Fear, Risk, and Commitment

I pontificate frequently and deeply on risk and fear, but rarely in connection with what should happen on other side of risk and fear – commitment.  I’m a big fan of Mark Nepo, and the reading for today from The Book of Awakening hit me in a particularly profound way when he highlighted the connection between risk and commitment.

“We’d all like a guarantee before making a decision or taking a risk, but the irony is that taking the risk is what opens us to our fate. It’s like wanting to know what things will taste like before putting them in your mouth. It just can’t be figured out that way.

I always seem to be relearning that real commitment comes before I know where anything is going. That’s what listening to your heart is all about. Without jumping off its perch, the bird would never fly. Without jumping out of your heart’s silence, love is never possible. Without asking to be whole, the divine essence waits inside everything the way bread hardens if never bitten into.

For me, as I look back, being a poet came after committing to speak though I had no idea what I needed to say, and the grace of being loved has come into my life after admitting freely that I wanted to love though I wasn’t sure how.

If we devote ourselves to the effort to be real, the Universe in all its forms will find us, the way that wind finds leaves and waves find shore.”

-Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening, November 20, pg 382

I’m a big fan of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Fear has now become a trusted partner in my life – when I feel it, I pay attention. I sit with it and listen to it. If I determine that its cause is perceived risk, rather than real risk, then I take a deep breath and move through the fear. This helps me take risks that sometimes other people label “crazy,” but in the same breath they’ll state they wish they had the courage to do it to.

However, my approach has been to take the risk and open myself to my fate, as Nepo says. Commitment is an entire new level.

I’ve been writing a book…for several years now. I knew I wanted to write a book summarizing and expanding upon the points and stories in my keynote speech about lessons for life and business from the mountains. Last year, I took the time to hire a writing coach to draft a book outline and get some early stage tips (Linden Gross is awesome by the way).

The outline flowed easily. More than three-quarters of the content has been already written in blog form or articles or I have told the stories time and time again. I find writing pretty enjoyable so I thought it would be EASY to sit down and write/re-write on all my long-haul flights.

Here I am a year later with just a few half-assed chapters written. Yes, time is a problem. I don’t have much time to spare to get in a real book-writing frame of mind, but I made the time to write this blog, didn’t I? Yes, I have fear about writing – the more you put yourself out there in the public, the more you open yourself to judgment. I get tons of positive feedback, but of course, as a human being I tend to obsess on negative personal criticism. However, that hasn’t stopped me from writing or speaking or dancing on the summit of high mountains – all things that can draw attention to oneself.

The answer lies in commitment. I have not committed to being an author. I have not, as Nepo says, “committed to speak though I had no idea what I needed to say.” And to boot, I DO know what I want to say.

If we feel the fear, take the risk, and are simply open to what lies on the other side, we may still find ourselves in the same position. We must not only be comfortable with failure, but equally committed to being successful.

If you feel the fear of telling someone you love them, take the risk and tell them, but then run away from the commitment of exploring that with the other person, then taking the risk was utterly worthless. Commit to standing firm and embrace what rewards the risk can bring you.

At the end of each of Nepo’s daily readings, he has a meditation exercise. The one for today is, after a short sitting meditation to center yourself, “Walk slowly about the room, and with each step, feel commitment in the landing and risk in each lifting.”

I actually did this exercise this morning and worked hard at visualizing the risk with each lifting. I could feel the wavering and wobbling as my foot was in the air, floating in empty space, unsure of exactly how it would land on the ground. And I became acutely aware of the landing of my feet, feeling the contact with the ground…softly at first and then more firmly and grounded as each foot took the weight of my body. I could feel the commitment of moving forward without being completely certain of my direction.

I had my eyes closed and felt like I was moving in slow motion…until I literally hit a wall! If only someone had been there to witness that! I couldn’t believe the distance I had moved when I was focused so intently. I lost sense of space and time and did not feel like I had gone very far.

Hmmmm, perhaps there’s a lesson in that. How far can we go if we are intently aware of every step and every move? This is our lives…every day. We take risks and have faith that we will land, committed to be ready for what’s on the other side.

Stay tuned for updates on the book progress.  🙂

Can You Sit With Your Fear?

So many of us run kicking and screaming away from fear. We feel it, it freaks us out, and we turn away to go right back to doing whatever it was that was safe and secure, or stay with whomever it was that makes us feel comfortable.

Mountaineering and, even more so now, entrepreneurship has forced me to face my fears head on. And I’ve realized it’s a quality that is not recognized or lauded as much as being “fearless” – giving the impression of having no fear at all.  Being fearless is the AMAZING quality that’s highlighted again and again as valued above so much else in our culture.

Obviously, I’m not advocating running toward an avalanche, jumping out of a plane without a parachute or leaving a perfectly good job without some sort of plan…but if you think about the potential reward, could it just maybe be worth it to face your fear?

Can you sit with fear? Feel it in your bones? Let it give you goose bumps? What if you really examined your fear instead of running away from it?

My biggest fear is financial insecurity. Hands down. I don’t come from money, have very little living family, and have been self-sufficient since the age of 17. I am far more afraid of being broke than I am of anything I face in the mountains or in the spotlight.

The margins in the adventure travel business are low and the business challenges are high (permits, staffing, natural disasters, government shutdowns, etc), and I have not yet been able to pay myself a salary for running the company. The financials are on steep upward trajectory which is great, but there are still bills from the last 3 years to be paid.  My biggest and best option is selling my home which has appreciated since I bought in May 2012 and cashing out the equity.

I have been ruminating on this for MONTHS. Just tossing and turning and flipping the idea over and over. I could not come to a decision because it felt like giving up on part of my dream of creating the lifestyle I envisioned here in Bend.

However, I had an illuminating conversation with my friend, Kevin, when I was telling him about all of my big dreams and goals for 2016 – giving a TedX talk, scouting Ethiopia for Call of the Wild, climbing Mt Noshaq in Afghanistan with local women, and climbing Everest. Selling the house could help me keep the business dream alive and accomplish ALL of those things.

Then Kevin innocently asked me one key question, “What’s holding you back?” I only had a one word answer for him, “Fear.”

Fear of becoming homeless and a ‘bag lady.’ 

 Fear of never being able to qualify for a home loan again. 

 Fear of not knowing where I’ll be living in a month or two. 

 Fear of giving up on my dream vision. 

 Fear of feeling like a failure because I could not get COTWA profitable enough to sustain me financially. 

 Earth shattering, soul quaking fears for me.

But once I uttered that word, “Fear,” as my response, it made me realize that that was a completely bullshit reason for holding myself back from the potential reward on the other side of facing my fear. It became so blazingly obvious what I needed to do.

The wheels are now in motion.  The house is going up on the market. I’m making some last minute improvements and the roofers are banging on the ceiling as I type.

What could you potentially be accomplishing if you sat with your fear and REALLY examined it???

The Sound of the End of the World

In March 2014, I performed in “First Speak”, a personal storytelling exhibition at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend with 6 other brave souls that bared themselves to the world.  I told the story of the night on Makalu when I wasn’t sure I would live to see the next morning…

To describe the sound of an avalanche as a freight train running off a cliff is to do this force of nature a great injustice. The sound of an avalanche is the sound of the world ending.

It was 2010 and I’d been climbing big mountains around the world for just under a decade. I was invited to join a Himalayan expedition at the last minute and the stars aligned with the start date of a new job. The objective was Makalu. A mountain few have heard of but that demands great respect. It is the 5th highest in the world lying on the border of Nepal and Tibet, situated just 15 miles as the crow flies from Everest. Makalu is 27,700 ft high, twice as high as South Sister…and then add another 7,000ft!

Big mountains are really unique animals as a climbing objective. They often require months if not years of physical and mental training, and equally as long for acquiring the specialized gear and arranging logistics. Each mountain is different in its altitude, terrain and dangers, but the same formula is applied to most to allow the human body to undergo fascinating changes to adapt and perform to the rigors of high altitude.

Typically, you will trek in anywhere from 7 to 10 or more days to a base camp or advanced base camp where you set up your new home for the next few weeks or months. In Makalu’s case, we lived at 18,500ft for around 5 weeks total.

 

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

Makalu Advanced Base Camp

After you establish base camp, a rotation schedule begins where you climb higher to bring a new load to a new altitude, then return to base camp to recover. Climbing high stresses your body with the lower levels of available oxygen to spur the adaptive process while sleeping low gives your body a better chance at recovery with a bit more oxygen. The next rotation, you might spend one night at Camp 1, then reach Camp 2 and scurry back down to base camp. Effectively, you end up climbing the mountain several times over!

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Ascending the Makalu Headwall to Camp 2

Back to Makalu, my partner, John, and I made it to Camp 2 and spent one night at just under 23k ft without any major problems. The next rotation would be to go straight up to Camp 2 from base camp and spend the night again before hitting a new altitude at Camp 3. I really wasn’t feeling like I was strong and fast enough to go straight to Camp 2 in one shot, so I decided to spend the night at Camp 1 alone and then join my partner on his way up to Camp 2 for a second night.

The morning I was set to leave and head up to Camp 1 alone, I woke up to knock snow

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

Leaving for Camp 1 Alone

off our tents at ABC. The weather didn’t look great and I was feeling a bit nervous, but I knew I couldn’t miss this rotation or I would be off schedule. I was also nervous about crossing a glacier alone, but I knew the terrain from the previous rotations and my partner and I had designed a communication system for my solo adventure.

It was 10:35am and I am packed and ready to head off on my solo adventure. It’s as close as I’ve come in my lifetime to knowing what some of the great explorers of the last century felt. John snaps a final picture of me and says, “Last seen alive!” I respond “Not funny.”

I am alone now. It’s eerily quiet with just the sound of my own breathing and the creaking and popping of glacial ice all around. The terrain is steep and undulating and every now and then, my steps cause a rock slide beneath me that breaks the silence with the sound of rocks clapping against each other as they tumbled. After a short section of scrambling and hugging a rock wall during a traverse, the going is getting easier but more dangerous as the tongue of the glacier was right above me, threatening to let loose at any moment. I move quickly, that is as quickly as high altitude will allow you to make it to “crampon point.”

“Crampon point” as we call it was a place where all of the climbers were stashing our heavy technical gear like mountaineering boots, crampons – the spiky things that you lash to the bottom of your boots, ice axe, harness, etc. That saved us time so that we didn’t have to carry it back and forth through that section every time. But it also meant that things were about to get more serious.

I am a lone figure out in the Himalayas taking the time to carefully don my technical gear.

Leaving "Crampon Point"

Leaving “Crampon Point”

There’s a certain freedom and magic about being alone on the flanks of a Himalayan giant. I think at myself, “How many other human beings have the opportunity to feel so alive?”

I take a few deep breaths to center myself and step directly onto the glacier ice with my ice axe in my uphill hand to stop myself in case of a fall and a trekking pole in my downhill hand for stability. I begin working slowly upward, one step at a time with a breath or two in between. Step, breath breath, step, breath breath, was my rhythm for hours.

I love the moving meditation of glacier climbing but it was interrupted as the weather got just plain weird. The sky became slightly overcast with really low hanging clouds and it became hot like a convection oven with the suns rays reflecting up and baking me. I strip all the way down to my lowest layers and even pull my t-shirt up through the collar for ventilation. I am panting and sweating and stopping every few steps to lean on my ice axe and catch my breath.

Then the clouds close in into a whiteout – a condition where you can only see a few feet in front of you – and the temperature plummets 50 degrees easily. I stop and throw a few layers back on so that I don’t lose too much body heat. But then the clouds came back and it heated up again.

I reach the apex of the slope to where things leveled out a bit but then the crevasses began. Crevasses are big cracks in the giant slow moving river of ice that threaten to swallow a climber whole. If I fall into any one of them, at best I can be killed in the fall or at worst be stuck in an icy grave for hours succumbing to hypothermia.

My insurance policy is to be on radio contact with John. At least someone would have a

Crevasse Crossing

Protected Crevasse Crossing

clue where I had fallen and I wouldn’t have to wait until the next morning to be found. When I was about to cross a crevasse, I would radio John, “Crevasse #1” and he would return “Copy.” If there was a safety line, I would clip in and jump across. Then I would call out “clear” if I had successfully crossed the crevasse and he would copy again. I did that 6 times over crevasses on the way to Camp 1.

I jump across the final crevasse and a wave of relief floods me to see the Camp 1 tent on the horizon. It’s 4:30pm and we agreed to talk again at 6pm. I am able to make my fabulous dinner of chicken soup and tuna and boiled 2 liters of snow into water without incident. Some people loose their appetite at altitude. I think everything tastes fantastic!

At 6pm, I confirm with John that he would radio at 7am the next morning when he was leaving Advanced Base Camp so that I will know what time we would be meeting to head up at Camp 2 together. I told John I loved him and he joked that this was an official channel and he couldn’t say it back. In addition to being my climbing partner, John is also my emotionally unavailable boyfriend. That is the last time I speak to him.

After we hang up the radio, the silence is deafening. I have over 12 hours here alone at 21k ft without radio contact. Nothing to do but eat, drink, pee – life reduced to the bare essentials. Talk about feeling like you are out on a limb!

All of a sudden, there is a huge crack like thunder right on top of me followed by a

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

Avalanche Earlier in the Climb Approaching ABC

rumbling roar that sounds like a freight train tumbling off a cliff. I shoot over to the side of the tent, open the tent in a flash to look outside. It’s a serac avalanche, an avalanche of chunks of ice as a big as car tumbling down the glacier. I watch in horror as the seracs tumble down into the area where I had been a few hours before but I was safe for now. We had placed this tent in a zone that was supposed to be safe, but there always could be a catastrophic event.

It takes an eternity for the sound of my heart pounding out of my chest to merge with the reborn silence.

I literally had just relaxed when I hear another huge clap and roar, this time coming from behind my head. I reach over again and unzip the tent again…but this time I look out and there is a complete whiteout. I can’t tell where the avalanche is coming from and whether I should run or stay put. Not only can I not see where the avalanche was coming from, I can’t see where I am going.

I realize I am a sitting duck. All of the wide temperature variation during the day had loosened things up and there’s no reason to believe this isn’t just the beginning.

I think about whether I should stay or if I should go. I have no radio contact until morning

Last "Selfie" Taken

Last “Selfie” Taken

and it will be getting dark soon. Even with light, you can only see a few feet in front of you in a whiteout. If I fall into a crevasse, no one would find me until the next morning…or perhaps they would never find me since I hadn’t told anyone I would potentially leave camp. It was extremely dangerous to try to reverse my steps.

I know it’s a probability game either way and my odds aren’t good, so I choose to stay. I know I should probably have my life passing in front of my eyes thinking of all the things I still wanted to do with my life, but that’s not my style. I might have lost it if I let myself go there mentally. I just lay there alone in my tent, feeling the rush of adrenaline and stress hormones coursing through my body. Primal fear is something few of us every have the chance to really experience and it’s wild how intense all of your sensations get. The refrain that keeps going through my head is “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck, mother fucker, how did I fucking get here?” There was no one to blame – I chose this path and here I was.

I put on my climbing helmet. I know it wouldn’t save me from a direct hit of an avalanche, but it can at least help in the event a stray ice chuck hits the tent. I write in my journal, “John, I really do love you if you read this for any reason.”

Clearly I’ve survived to tell this tale, but I was forever changed by that night. I’ll never experience fear, risk, or life quite the same again after hearing the sound of the end of the world.