"That's right. Tickle her, hug her, ruffle her hair," our leaders commanded. We were doing the "conveyor belt" -- 18 women pressed close in line, arms upraised. Between giggles and shouts of encouragement, we doggedly passed one another overhead down the line.

The conveyor belt is one of the execises making up the Ropes Course now being offered regularly at the Shepherd's Ford Center in the Shenandoah Valley.

Originally part of Outward Bound, Ropes Courses have become increasingly popular on the East Coast in the last few years. The one at Shepherd's Ford came into being in 1978 as the brainchild of Gerty Watkins, who owns and runs the center as a place where groups and individuals of all kinds can stretch themselves physically as well as psychologically.

The day I spent on the course was sponsored by the Women's Center of Howard County. Though the courses are open to groups of all types, this particular day was to be for women only. Our instructors were Catharine Norton, Ann Paulen, Bonnie Jacobs and Ann Pate.

Early that morning, I set off with eight other women from Howard county. As we traveled toward Virginia in our van, Jackie, a high-school counselor, said apprehensively, "That looks like rain on the windshield." It was.

What would it be like, I wondered, to spend a day on a mountainside testing my courage and endurance with rain pouring into my collar? Slippery and cold, no doubt.

The group had met two weeks earlier to discuss the course. One of the first things we'd done in that meeting was tell each other why we were going to do this "crazy" thing.

"It scares me, but I get excited when I'm scared," Peggy had offered. "I'm here because I can't visualize myself doing it," Karen admitted. Laurie said, "I see scary as adventurous. I'm attracted by the setting and the physical nature of it. It's not often we get to do something physical."

Though we all said something different, one basic motive seemed to prevail: As women, most of us felt inadequate in the face of physical challenges. Adventure and risk had played no part in our lives. Maybe it was time we faced those fears and found out what we could do.

A Ropes Course is a series of "physical problem-solving challenges for small groups." Somewhat like an obstacle course, it's made up of low activities on beams, ropes and cables, and some high activities -- as much as 55 feet above ground.

Though Ropes Courses share much of the Outward Bound philosophy involving individual challenge and risk, they differ from Outward Bound in that they emphasize group understanding and solidarity as well as individual confidence.

Even if you already know the people you take the course with, after a day of struggling through obstacles together you'll know a lot about your group's behavior and your individual interaction with it.

This new awareness is especially rewarding for families who take the course. Facing and solving physical challenges together is a good way to bridge the generation gap.

Miraculously, after our group trudged up the hill to the wooded site where we were to meet our four instructors, the light drizzle that had dogged our journey faded away. The rest of the day in the quiet, sunlit woods was perfect for our adventure.

The first thing we did was "circle up," gathering together, arms around one another's shoulders, to share once more our feelings about the course. This circling up to talk was a constantly repeated feature of the day.

Before and after every task, our instructors insisted that we take our psychic temperatures, revealing and discussing fears and frustrations, good feelings and bad.

One of our instructors, Ann Pate, works as a counselor at a mental-health center and was especially skilled at directing these sessions. For me, watching her guide the before and after discussions was a fascinating experience in basic group dynamics.

Asked how she came to be teaching the Ropes Course, one of things Ann said was, "I'm absolutely scared to death of heights. I'm absolutely scared to death! It feels like a clear challenge. It's something I can see and accomplish, and unlike my regular work, the rewards are very clear."

We spent the morning falling on one another. We fell first in groups of nine. "Falling!" one woman would shout and then topple over. She had to trust her partner to step in, hug her tight and tumble to the ground under her, cushioning the impact with an outturned hip.

"You have to give yourself permission to fall," one instructor pointed out, "because all of our lives we've been telling ourselves we can't."

Later we practiced "trust falls." Six apprehensive women stood facing one another while one climbed to a beam, folded her arms over her chest and plunged downward into their outstretched arms.

Some found this extremely difficult and lingered on the beam, hopping back and forth in frustration before they could bring themselves to fall. But eventually everyone succeeded, some even insisting on a repeat performance to perfect their technique.

"It's the greatest thing in the world to feel those arms catching you," one woman exulted after launching herself for the second time.

After lunch we split into two groups and spent the afternoon in team problem-solveing activities. For our nine, this meant swinging on a series of suspended tires in an effort to carry a large rock labeled "woman power" across a pretend river.

Though we did manage to transport our rock, not everyone succeeded in swinging across the tires in the allotted time; so as a group we failed to solve our problem.

This failure led to an at times painful reappraisal of the way we had functioned as a group. Did we really think the problem out? Wasn't there some better way to have done it? Was everyone consulted, or did some take charge without considering all the possibilities?

Several women admitted to feelings of frustration and isolation because they had been given no opportunity to share actively in the crossing. Others felt guilty because they had insisted on being first across.

The next problem, however, proved even more frustrating. When asked to slide a tire up one 12-foot pole and down another within nine minutes, our group used up the time debating alternative plans without successfully implementing any of them. Again we had been defeated and again we analyzed our failure.

"I feel very down right now," one woman sighed, eyeing the pole and tire. "The truth is," another admitted, "I just didn't want people climbing on me and that's what we would have had to do."

The last activity of the day involved the personal challenge of walking up an inclined beam to another beam suspended 12 feet above the ground between trees. After achieving the horizontal beam, we were to hook into mountain climbing gear and walk the distance between the trees.

For those who were afraid of heights, walking unaided up the inclined beam proved the most difficult part of this task. Gamely, the women shouted encouragements at each walker.

And most did make it. Some did not, though, freezing halfway up, or, as in my case, unable to haul themselves over the horizontal beam to hitch into the safety wire.

Not everyone was expected to succeed, but everyone was expected to try. And everyone, no matter how terrified, did try.

At the end of the day, we each spent some time in the woods alone, meditating on our experience and what it had meant. Had we done our best? And if not, why not?

Our private meditation was followed by circling up and once more sharing our feelings about the day. The consensus was summed up by one woman who commented: "I'm not happy about everything I did. I failed at some things I wish I had succeeded at. But I feel good about having tried."