Remembering Fear on Giant

Submitted by Pat

Mountain: Giant (4627)
Date: November 21, 2009
Time: 7.5 hours
Weather: unseasonably warm, very cloudy
Miles: 6.2
Elevation Gain: 2,859
Trails: Zander Scott Trail to Ridge Trail and back

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"Fear is the suppression of the excitement of life." - Marcus Daniels

When I was 16 I went to a 24-day Outward Bound course in Ely, Minnesota. I didn't really know much about fear when I arrived. I left knowing a lot. I had always been anxious with heights and one cold day we were given some training in rock climbing on a belay rope. I had the climbing harness on, such as it was in 1972 and yelled up to the person managing the belay rope, "On belay!" "Belay on!" he responded. "Climbing!" I yelled. "Climb," he said. And I started up the rock face. I remember it as very steep and sheer - footholds and handholds were sometimes difficult to find. I made it about half way and stopped - I couldn't figure out how to move forward. Fear. It oozed into my body and mind like black poison. It took a while to reach panic, because I knew I that if I fell the rope would hold me, but the adrenaline rush of working hard to find a way up, then realizing I couldn't get down either, and a light rain started, and I remember voices on the ground yelling encouragement. My arms and legs started to tremble as I tried desperately just to hold on. I had already given up going up or down - I was just holding on. Fear. I was shocked at my paralysis, shamed by my abject terror, and it took an instructor climbing up to me and giving me a boost to get me going again. I made it to the top, but I felt changed - even though I knew I wasn't going to fall, I believed I was going to die. I don't remember much else about those 24 days, but I do remember that afternoon and the toll I paid in fear.

In my late 30's I started to ride mountain bikes. I was fascinated by riding a bicycle in the woods. How could this be? Who would have thought it? I fell passionately in love with the sport and so began my ten-year love affair with mountain biking. As my skills improved I began exploring more technical trails. I rode with a local bike shop and pushed myself. I even started racing as a novice and actually won quite a few regional EFTA and NORBA races. When I was at my best, my strongest, I had no fear - well, enough to know when to stop, but not enough to slow me down. Riding technical trails was a full body workout, arms, legs, lungs, heart, and head. Total concentration, never looking away, always focused. It was so intense and I loved that intensity. I wanted to get better and better so I pushed harder and harder and then I hit a certain point and I started crashing. I was a middle aged woman - what the hell was I doing taking a header over my handlebars on a rocky trail? I sported some mighty fine bruises after some of those crashes. Eventually I realized that my falling was happening because I had started to be afraid - I got off and walked difficult stretches. I bailed out early. I started slowing down. Slowing down on a mountain bike on a rocky technical trail is the kiss of death. As soon as I would lose momentum I would hit something immovable and stop dead. If I had been able to pedal through it I would have gone right over the obstacle. But I was afraid. I was afraid of falling. During my last race I was going down a relatively short pitch that ended in a gully when a rider came up behind me and bumped me. My front tire hit the gully and my bike stopped. I didn't stop but fell over the handle bars and landed on my elbow, ripping a deep gash to the bone. That was that. I was done. I stopped being able to eat through the fear - instead it ate me and in the end I walked away from mountain biking and decided it was safer to get a road bike and fly down paved hills at 50 miles per hour than dealing with the excruciating fear that finally took over and stole the fun I thought I should have on a mountain bike.

On Saturday Nancy and I drive to Adirondack Park to climb our first of the 46 4,000 footers in the Adirondacks. Despite the grey day I head up the trail feeling energized and ready for adventure. The trail immediately starts climbing, but unlike so many of the straight up trails in the White Mountains, this trail has switchbacks to ease the sudden steepness of the trail. We climb and climb and climb - we reach a section of ledges that requires hands and feet to climb. The rocks are wet but not slippery. I watch Nancy tackle a particularly nasty section, but don't play close attention to her hand and footholds. She makes it look easy, and then it is my turn. I make it up onto the bad section and stop cold. I slip and fear slams into me like a freight train. I can't go down and I can't find a way up either. I keep trying and trying and Nancy is above me, yelling encouragement, and inching down to help. I feel like I am back on that sheer rock face, or on a bike in the woods, and I am shocked for the first time since I started climbing mountains to realize that I am inching toward being paralyzed by fear. The trembling in my legs becomes more pronounced as I hover there trying to find a foothold or a handhold to push or pull myself up. I hear Nancy's voice - it isn't a mindless yell of encouragement. I can feel that it comes from a softer part of her - her voice is softer - and through the fear I am able to let her voice seep into me, comfort me, slow down my breathing, and give me renewed purpose.

I make it up that pitch and all the rest of them. I don't give up - every time giving up reaches toward me I push it away. I am not shamed by my fear - it is there, it is real, and it is human. And I feel Nancy's kindness and concern - balm for the edge of my panic. I accept that I am afraid and then I let it go.

1 out of 46 Adirondack 4,000 Footers