I’m terrified of heights. For nearly all of my life this instinctive fear has kept me far, far away from yawning chasms, precipitous drops, and freaky precipices. But somehow, in recent years, I’ve found myself called by the allure of high places—their very horror makes them weirdly attractive, and they’ve become a challenge, a quest.
That’s how I found myself yesterday morning on a narrow, washed out trail hundreds of feet above Timpanogos Basin, pinned against the crumbling rock wall and fearing for my life. Along with my friends Daniel and Becky, I was climbing Mount Timpanogos, the massive 11,572 ft. ultra-prominent peak that looms over Utah County. (I didn’t know what that meant before so I looked it up and it’s really cool. End of brag.) The sun had not yet risen; my trusty headlamp illuminated the way before me. Daniel and Becky had just crossed over a completely washed out section of trail that so completely unnerved me that I would not follow:
The “trail.” Somehow it wasn’t helping me feel secure in my footing.
It didn’t matter that I had spent five hours hours climbing 3,000 feet of elevation gain over six miles. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t get the magnificent sunrise view from the summit, or even the saddle. I was terrified, and I was turning back. In the Inside Out-style emotional headquarters within me, this guy was calling the shots:
Just doing his one job: keeping me alive!
And so I turned back. I’ve done this many times. After my self-preservation instinct screams at me for long enough that my life is at risk, it becomes impossible to ignore. So I turn around. I leave the situation that so terrifies me.
It is the lot of the perpetually anxious to be overwhelmed by things that have little or no impact on other people. It’s our lot to turn around when the danger signals are too intense, but when nobody else is turning around. And it’s our lot to feel cowardly for doing so, to wonder if we’ve done the right thing.
But I believe it is the right thing. Because the agony of ignoring the self-preservation instinct is real. And because turning around and giving up are not the same thing.
I retreated down the trail a ways while Daniel and Becky pressed on without me. I felt beaten, but relieved. I took pictures. I watched a mouse scurry about looking for fallen bits of trail mix. I sat by myself in the dark and watched the stars. I felt the wind and enjoyed the night solitude.
It was peaceful. I felt serene. But somewhere within me a voice began calling. I realized I wanted to try again.
So I returned to the washed out section of trail. I took it at my own pace, in my own way, for my own reasons. And I crossed it, no problem.
I continued up the path a ways, but soon found myself confronted by yet another disintegrating trail segment that I could not stomach. So again I stopped. Again I turned around.
I went down to the basin. I watched the dawn first simmer on the horizon and then roll over the valley:
I explored. I saw what seemed to be moose, but which turned out to be a hunter’s horses. I talked with him about mountain goats and the whereabouts of Emerald Lake. I watched a noisy squirrel drop pine cones from from the tree tops down to the ground. I saw this:
It was marvelous.
But in full light of day a voice seemed once again to be calling to me. I had to try again.
Back up the trail I went, back up toward the saddle. In the darkness my fears had filled the information vacuum, making everything seem more dangerous than in reality. But in light of day, my fears had less power over me. I could see that the slope beside me wasn’t completely shear, but often was somewhat gradual. With this encouraging observation I was able to advance up the trail much farther than previously. But again, at some point I encountered the limit of my appetite for risk, and I turned around.
I’ll say it once more: turning around and giving up are not the same thing. Sometimes we need to retreat and regroup. I turned around because my anxiety level was intolerable, and I would not have been a safe, surefooted hiker. But I returned again and again because the challenge remained, and it beckoned to me. I’m proud of that fact.
My progress can be seen here. The red indicates my best estimate of the trail route as it climbs up to the ridge. The numbers 1, 2, and 3 indicate my three turnaround points.
Each time I returned I made it farther than before. I didn’t reach the summit, but I achieved what for me were great things. I believe that the following helped me:
- Familiarity. Some things are frightening largely because they’re unfamiliar. It’s easy to overestimate the risks of things unknown. The first time I faced the washed out section I couldn’t pass it, but the second time I did so easily.
- Going at my own pace. Knowing that nobody was waiting on me to make that daring leap ratcheted down my anxiety level.
- Knowing more. When the sun came out, true information about the lay of the land replaced fearful speculations about what might lie in the dark.
Though I’ve previously blamed my childhood anxiety on my family environment, further reflection leads me to believe that mostly I’m just an anxious person, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Anxiety is natural—everybody has it, and it helps to protect us against dangers. People’s sensitivities to anxiety vary widely, from the stupidly reckless who really have no fear, to the anxious overwhelmed whose lives are dominated by it. We’re all on the same spectrum, and one person’s shameful cowardice is another’s prudent caution. I’m not sure how much we can change our temperament, but I believe we can learn to work better with how we’re built, whether by reining in our dangerous risk-taking or by finding ways to dare things we never believed we could.
Hiking Timpanogos was incredible. For me it was a truly intense experience. Magnificent. Terrifying. Beautiful. I’m so glad I made the attempt. I’m grateful for the patience of my friends, who helped me to achieve far more than I would have on my own. Which leads me to:
- People. You don’t have to face your fears alone. And that makes all the difference.