I was reading Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked through Time this evening and I came across a passage where he describes the unsettling feeling of being in a dark canyon when the sun goes down. Even though he couldn't see the walls around him in the pitch black night, he felt their overpowering presence, shutting out all light and sound.
I experienced a similar foreboding feeling this past weekend, driving late at night through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains where the highway passes between the high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges. I've driven through that mountain pass many times and knew that there were huge mountains on either side of me, but I couldn't see them in the darkness. I felt their presence like a change in air pressure and the road ahead of me became frightfully dark despite my high beams. It felt like the mountains were a malicious conscious force and I was glad when I got to the northbound end of the notch.
This experience reminded me that fear is an inherent part of the outdoor experience, but not something that hikers and backpackers talk much about. I experience fear regularly on many trips ranging from absolute terror to caution and doubt.
Let me give you some examples:
- Last summer I was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm on the top of Breadloaf Mountain on the Long Trail in Vermont. I was drenched by torrential rain, there were lightning strikes all around me, and then it started to hail. I was afraid, big time. I threw my metal hiking poles as far away as I could and crawled under a dead tree to try to avoid getting hit by lightning.
- This winter when I was climbing Mt. Washington, I got to a point about 500 ft. beneath the summit where I couldn't catch my breath. It was scary. Attempting to summit this peak in winter was very intimidating for me and I was truly frightened. I'm still not exactly sure what I was frightened of, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't death. It felt like the mountain had a soul and was challenging me. I guess I'm still pondering that one.
- Two years ago I was climbing Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire in the early spring. There was a crusty snow on the ground and I was a few hours into my hike when I realized that the entire area I was standing on had water running underneath it. It was a warm day and the entire mountain was melting off. The sound of running water under your feet on a snow shelf in the spring is one of the scariest things you'll ever hear.
- A few years ago I was camping in the Catskills in an area with recent bear activity. I thought I felt something come through camp at night and trip on my tent guy lines. As I lay in my tent, I tried to make some noise by shouting but I was so scared I couldn't make a sound and was literally paralyzed with fear. To this day, I don't know if I was awake during this experience or if it was a nightmare.
I think the important thing to understand about fear in the outdoors is that it is part of your experience and nothing to be ashamed of. The path to fearlessness, to paraphrase Buddhist doctrine, is to face your fears and not become paralyzed by them. Despite my fears and memories, I remain active outdoors and keep seeking the solace of the backcountry.
How do you cope with fear in the outdoors?
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