Adventures are savage and bring us face to face with some terrifying situations where being precise and level headed are the only lifelines we have. Whether you’re 30 feet run out and relying on a blue alien cam, lost and trying to navigate a cross country talus field in the high sierra, or hesitant to take your first steps on a backpacking trip, it is completely normal to experience crippling doses of fear.
The fear of physical injury is healthy and important to recognize. If you’re relying on your balance to cross a river on a felled tree, branch, or hopping from stone to stone, it makes sense to tread light and deliberate. Without this fear it is easy to get complacent and careless, especially when you’re carrying a heavy pack or have swinging gear on your back countering your balance on unstable terrain.
I was coming back from an early season ascent of the East Buttress on Mount Whitney last year when I experienced a close encounter at a river crossing. We were tired, at altitude, our packs were heavy, it was early in the morning, and we were also navigating through terrain covered in ice and snow. I was on autopilot and crossing the river when I stepped up onto an ice covered block. I wasn’t paying attention because in my mind I’d already crossed the finish line. When I weighted the foot it slipped out from under me and I went face first into the frigid river and my 50 lb. pack pinned my head underwater.
That’s just one example of how dangerous a simple routine process can be with the absence of fear and disregard for our surroundings. Think about how many of these rote situations we encounter on a daily basis just crossing a street or stepping off a curb. These situations can be easily avoided by respecting our surroundings and humbly acknowledging our limitations. All it takes is one slip, a minor misstep, or a precise blow to the right spot on the head, which are all very probable on unstable terrain. This happens to experienced and inexperienced outdoors men and women all the time, especially on descents when we’re tired, hungry, dehydrated, and eager to get back to camp or car.
The other face of fear has the ability to paralyze. To gaze into the eyes of that despicable entity is enough to stop us dead on run out granite slabs, keep us from telling that one person how we feel, and keeps us tethered to mundane routines that we settle for out of comfort and security. Instead of progressing we are entranced by the risks associated with forward progress. English literature is very familiar with this dark figure that sits back like a predator in the shadows of our minds; they are the J. Alfred Prufrock’s, Josef K’s, Underground and Hollow Men. This is the place of inaction, and it is just as dangerous when presented existentially as when it clouds our judgement in dangerous situations.
There is a place, a balance, a harmony, where we can bring these two types of fear together into a controlled environment, and in doing so become aware of the risks associated with the action required for forward progress. We find humble confidence in our ability to execute in places where failure is not an option while in positions that look and feel improbable. We become capable of honing our attention inward in such a way that we keep the deceitful mind at bay and operate as the best versions of ourselves.
This is not a practice that should be contained to outdoor adventures, but one that should be implemented in life. We can focus our attention towards our breath and defeat doubt. We can become hyper aware of our movements, executing each with expert precision. We can make our choices in life just as deliberately as we do in situations where failure is not an option. I focus on my breath, accept my situation, and commit to that moment for what it is, and I become allied with my fears.
Today I can’t spend a lot of time doubting my decisions, but I certainly cannot risk walking arrogantly into unforeseen disaster. I might move a little bit slower, and I might take a little bit more time to think things over, but I don’t find myself backtracking on trails as often or retracing my tracks in life trying to figure out where I lost the path. I do not have the time, attention, or energy to be constantly wrestling with myself, and when I surrender I find an actualized state that never ceases to amaze me.
Get acquainted with yourself in this state, and practice it on easy ground and in situations that are reasonable. It is remarkable how fast our judgement becomes impaired in these situations. When we are gripped by fear we become inefficient and expend unnecessary energy through doubt and over compensation. Without it we wake up feeling foolish in hospital beds for overestimating our capabilities. Ultimately, we are going to find ourselves guilty of both, in the mountains and in life, and it’s in those situations where it is critical that we find a balance between the two and regain the control needed to bail ourselves out because, if not, we may not be very pleased with the price we pay when it comes to collect.