Extreme retreats: Fire walks and snow survival with your workmates

Story highlights

Extreme retreats are designed to let teams bond away from the office

Some have participants walk over hot coals and break arrows on their throats

More thrill-focused away days let executives trial jet packs or compete in aerial dog fights

CNN  — 

While the business world can be a hostile place, it doesn’t often throw up situations where you’ll literally find yourself with an arrow to your throat.

That’s unless you’re on one of a range of increasingly extreme corporate retreats and away-days, designed to build team spirit or put decision-making skills into practice by relocating participants away from the routine of the office and into demanding situations.

The United States is leading the trend for unconventional corporate retreats – but just how extreme can they get?

James Carter is CEO of Be Legendary, an American company that offers extreme “survival retreats,” held in the blazing heat of Nevada’s deserts, or the avalanche country of the San Juan range in the Rocky Mountains.

“The basics of human survival are shelter and security,” says Carter. “Executives, if they’ve ever lived in that world, have completely forgotten what it’s like.”

“We do what the military does in a safer way – to break them down so we can build them back up again. We give them the skills to survive.”

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The desert experience involves archery and a “fire walk” across hot coals. The latter activity is intended to leave participants energized and on a “spiritual high,” ready to attempt an even more cathartic challenge – having an arrow pressed against their throat until it snapped.

“The arrows take 25 pounds of pressure to break, and it takes 75 pounds of pressure to pierce skin. But all of that information doesn’t matter when you’ve got an arrow against your neck,” said Carter.

“Even though they know they won’t really be hurt, there’s still a sharp pain. That’s a watershed moment when people cry.”

Perhaps even more grueling is the “Deep Snow Survival” retreat, held in the Rockies. Participants are given snowshoes, beacons and taught alpine survival skills, before trekking deep into avalanche country. Their guides then tell them there has been an avalanche, that they will have to overnight in the snow, and they need to begin building snow shelters immediately.

“Here’s a real survival situation,” said Carter. “You’ll see someone who starts absolutely busting their butt to build a shelter. But if you sweat in that environment you’ll get hypothermia. So you have to make sure they ease off, you have to take care of one another.”

After a couple of hours, when the participants have built their shelters, they are collected, told there is no avalanche and returned to base. Although the avalanche is not real, the camaraderie and shared experience it inspired is genuine, Carter said, which is the true value of the exercise.

“That night the beer we share around the fireplace has never been sweeter,” he said. “There’s more color in the world. That memo you wrote last week, the one I was so annoyed about, doesn’t matter now. Everything is put into perspective.”

Adventure Associates is another firm that specializes in physically demanding corporate retreats. On one of their regular offerings, based in North Carolina, participants are made to cycle, hike or kayak in pursuit of tokens they will then exchange for materials that can be used to make a boat. Having designed and built the boat, they must then try to row it across a lake.

According to Adventure Associates director Ed Tilley, the retreat, with its mix of experiential challenges and corporate-training workshops, provides a good forum to strengthen team dynamics and implement communication and decision-making skills.

“It enables our clients to put into practice some of the skills they’ve been learning – how to manage different team members’ strengths, and manage around their weaknesses,” said Tilley.

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If that all sounds a little arduous, there are other offerings that focus on out-of-the ordinary bonding experiences that are more about thrills than endurance.

Jetlev Southwest, headquartered in Newport Beach, California, frequently caters to executive groups – particularly from the tech industry – seeking a novel team-building experience. A day out of the office trialling the Jetlev R200 – a personal, water-powered jet pack that can propel the wearer 30 feet in the air over water – fits the bill.

“It’s a bonding experience, one that very few people in the world have ever had,” said trainer Dean O’Malley, adding that first-time users typically managed to reach heights of 10 to 15 feet with the jet pack.

Another option for executives seeking an invigorating buzz is to take to the skies in an Italian military training plane for an old-fashioned dog fight.

Headquartered in Fullerton, California, Air Combat USA operates what marketing director Denise Jennings describes as a “fantasy camp for wannabe fighter pilots.” Corporate groups receive training before taking to the sky in a SIAI-Marchetti fighter under the supervision of an instructor. A popular format is for corporate groups to book the aircraft for the day so they can operate a 10-person knock-out dog fight tournament.

Jennings said that as well as being a unique and physically demanding team-building exercise – “People come back and say they feel like they’ve run a marathon” – the experience appealed to competitive spirits of “Type-A personality” executives. “They’re drawn to the fact that somebody’s going to walk away the top gun.”