On Fear

I’ve learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you. The journey is valuable, but believing in your talents, your abilities, and your self-worth can empower you to walk down an even brighter path. Transforming fear into freedom – how great is that?– Soledad O’Brien

The vertical, crumbly, rotten summit block of Peak 4202.  I. Was. Terrified.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.  I did it.

A big part of my thought processes these days are how to get more people outside. Because I believe strongly in the healing power of nature, and for me in particular, mountains.  While I altruistically want people to get outside for their health, spirit and general well being, I also want them to get outside so that they will begin to care about the wild.  I believe unless you’ve smelled the pines, seen alpenglow, or had the thrill of a difficult mountain summit that its hard to really care about policies that are designed to protect these spaces.

I’ve been afraid on mountains, I’ve been afraid on a city street.  I’ve been afraid in a car and I’ve been afraid at home.  We all have fears.  In this post, I want to talk about some things that I believe to be barriers to people getting outside and also provide some things to think about how to cope with those fears.

I want to talk about two types of fear, rational fear and irrational fear.  

Rational Fear

Rational fear is normal.  Rational fear is healthy.  Rational fear keeps us alive.  It’s tied to instincts, which we all have.  Here are some things that I think are rational fears but also how to ameliorate them.

Fear of falling–  This is a healthy fear because falls are one of the leading injuries in the wild.  I think its fine to be afraid of falling and to some extent, exposure (an area is exposed if there is a high rate of injury or death from a fall from wherever you are).  

Tips to combat:  Be sure of your holds and when descending steep slopes I like to pause on rocks just long enough to see if they move.  Another thing is to not look down until you are on terra firma.  This really works.  There’s a reason they say, don’t look down!

Fear of certain animals-  I think its good to have your guard up.  My Canadian friends that hike and climb have to deal with grizzly bears.  Most American bears are harmless. Attacks are VERY rare.  Frankly, the only two animals that I fear are mountain lion and humans.

Tips to combat:  If in bear country, take bear spray and ensure that your food is secure. Here in Arizona, we don’t really have very many areas where a canister would be necessary but if it is, use them.  As far as mountain lion, if you see one (it would be VERY VERY rare that you would) DO NOT RUN.  It triggers their feline instincts.  Make noise and usually they will leave.

Weather related fears-  Frankly, I believe this to be the most important fear to maintain, and one in which I simply do not play around with.  If you see lightning, leave.  If you hear thunder, seek shelter.  If you cannot leave, DO NOT SHELTER under trees.  Research the lightning position online.  Supposedly no one has ever died, using this technique.  

Admittedly, I have a fear of snow and ice.  Mainly because I don’t have much familiarity with the gear that it takes to enjoy the outdoors in them.

Tips to combat-  Check the weather BEFORE you go.  The night before and before you leave your house. I LOVE mountain-forecast.com because it has forecasts at various levels of the mountain, the trailhead, and at the summit.  I also use Weather Underground because of the numerous weather stations they have.

Irrational Fear

Irrational fear in my experience is most common in newer hikers and outdoors-people.   Because they may lack experience in the outdoors, they can often fear a litany of things. Getting lost, running out of water, snakes, bears, animals, being too slow, not being able to keep up, it getting dark outside, etc.  The list can go on and on.

Getting lost-  This is one of the things that I hear that actually happens the most.  There is no reason to get lost.  There are numerous smartphone apps that will track your hike.  If you feel unsure, if all else fails, just refollow your path the way you came.

Tips to combat- Purchase a GPS, or download a smartphone app such as Route Scout. BUT also please learn to read topographic maps.  This link is the single best internet resource that I have seen to teach people how to use maps!

Snakes-  Please do not let fear of snakes keep you off the trail.  They simply ARE NOT interested in you.  I have stepped on two rattlesnakes in my life and lived to tell the tale.  

Tips to combat-  When using handholds in rocky terrain, you do need to have some caution.  99% of the time on a maintained trail there is no possibility of an actual encounter unless you bother the snake, try to move it, or anger it.  Just cut them a wide berth and go around them.  

Fear of being slow-  I will be blunt.  Honestly, no one cares that you may be slow.  No, really, we aren’t judging you.  What we are is happy that you made the decision to get outside and you chose to spend time with us.  Those of us that are fast hikers have other opportunities to hike fast on another day.  And we can take more photos.  We are just glad to be in your company.

Tips to combat-  Don’t worry about this one.  We are glad you are with us.

Over time the more often that you hike, climb, ski, kayak, whatever it is that is outdoors, you’ll have less and less irrational fears.  You’ll learn to trust yourself, your gear, your hiking partner, or in whatever spiritual being that you believe in (or not).

Another thing that helped me conquer my fear is a personal preference to potentially die outdoors rather than chained to a desk.  It’s a feeling of letting go, managing risk, and accepting outcomes that you cannot always control.  I learned to control what I could control, and not worry so much about things that I couldn’t control.  This is truly how I conquered most of my fears.

I hope that this helps you conquer some of your fears and I hope to see you out on a trail.

Let me know your tips to combat fear in the comments below.


2 thoughts on “On Fear

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