In my version of my first mountain summit in the Canadian Rockies, I’d tell you the steep snow wall I had to ascend to approach Mt. Gordon was a pure vertical. I’d remind you that I first became acquainted with my ice axe and group travel on a connected rope the day before. And I’d explain how even intro to outdoor rock-climbing made my heart gallop with fear.
But my equally fun and no-nonsense guide had no interest in indulging that story. There were no empathy-coated sentences or inquiries into how I was feeling. I was in the lead of our team of five and to her it was perfectly simple. “Climb, Kristin, climb.” I believe I whined a little bit – a final cry for acknowledgement of the crazy situation ahead – as she detailed the technique: kick in steps, plunge your axe into the snow, pull up and repeat.
But I understood the order: just do, don’t dramatize. It was only day three of the six-day mountaineering course and I knew it wasn’t going to get easier. That’s why I was there. I set out slowly, out-climbing the panic one move at a time. The fear receded as I dedicated my entire focus to the white wall of challenge in front of me – no higher and no lower. And I was at the top before I ever thought to ponder if my fall could have yanked the whole team to the ground.
My veins pulsed with extra energy as I marched forward breaking trail through knee-deep snow before finally switching to a rocky path to the summit. For a good 20 minutes on top, victory was a stunning collage of beautiful rocky edges, unique glacier views and mountains in every direction. Then I realized the snow-walled descent waiting for me.
I let my fear ruin the last 10 minutes of what should have been ultimate summit bliss. When we returned to the dreaded edge, my eyes had me convinced that it was a complete drop-off into an abyss. I reluctantly stepped closer, turned my back to it, jammed my axe into the ground and started searching for my first step down. A few steps later, I wanted to laugh at myself. It was nothing.
I wish I could say that was the end of my overreactions but I did the same thing the next day to a lesser degree. I climbed another snow wall without hesitation but got to five feet from the edge for the return trip and proclaimed, “I can’t do this. I really can’t.” Once again, my guide knew what was best – she said nothing and let me walk closer.
The entire perspective changed, revealing a very, simple unthreatening feat ahead. At that moment, I promised to never again let myself dwell on my fear until I’m actually face-to-face with the challenge. I’m so glad that I had the perfect guide to teach me that.