Lessons for Life – The Smell of Fear

Recently my friend Susan expressed an interest in doing some more adventurous activities, and she definitely thinks of me as the “go to gal” for adventure.  In particular, she was really interested in via ferrata; however, the only via ferrata in California is Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  Reaching the cables on Half Dome entails a 17 mile round-trip hike with 4800ft elevation gain.  Instead, I came across a more convenient option – ziplining through Sonoma Canopy Tours in Occidental, CA.  For $99, you can zipline among the tall redwoods of Northern California.  The course has seven ziplines, two rope bridges, a spiral staircase climbing up a tree, and a rappel.

Susan jumped at the chance when I proposed it.  We met at the tour on a Sunday afternoon and Susan seemed full of nervous anticipation.  She had even bought a special scone at a local Occidental bakery as a reward if she was able to complete the ziplining course.  This surprised me!  Susan had seemed so gung-ho, but now as the reality was setting in, so were her nerves.  She was about to do something that few people do and is by most standards considered really scary.

I had some nervous excitement as well, but more the anticipation of doing something fun and different.  She brushed it off that “miss mountaineer” couldn’t possibly understand her fear.  It made me realize that when I talk about my fears and how I work through them in the mountains, the average person, and by that I mainly mean “non-climber”, has a tough time identifying with the situations that elicit fear in me.

I took this photo to capture my fear as I camped alone at 21kft on Makalu and listened to avalanches crash down around me all night…can you identify with this fear?

Two young fellows guided us through a gear fitting (full body harness, helmet, and gloves) and short instruction on how to brake on the zipline (just putting one gloved hand on the cable behind the pulley is enough friction to slow you down).  I could feel the nervous vibes coming from Susan and the other five people (a couple and a mother with her two kids).  We rode up to the first tree platform in the back of a pick up truck for the first short zipline called Victory Circle, almost a practice run except that there was no retreat once you let go.

We were standing high above the ground.  The woman in the couple almost could not let go.  She was paralyzed by fear at first.  The guides coached to relax her breathing and I think the peer pressure helped her find the courage to let go.

Here we go!!!

Susan was similarly nervous but seemed to do a better job at recognizing and voicing her fear, and she worked through it to zip to the second platform.  In the mean time, I had been busy checking out how the tree platforms and lines were rigged.  Steel cables can handle many times the force of a body and all the systems were redundant so if one fails, there is always a backup.  This setup appeared to be many times stronger than those that I trust my life with when alpine climbing, so it was actually easy to relax and just enjoy the ride.

Why am I doing this again?

One of the other zip liners made a remark that it must be boring for me if I wasn’t afraid at all.  Quite the contrary.  Indeed, it was missing the adrenaline most of the others were experiencing, but because I wasn’t overcome or distracted by fear, I was able to relax and take in the sights.  It was a unique perspective to spend time in the top of the trees instead of looking up at them.  The light was beautiful as dusk approached.  I’m also really interested in interpersonal dynamics, especially in times of stress, so I was enjoying watching everyone interact and cope with the stress in different ways.

Susan coming in for a landing

As I was standing on a platform waiting for my turn, an image came into my mind buried deep in my memory.  I remember being a teenager at some ropes course (maybe at a Girl Scouts camp), climbing up a rope ladder on the side of a tree, and being absolutely petrified.  I could recall the feeling of paralyzing fear to the point of having difficulty breathing and feeling my heart bound out of my chest.  It was rewarding to realize how far I have come with controlling my fear of heights as I noticed my pulse and heart rate were nearly normal.

Happy Susan

But back to Susan, who was still under the impression that I am super woman and was born without a fear gene…Each time Susan let go and flew down the second through the seventh zipline, she conjured up the will to do something that was scary for her.  That is much more impressive!  At the end, she was exhilarated and proud of herself.

Weeks later, Susan said the ziplining experience had really changed her perspective about what was possible and how far she could go, into areas where other people may not have the guts or passion to go.  This is EXACTLY how I feel about expeditions in the mountains – opportunities to stretch you mentally about what is really possible.  It’s not that I don’t feel fear – I’m afraid of failing, not being fit enough, falling, avalanches – it’s that I try to distinguish the good fear (that will keep you alive) from the bad fear (that will keep you from your dreams).

I realized that Susan learned how to identify good fear versus bad fear and work through it via the zip lining adventure.  Now she’s using the experience to conquer her fears that would otherwise limit a world of limitless possibilities (AND encourage others to do so – check out her perspective on our adventure and what she does for a living at http://www.workfromwithin.com/2012/07/ziplining-an-innovative-way-to-release-fears/).

Whether through ziplining, climbing, public speaking, whatever YOU find scary, I hope that you, too, can become aware of the role that good fear and bad fear is playing in your life and the pursuit of your goals.

Now go find your own adventure!

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