital on probation. Henry, 30, the fourth participant, had been convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter. The state pays about $60 each per day for this three-day therapy session. Other sessions last up to 20 days. Convicts interested in the program are screened both by the state and by Kimball, who says he looks for those who want to change their lives. There's no barbed wire at the Center and Kimball leads his treks unarmed.

"We're doing a winter peak ascent, and that's heavy-duty stuff," Kimball explained. "There is no environment on earth in which it is more difficult to be unselfish. So if you do a good job out there, nothing could speak higher of you people." With snowshoes and 50-pound packs, the four-and-a-half-mile hike to base camp took four hours, and the group was gasping. The temperature was 18 degrees by day, subzero at night. Dawn brought frozen boots and the promise of a miserable, slippery climb to the summit. Darl Kolb, a Center counselor, reassured the men that the tents and packs left at base to ease the final climb to the top would be safe. "The further in you are," he says, "the higher the ethics."

Once the climb began, it got tough and dangerous. Kimball warned the four men to stay clear of a cornice and paused repeatedly to remind them individually, as they caved in against the steepness and the altitude, of why they had come, the personal challenge they had set for themselves, and how good it would feel to be on the top. Privately, he expected them to collapse, but the group made it, to great celebration.

After a dinner in base camp that night, Kimball encouraged the men to discuss how, if at all, the experience had changed their feelings about themselves. Henry told how his parents had ripped his image from the family portrait after his incarceration and had refused him home visits. Now, he says, he realizes there are other positive parts of his personality he can develop. "Out here, I can look at my problems and they're not so bad," says Henry. "Hey, I'm a man. I'm not just the child molester they make me out to be." Tom looked down the canyon to the lights of the Rio Grande Valley. "There are a lot of people out there who'd castrate us for what we've done," he said. "But you people treat us like humans." "When it gets tough," said Ed, "you learn more."

"That's what Darl and I do," Kimball told them. "Create stress, and you rise to the occasion. You guys have all done that."

The program is clearly unorthodox. It is also worthwhile, says Susan E. Brayfield-Cave, 34, who directs a private corporation under contract to make pre-sentence and probation recommendations to New Mexico's courts. At the very least, the Center, which treats 320 cases a year, is a valuable diagnostic tool. Convicts who fail the program are lousy parole risks. "We know the program is 100 percent predictive of failure to complete probation or parole," says Brayfield-Cave. "I don't know of anything else that has that power." As for its curative properties, she says, "Being a criminal is a choice. The course helps people to make another choice, to have a success experience, a feeling that you can be in control of your life."

Kimball himself is cautiously conservative in his claims. "Everyone is looking for an answer," he says. "Can it turn some kid's life around in 20 days? It's not that simple. We see ourselves as a shot in the arm. The reasons people return to crime, that people go crazy, are far too complex." In 1979 he published a paper claiming that while the recidivism rate for reform school inmates nationally was 40 percent, it was only about 10 percent for kids who make it through his program. "But we select those kids, screen and interview them," he stresses. "We try to help kids who are motivated. A certain percentage are sociopathic, almost beyond hope, and they get recycled. We don't claim to be able to help those people—and no one else can, either. But we can diagnose them."

The son of an Army colonel father and an English professor mother, Kimball grew up in the U.S., Taiwan and Germany. After graduating from Virginia's Washington and Lee University with a degree in American history, he taught English at a Colorado Springs prep school and began guiding student camping trips. That led to a job as an instructor with Outward Bound, which eventually offered to help subsidize his graduate studies at the University of Colorado. While earning his Ph.D. in social psychology, he investigated the fledgling Santa Fe Mountain Center, and that, says Mary Lou Skinner, 33, his longtime girlfriend, "changed Rocky's life. We were going to Greece to hang out on the beach." Instead, he hooked up with the Center, and became its $20,500 director in 1980.

Although Kimball lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Tesuque, it would be incorrect to say he's settled down. On trips, he and Mary Lou have capsized in white water and spent the day trapped on a ledge waiting for a flash flood to recede. On his own, Rocky, who might be described as hyperathletic, spent last Christmas vacation running up three Mexican volcanoes (average height: 18,000 feet) in a week. He once ran up Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua until a snowstorm stopped him at 20,500 feet. "My ambition," he says, "is to win the Pikes Peak Marathon when I'm 50." He won in his age group (30-34) in 1981.

His expectations for the Center aren't so lofty. He'd like to see the wilderness therapy concept grow, but plans to keep the Tesuque operation small, he says, "because much of what we do is personal." And although he might be able to earn more money working for the government or a for-profit clinic, he plans to stay in his current situation. "The perks," he says, eyeing the local peaks, "are nice."

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