"No way," I said to myself as we were led inexorably toward the base of the looming mountain. "Absolutely not. I will not climb."

Futile thought, that one. The folks at Outward Bound, I was soon to learn, have a clever way of getting you to do something you have never ever wanted to do. We were in the desert wilderness of southern California with the international outdoor adventure school, and the first big challenge for our class was rock climbing, a sport I have always considered unappealingly dangerous.

But rock climbing is an integral part of Outward Bound's self-realization curriculum, which is aimed at getting you to uncover hidden personal resources. Despite my qualms, I was soon pulling myself hand over hand up a steep rock face to what seemed a precarious perch high above. Heights bother me, and I admit I was more than a little frightened. But upward I went, steadily and in fair control of my fears.

So how did Outward Bound convince me to climb? I really had no other choice. "See that ledge up there?" said one of the instructors, pointing off into the distance. "We'll camp up there tonight." It was do as she said or be left behind to spend the night alone beside a cactus plant. That prospect was even more uninviting than rock climbing.

The climb was my introduction to a four-day Outward Bound course that proved to be occasionally frightening, somewhat dangerous, always arduous and definitely uncomfortable. All of that, and yet also personally rewarding and even fun. The desert's beauty captivated me, as did the quiet nights under an open sky. And I was in good, friendly company. I'm glad I did it, but I'm not so sure I'd want to do it again.

Once up the side of the mountain, I faced yet another daunting test: Getting back down the next day. We were, said our instructors, going to rappel down a cliff even steeper than the one I had ascended. Rappelling is like walking backward down a cliff with a rope as your support. I hardly slept at all that first night thinking about it.

Our descent -- one at a time -- came before breakfast. While the instructors secured the safety ropes, I made up my mind to go first -- not because I was courageous, but to get the ordeal over with. I figured I would suffer more waiting at the top than watching from the bottom. Taking a couple of deep breaths to calm myself, I stepped backwards over the ledge and slowly began to lower myself to safety. I slipped once but quickly recovered, suffering only minor scratches. Again, I managed to keep my fears reasonably in check.

And that, I think, was the most valuable lesson I took home from the course. One of the goals of Outward Bound is to build self-confidence in its students. I was delighted to discover, when pressed into a new and frightening experience, that I managed to struggle through it with acceptable grace -- no panicking, no freezing and only barely noticeable trembling. I'm still bothered by heights, but I now know -- perhaps for the first time -- that I can control these fears. But I still don't think rock climbing is my sport.

At the bottom, I yelled back words of encouragement to the rest of the group, several of whom shared my unease: "It's a snap, folks!" What bravado -- now that I was safely back on the ground.

There were 11 of us in our group, all strangers to one another, and two instructors. Among us were an actress, an art teacher, a cabinetmaker, a doctor, a couple of businessmen, a businesswoman, a medical researcher, a mental health counselor, an investment specialist and a journalist. Our ages ranged from 23 to 53. I was the oldest by about a decade, but I honestly had no doubts about my ability to keep up. I'm a daily three-mile jogger, a regular distance swimmer and an experienced backpacker, which made me more fit than some of my younger companions. By the trek's end, I was thankful I had plenty of pre-conditioning.

We had enrolled in a four-day outing in Joshua Tree National Monument, a 4,000-foot-high desert parkland near Palm Springs. Though bleak at first view, the 558,000-acre park has an underlying beauty that grew on me as the days passed. Joshua trees are tall, stately yucca plants that seem to lift a half-dozen shaggy arms to the sky. They stand among huge mounds of rounded pink rocks, such as the one we climbed, that rise from the flat desert floor. In the background, a ridge of cactus-draped mountains soars above 5,600 feet. In early April, when we were at Joshua Tree, tiny desert wildflowers were in bloom.

Several in our class were drawn to Outward Bound by the physical challenge of its program. The school promises to make you work harder than you ever thought you were capable of. I have had a fair amount of outdoor experience, and Outward Bound was as tough as anything I've ever tackled. A few of us, I think, had signed up for what we hoped might be a pleasant little hike in the desert. Were we in for a surprise.

When we hiked, and we hiked much of every day, we covered ground at what in the Army we used to call a "forced-march" pace. If there was a smooth trail leading across the desert, we avoided it, taking whatever more arduous route our instructors could find. Occasionally, we were given a map and told to find our own way, even if this meant toting our heavy 50-pound backpacks on a meandering course that added countless extra steps to our trek.

More than one person asked about poisonous snakes, and we were cautioned that rattlers and sidewinders inhabit the park. But we never saw any. Much more treacherous, I thought, were prickly cactus plants growing everywhere. I swear some of them lunged out to nip at my legs whenever I stepped too close. We all bore bloody scratches from cactus needles.

One morning we descended a steep creek bed that was empty of water but full of six- and seven-foot-high boulders. With the packs, we scrambled up and over these bulky monsters endlessly until my knees seemed to dissolve into mush. I called this unmarked trail "the obstacle course" -- another term from my long-ago Army days. The hot sun beat down, and sweat dripped from my forehead, nearly blinding me. Basic training never was so hard.

By each lunch time, I began longing for the day's end. But nights around the portable camp stove -- no open fires were permitted -- had their own bit of ruggedness. The only water we had was what we carried in our packs -- two gallons each -- and it was to be used only for drinking and cooking. Sweat and dust clung to our bodies, and there was no way to wash it off -- not for four long and increasingly smelly days.

At the outset, we were each issued one plastic cup, and we ate our single-dish meals from it. To clean the cup, we rinsed it out with sand. We also got one spoon each as our only silverware. It we licked clean. The Outward Bound rules call for no smoking, no alcohol and no coffee. The toilet was the private hole we dug behind a distant cactus bush. Toilet tissue was issued sparingly. We were urged to use dried leaves and grasses instead, as a way of reducing our impact on nature.

It's amazing what you can put up with when you have to.

Still, I endured, which of course is what Outward Bound had in mind from the outset. Often I silently cursed the instructors, but like everybody else I plugged along with the expectation that all of the agony was probably beneficial to me. I think one thing that kept all of us going was the good nature of our group. We were all in it together. My colleagues were good company, and we became very solicitous of each other's welfare. Nobody ever complained, out loud anyway, unless it was in the form of a joke.

To get into the class, I had been required to undergo a medical examination because I am over the age of 50. As we descended the "obstacle course," I told my colleagues the doctor had concluded I was in superb health for my age. "Outward Bound, however," I quipped, "was putting his diagnosis to the ultimate test."

On our final night in the wilderness, we had to go "solo" -- another regular part of any Outward Bound course. The instructors led us away from the main camp atop windy Queen Mountain, finding separate sites for each of us to lay out our sleeping bags well out of view of anyone else. For anyone unaccustomed to sleeping outdoors, spending a night alone is spooky. At breakfast, one of the group, a city dweller, said every time he peeped from his sleeping bag a fallen tree limb took on a strange shape. By dawn, he had imagined it to be at least 15 different wild animals creeping his way.

I figured I had probably dropped my pack beside a rattlesnake nest, but I was so tired I fell asleep anyway.

Outward Bound, which is headquartered in Greenwich, Conn., was introduced into the United States in 1962. Today, there are five branch Outward Bound schools in the country offering a total of more than 500 courses in wilderness areas in 20 states. About 28,000 students enroll annually. Worldwide, there are 48 Outward Bound schools on five continents.

The organization emerged from efforts in Great Britain during World War II to instill a will to survive in young seamen torpedoed by German U-boats. This heritage is reflected in the elements that make up the Outward Bound courses, which run from a minimum of three days up to four weeks. They are aimed, say officials, at allowing participants to discover that they have "more resources and are more capable than they think they are."

Standard components include intensive physical conditioning, safety and campcraft training and confidence-building in the form of rock-climbing, rappelling and the solo -- which may last up to three days in the longer outings. Most courses are centered on a seasonal activity, such as backpacking, canoeing, sailing, whitewater rafting, mountaineering, dog sledding, skiing or a combination of two or three of the above.

Outward Bound accepts anyone age 14 and above who is in good health, although many courses have higher minimum age requirements -- 25, 30, 50 -- and one combination mountain backpacking and canoeing course in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is for those 55 and older. Almost half the graduates are women. The four women in my class were as physically capable as the males, and a couple of them excelled at rock climbing.

Outward Bound officials say their research indicates that the courses produce "positive effects on personal growth." Based on my four-day exposure, I think there is at least some basis for that conclusion. I set out intent on simply having a reasonably pleasant outdoor adventure. But because I was induced to rock climb, I'm no longer as fearful about my longstanding problem with heights.

Given the nature of the program, it is not surprising that accidents, including fatal ones, have occurred over the years. Information in the registration packet clearly points out that "you will be participating in activities which have a greater risk than most people encounter in their day-to-day routine ... You may be exposed to rain, snow, lightning, extremes of heat and cold, high altitude and falling rocks." We got daytime heat and a cool wind at night, but no more than a threat of rain. The weather, in other words, was splendid.

Despite my fears about climbing and rappelling, I felt quite safe in the hands of our two instructors, who gave every indication of being fully qualified in climbing techniques. Ascending and descending, we were secured by ropes that would let us drop no more than a foot or two if we slipped. At worst, we might have suffered a bad rock scrape. I probably should have been more concerned about a heart attack on the trail. However, a broken leg or sprained ankle seemed an imminent possibility when we were scrambling unroped up and down boulders in our path. We carried a substantial first aid kit just in case.

My only injury requiring medical care came when I stumbled on a steep trail and foolishly grabbed a cactus for support. It nipped me severely on the finger, drawing blood. A handy Band-Aid from the kit took care of that little problem.

Our group assembled at 9 a.m. at the Palm Springs airport to catch the Outward Bound bus to Joshua Tree. The first person I saw was an eager, muscle-rippling youngster of about 18 who looked like he had probably climbed rock faces since he was 2. "What have I gotten myself into?" I sighed, not for the last time. Fortunately, he had chosen an eight-day course; its participants were sharing our bus. Most of my colleagues in the four-day course turned out to be of less intimidating physique. I breathed easier.

At Joshua Tree, we were dropped off at the end of an empty road, where our instructors awaited. I looked out on the parched countryside that was to be my home for the next four days, thankful that I had brought a large straw hat to keep the sun from my face. There was little other shade. Though the sun was hot, we could usually expect a moderating breeze in the afternoon and nights were cool to cold.

Our first activity was to get to know each other's first names. We assembled in a large circle, introduced ourselves and then began tossing a cup from one to another. Each time you pitched the cup, you named the person you were throwing to. The game proved an effective learning tool and a friendly way to get started. Next we were assigned an action puzzle that we were expected to solve as a group. In good time, we reached a consensus. The big guys would have to carry the little guys piggyback for a dozen yards to get everybody across an imaginary abyss. After that exercise, all shyness among us vanished. We bantered as if we'd known each other for years.

Finally, we were issued our gear: sleeping bag, two gallon-sized plastic water bottles, a hefty food bag, climbing ropes, a candle, a cup, a spoon, a climber's helmet and a rain jacket and pants. We stuffed all of this along with sweaters, warm-up pants and other clothing into a backpack, which also was provided. The water bottles when filled weighed 16 pounds, and I began to suspect the pack was going to be very heavy.

When I tried to hoist it onto my back the first time, I found I really couldn't manage it without help. The rest of the trip I had to stand the pack on a waist-high rock and back into it. The savvy hikers quickly learned to volunteer their water for cooking to lighten the load. I've never carried so burdensome a pack. It made the miles we covered all the more difficult. I would easily have jettisoned the climbing gear, which added many pounds, but then I didn't want to litter the desert.

On that first afternoon, we trekked no more than a half mile to a mound of pink rocks called Isles in the Sky, the precipice atop which we were to camp that night. But first, it was time for a late lunch. Our instructors presented us with a quick oral summary of the food we were carrying. It was up to us to decide what to serve and when. This is one of Outward Bound's leadership training tactics. Initially, it brought confusion, until a good cook in our midst volunteered to take charge of menu planning. We took turns cooking.

Lunch we always kept simple, since we did not light the camp stoves. Throughout the trek, as on that first day, we mostly gobbled down hard, protein-filled biscuits smeared with peanut butter and jelly or thick slices of cheese. At the beginning, we snacked on "gorp," a high-energy mixture of chocolate candy and nuts. But our planning was faulty, and we ran out of gorp before the trek was over. We washed lunch down with water -- as much as we could drink, we were told, to prevent dehydration in the desert's dry climate.

I barely ate that first lunch, knowing the ascent that awaited me. When the time to climb arrived, we were given the choice of a moderately difficult route or a more challenging one. Some of the hardier souls, only a couple of whom had climbed before, immediately chose the difficult route. "This is an unnatural act," said the investment specialist about halfway up, struggling for the next foothold. I opted for the easiest route, scrambling up surprisingly quickly. I think terror acted as a propelling effect. I wanted to get to the top fast.

I can't remember now what we prepared for dinner that night. It may have been dried beans and rice boiled in a pot with herbs and fresh onions and topped with a spicy tomato sauce. That was one of our meals. Some of the ingredients we had mistakenly left below with the extra equipment, but nobody was going to climb back down to retrieve them. The hearty mix was spooned out into our cups, and tasted surprisingly good. If we wanted tea with our meal, we had to drink it before or after, since each of us had only one cup.

One of the group, the youngest, grumbled that he didn't like the fresh bell pepper that had been sliced into the pot. I told him if I could rock climb, he could manage a few pieces of boiled pepper.

Afterward we gathered under a bright moon to assess our day's achievements. Each of us was asked to list our worst fears on a piece of paper and drop it into a hat. When they were read, more than half of us had written "afraid of heights." Nevertheless, we had all made it up the cliff side. It was an impressive beginning. No matter, I lay awake much of the night dreading the trip back down. It was fear of the unknown, which proved not so very frightening after all.

Once the obligatory climb was behind me, I relaxed and began to enjoy myself despite the rigors of the trail. My hardest time was the afternoon when we hiked from the desert floor to the summit of 5,680-foot-high Queen Mountain. My pack weighed heavily, and the sun beat down. I say hiked, but it seemed more like a jog at the pace we maintained. We followed a barely perceptible trail that zigzagged so steeply we wore helmets in case we kicked loose rocks on the person behind. Each step I thought would be my last, but I pushed on and felt proud of myself that I had.

One of my favorite memories is of the solo atop Queen Mountain. Having camped often, the prospect did not intimidate me. Anyway, I knew there were a dozen other people within earshot if I yelped in danger. It wasn't the same as being lost in the woods. A lovely full moon beamed down upon us, and my private campsite had a wonderful view that extended for miles across the desert far below. A cold wind howled, but I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag and drank in the scene until I drifted off to sleep.

By the last day, I was more than ready for the trip to end, mostly because I was so uncomfortably dirty. At the end of a marathon hike across the desert floor, we turned in our gear at the waiting van and were treated to hearty sandwiches and fresh sliced vegetables. A short but touching graduation ceremony followed, and then we crowded into the van for the ride back to Palm Springs. At the airport, we hugged and kissed and said our friendly, somewhat sad goodbyes.

And then almost everybody, it seemed, made a dash for the airport bathrooms to take advantage of civilized plumbing.

WAYS & MEANS

Anyone contemplating an Outward Bound course should realize that the organization will attempt to challenge you physically. If you are simply looking for a pleasant outdoor experience, such as backpacking in the woods or rafting, you should consider signing up with another group. Given the rigors of Outward Bound, there's always the possibility that you might come to hate the outdoors if you can't keep up with the class.

My recommendation would be to take a short course of three or four days before commiting yourself to one that runs for two to four weeks. I chose a short trek in Joshua Tree National Monument because I have always enjoyed the desert scenery and the dry climate. If there were ever a next time, I probably would go someplace where I could jump into a lake or stream to wash off occasionally.

My biggest disappointment with the course is that we learned very little about the desert or Joshua Tree National Monument. Perhaps in a four-day course this is expecting too much. However, I thought the Outward Bound bus to Joshua Tree might at least have stopped for 30 minutes at the monument's visitor center. It would have helped introduce us to the unusual landscape through which we would be hiking. After returning home, I ordered a packet of literature from the visitor center -- and wished I had done so before I went.

THE COST: My four-day course was expensive. The basic cost for four days and three nights, including the registration fee, was $575. This covered instruction, all meals and the use of camping gear -- all of which was provided.

The gear is of good quality and is excellently maintained. The two instructors for our class of 11 were fully experienced, having led a number of trips. One of the pair was a superbly trim Canadian graduate student in outdoor recreation. He climbed soaring rock faces as if he were Spiderman. Both instructors were on duty from sunrise at 6 to 9 or 10 in the evening, when we climbed into our sleeping bags.

In addition to the basic fee, however, there were other expenses. I was required to undergo a special medical exam because I am over the age of 50. The exam cost $60. Other extras followed.

Outward Bound mails participants a substantial list of required clothing. Since we were backpacking in spring, when cold weather was still a possibility, the list contained several cold-weather items that, as it turned out, I didn't need. Nevertheless, I had to buy them just in case. (I thought I would already have most of the clothing, but Outward Bound specifies that you cannot bring items made from cotton. Cotton does not provide sufficient insulation in cold weather. The organization advises wearing wool or special synthetic materials designed for outdoor activities.)

Good boots are essential, and I owned a pair, which saved me a substantial cost of perhaps $100 or more. However, I had to buy a nylon "wind suit" for about $65; wool pants for about $50; a lightweight polypropylene pullover shirt for about $45 and a set of polypropylene long underwear for about $60. Miscellaneous items, including a small flashlight, a pocket knife and a Bic-type lighter (for the camp stove) added another $75 or more. As it turned out, I never used the long underwear or the wind suit.

Because our course began at 9 a.m. in Palm Springs, I had to fly out a day earlier, which required a motel stay. The course concluded at 4 p.m. four days later, so I spent a second night in Palm Springs before returning home. Lodging and meals came to about $155. The best round-trip air fare at the time was $446. One final expense was to replace the frames of a pair of glasses that I crushed on one of the hikes: $75.

Total cost: About $1,600. Of course, you can save substantially if you pick a course close to home and can reach it by driving. In a hurry, I purchased my gear at a local outdoors store, but you might be able to borrow some of the items or buy them secondhand.

GETTING IN SHAPE: Outward Bound says its courses "are not beyond the reach of any man or woman, from age 14 and up, of average physical condition, who tries." The last two words are important ones.

To prepare for the four-day desert backpacking course, Outward Bound recommends an endurance activity such as walking, jogging or running. If possible, start training at least three months in advance. Initially, you should exercise for 20 minutes a day, three times a week. You should build to 50 minutes a day five days a week.

At age 53, I have been jogging three miles a day for five days a week for more than 20 years. And for many of those years, I have also been swimming a half mile or more two or three times a week. Still, I found the hikes rough going because the packs, loaded with water and climbing gear, were heavy. Also, we were hiking at an altitude of 4,000 to 5,680 feet. There was no time to adjust to the thinner oxygen, which took its toll on those of us who live at sea level.

SPECIAL PROGRAMS: Outward Bound offers some courses aimed at specific groups of people. These include courses for couples; Vietnam veterans; adults with cancer; women only; age 55 and older; teen-agers 14, 15 and 16; troubled youths; and the physically disabled. There also are professional development programs aimed at corporate ladder climbers interested in improving leadership skills.

INFORMATION: A 30-page course catalogue can be obtained from the Outward Bound National Office, 384 Field Point Rd., Greenwich, Conn. 06830, 1-800-243-8520 or (203) 661-0797.

Once you have chosen a specific course, you submit an application to the regional school that is offering it. There are regional Outward Bound schools in Morgantown, N.C.; Minnetonka, Minn.; Rockland, Maine; Portland, Ore. (which offered my backpacking trek in Joshua Tree); and Denver, Colo.

-- James T. Yenckel