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The Value of Fear by Deb Lauman

Ramkitten in her Native Habitat
Ramkitten in her Native Habitat

Hike some miles in my beat-up Vasque boots, and you’ll know that I’m still afraid. Well, I’m not afraid all the time by any means, but my heart does beat a bit faster when I hear that first faraway rumble of thunder or the proverbial stick go snap! in the night outside my nylon walls.

You’d think, after my own walk in the woods from Georgia to Maine, I’d have more trust in my own two feet, even near the edges of long ways down. But, alas, I still challenge the strength of the seat of my convertible pants as I do the ol’ sit-and-slide when my very active imagination displays before my eyes scenes of yours truly taking spectacular falls. I see my feet slipping out from under me, flying into the air as I land hard on my back, smacking my head. Or taking a plunge into the nearby abyss.

You’d think that, after countless hikes all over the globe, from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon to the Inca Trail to the top an isolated plateau in Israel’s Negev desert, I’d skip merrily from boulder to boulder, nevermind the sliver of chasm in between. Yet, I still find myself frozen in place on the warmest and driest of days, my feet beginning to slip on slick stone or hard-packed earth for lack of momentum until, at last, I have no choice but to “just go.” Or until a trail buddy literally gives me a hand and, I’m sure, a hidden smirk behind an encouraging smile.

You’d think that after hundreds of Search and Rescue missions, I’d be calm and collected while negotiating icy ridges, scrambling across steep slopes, and skiing down scree. But truth be told, I have to remind myself to breathe as I painstakingly pick my way along an intimidating trail or route.

You see, to me it’s not about pride. And it’s not about looking cool and calm when I’m not. I’d much rather look like a dork than break my neck.

Sure, after all those miles of trail that have passed beneath my feet, I’m pretty good at setting up a tent in the wind and rain and have far fewer campsite culinary mishaps than I used to when I was green (ie. mac-n-cheese turned to glue; turning a Whisperlite into a flame-thrower). I even border on being a bona fide pro at backcountry preparedness. However, I still carry with me all the same fears and insecurities I had decades ago when I first hoisted a pack, placing far too much weight on my shoulders rather than on my hips.

No, for me it’s about the journey, be it long or short, having fun and exploring the world on foot while remaining intact, and facing those familiar fears with as much common sense as possible whenever they confront me.

One thing that has changed over all the years, the miles and pairs of retired hiking boots is how I handle and use those fears I’ve never been able to leave behind. Nowadays, I actually see them as more of a help than hindrance, because my fears make me more aware — aware of my actions, the terrain, the conditions. I think ahead, do my homework about trails and routes I’m planning to hike for the first time, and take care both to prepare and to be careful.

Mind the Steps
Mind the Steps

When I hear that first rumble of thunder, I now have the knowledge under my belt that I didn’t have years ago, and I’ll look around and consider the safest place to take cover should the storm get closer — a stand of trees of uniform height perhaps or a nearby depression.

Nowadays, I have a much better handle on what works best for me when it comes to navigating sketchy spots and scary stretches, and I can more effectively use my feet, hands, and perhaps a hiking pole or two, not to mention my rear end, to get by without too many scrapes. And I know how to ask for help if it’s needed, available, and willing. I’m able to say, “If you’ll just stand right there to give me a visual barrier, that would be great.” Sometimes, it really is all (or mostly) mental.

My fears make me pay more attention to common hiker errors and how I might avoid those pitfalls. So I leave an itinerary with a friend or family member, check the weather and learn about the terrain before I go, and make sure my light sources work and that I have extra batteries. My fears make me think twice about my strategy before crossing water, including unclipping my hip belt. They make me test the stability of questionable rocks, logs and rickety little bridges before I step, once even preventing me from taking a very big fall. My fear (of those big critters that make twigs go snap! in the night) make me think about good food storage practices where I’m camping. They make me sit-and-step rather than jump. Sometimes they make me go around the long way and occasionally even go back. My fears keep me from being complacent or cocky and, I firmly believe, keep me safer doing what I love most.

So, how about you? What makes your heart beat a bit faster on the trail?

About Deb Lauman

Deb “Ramkitten” Lauman is a freelance writer and novelist, who wrote the first draft of her first book, “I. Joseph Kellerman” (http://www.debralauman.com) while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, which is often the topic of her articles, including “Hiking the Appalachian Trail: What you really need to know.” (http://www.squidoo.com/appalachiantraildirt) One of Deb’s other passions is being a Search & Rescue volunteer with the Coconino County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Department, based near her home in Flagstaff. You can read about her SAR experiences in her blog, Deb’s Search and Rescue Stories. (http://debssarstories.blogspot.com)

11 comments

  1. This is really great stuff Deb. One of the problems with overcoming fear, I think, is that people do not like to admit being scared (or is that just a man thing?). And that in itself can lead to people being foolhardy and not backing off when they should. I recently wrote on my blog about one of the things that gets me in a panic – cattle. The difference between that and what you write about is, I guess, that your fear is perfectly rational. Mine is not, and the fact that it can stop me doing stuff is a powerful cause of frustration, but is also becoming something of a motivator. Is it worth me missing out on some great experiences because of soemthing that is largely irrational? Clearly not. I am using the sheer embarrassment of writing about it to force me in to confronting it.

    Anyway, if you fancy a read of my blog post about this on a recent short hike in England in our fabulous Lake District please use the link below:

    http://fellbound.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/load-of-old-bull-day-1-on-cumbria-way.html

  2. I completely understand. After leading multiple trips and spending countless nights in the woods, hiking big mile days wet and dry, I still feel scared sometimes, even anxious. Sometimes about what is happening where I am and others about what might be happening back at home.

    It’s good to be honest with ourselves and those around us for the betterment of all. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m certainly much more cautious in iffy situations, like hiking across boulder fields or exposed high mountain traverses, because I know the consequences of a backcountry injury like a broken ankle, compound fracture, and hypothermia. It’s not like you can expect an EMT to arrive in 7 minutes. Fear – yeah I guess you could call it that.

  4. I started doing SAR two years ago- that and a WFA/WFR course will open your eyes to what can happen in the backcountry, and more importantly, what the reality is for what will happen (and not happen) next. We can’t avoid all risk, but knowing that it could be a long time to evac after an accident helps to make you more conservative in your decisions.

    One of my favorite books (Deep Survival – Laurence Gonzales) has a message that can be paraphrased as “just because it didn’t kill you last time doesn’t mean it is a good idea”. I have used that line more times than I can count when leading trips. It is a great response to “we always do this”. As the person ultimately responsible for safety of a group, my “fears” tend to make me be the one who says “lets not do that” more times than I would like, but I realize in many cases I am just looking at the risk/reward relationship a bit differently than the person with less experience.

    • Ken – I’m really impressed and thankful for your SAR efforts. I recently took part in a rescue as a Samaritan bystander. Knowing CPR, I felt the need to stop and help. I’m publishing a post about it next Friday after the author series winds up. Not about the rescue specifics as much as what it meant to me to take part in it.

      • That’s a good line, “Just because it didn’t kill you last time doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.” I’ll have to remember that one.

        Deb, I think “fear” and “wisdom” in this case overlap a lot. It seems to me that you don’t look like a dork when you’re being careful, you just look smart. And especially if you do all the SAR that you do – you of all people know just how badly one tiny mistake can end up.

        I like this post a lot and just subscribed to your blog, too. Look forward to reading your posts there.

  5. Well said! I’m amazed at the things my hiking partner does and would do if I didn’t stop him. I’m pretty sure that he’s the “average weekend hiker” and that I’m the kook fringe exception.

  6. I have found that I am often afraid when doing some of the harder things I’ve been doing in the last 12 months – ice-climbing, grade 2-3 scrambling, higher alpine routes and all because these are out of my comfort zone. They are things which are relatively new to me and where my experience levels are limited. But to learn and progress we need to stretch ourselves and fear is the mind’s way of keeping you sharp and alert – keeping you focused. There is no more important an emotion to people who love spending time outdoors because getting it wrong can be serious. Being afraid, and learning to control that fear, keeps us alive and allows us to spend time in the places we love without being in danger, or at least knowing what the dangers are and preparing for them. Controlling that fear and not letting it beat you is essential but so hard. This was a great article. Thanks.

  7. Fear leads to respect. “Conquering” fear does not lead to the absence of fear; it means we use the fear to enhance the quality what we are doing. Ignoring dangers is as “stupid” as giving in to unreasonable obsessions.

    Any actor that doesn’t get stage fright is a lousy actor. He (or she) needs that extra “oomph” provided by the fear to turn in a really good performance. The same is true in any other field!

  8. Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I’ll remember your positive words about my fears next time I’m descending a steep slope on my toosh … which I did recently to the delight of my hiking partners (other Search & Rescue folks). In fact, I’ll have to remember to quote some of you when I’m being heckled! :)

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