No Fear: Risky Business

I couldn't hold on. No matter how hard I tried, I was repeatedly falling off the rock. Falling for impossibly long distances. Time after time. And I was scared. That was new. I'm not usually scared. Maybe that's why I dreamt about this.

Fear is necessary. It's that conscience-like entity yelling "for God's sake, get away from that ledge" when you want to see how far down it is to the ground. My mom tried to jumpstart mine early. She told me that my head was the heaviest part of my body and if I leaned over the side, I'd flip right over. This colored my thinking for a long time.

In the AMC training class we learned to rappel. We were taught a system that incorporated an automatic brake. Even if we were knocked out, we wouldn't fall. We tested it on flat land and then hooked it up for real. We double-checked it and our experienced supervisor triple-checked it. When all was green, I simply walked backward off the cliff. Fellow student Hart saw this and said "I don't want to climb with you." Why, I asked? "You have no fear."

He was right, and that's a problem I've worried about. I've been on the rock many times trying to feel afraid.

I need to be able to feel fear.

Fear is the finely tuned gift of evolution that will allow me to pass on my genes one day. It is an indispensable part of any sane psyche. Our minds can talk our bodies into all manner of stupidity. It's fear that will stand by, leaning against a lamp-post flipping a quarter, eventually saying "you sure you wanna do that, buddy?" Fear is our friend.

I had just joined Anyssa and Rick at the not-quite-standing-room belay station. I was pumped from my usual poor technique. I clipped into the anchor and Rick set off over the roof, up, over and around the corner. This last pitch was only about 30 feet vertical, but wandered quite a bit. After a short while, we heard Rick say "on belay," which was Anyssa's cue to climb.

She unclipped from the anchor and studied the roof briefly before tentatively putting one foot up to step up. It was then that we heard "Anyssa on belay!" We both knew that protocol in the Gunks is to precede the climbing command with the intended person's name. It's only good practice in a place where routes are densely packed and sometimes overlap.

Anyssa's eyes got very big. We both knew instantly what had happened. I did what I had to do at that moment. "You're on belay. Climb!" I said. Too stunned to disagree, she did. We were fine. Rick wasn't happy when told later, but was glad we learned the lesson.

But I hadn't been scared. And that bothered me.

Fear can be that extra set of eyes. Are you sure that you're on belay? You might want to double-check that before you get going. It can short-circuit assumptions that could kill you.

Panic, by the way, is not the same as fear.

In my advanced scuba class I wasn't having such a good time. Nearly every dive was some nightmare in low-viz cold water. In one memorable incident, I had a moment of lucidity. I was following my instructor past a wreck 60 feet down. That I wasn't enjoying the wreck says everything about my state of mind.

I had the sudden realization that I was sixty feet down. There was sixty feet of water above me. This meant I couldn't just snap my fingers and get out of this situation. It would take time to extricate myself.

My reaction to that is illuminating. I asked myself if I wanted to get out. If so, we should start as soon as possible, since it was a process, not a fait accompli. Well, I hesitated in this internal dialogue, not quite yet. I can handle it for a while longer. In fact the feeling went away soon thereafter.

. . .

I scuba dived in a Loch in Scotland once. I hadn't come to Scotland intending to dive, but here I was, all decked out in unfamiliar gear about to enter very cold water. I had a divemaster guide, so what could go wrong? There was a layer of freshwater on top of the briney loch. This freshwater was snow runoff (even in August!). It was about 35 degrees. We rushed getting down to the comparatively warmer 42 degree saltwater past the halocline (boundary between fresh and saltwater).

My bouyancy was off. I was in gear new to me. It was dark, even at 30 feet (the halocline filtered a lot of light). As we arrived at a spooky looking wooden wreck lying on its side, I stopped to adjust my bouyancy.

I started to sink immediately. I was aware of my guide's fins rising in my peripheral vision, but I was concentrating on the skill of adding air to my BCD. Add, check. Add, check. When I finally noticed I was not where I expected to be, I had sunk a considerable distance. I was encased in blackess, unable even to see my hand in front of my face. Unable, in fact, to tell if I was still sinking.

There was the first twinge of panic.

I followed my training perfectly. I stopped, breathed, thought, planned and acted. I had been in an upright orientation, so I started kicking and added air to my drysuit. I figured I could dump the excess once I was aware of nearing the point I started sinking. This worked so well my guide didn't know I had been in difficulty. Just proves the old scuba axiom: as long as you can breathe, there's no problem you can't deal with.

. . .

During my wreck training, I spent 60 minutes at 60 feet. Even in a drysuit I was shivering. The air temp was over 100, but down here it was 40 degrees. We were practicing deploying a lift-bag with our wreck reels to fashion an emergency ascent-line. I went last. My instructor watched me and then ascended to supervise the others. We were all in the same area, more or less.

When I broke through the thermocline at 20 feet, the water temp rose a full 30 degrees. My blood pressure crashed. My vision blurred and got all swirly like in cartoons. I knew I was about to pass out and willed a jolt of adrenaline while reaching for my inflator hose. One pump and I'd go to the surface, where, hopefully, someone would notice.

The feeling passed, but I hadn't panicked. I'd just reacted as I needed to. I think this is the most danger I've ever been in underwater.

So, scuba diving seems to engage good parts of my brain. And I always had nightmares about the sea. In equal measure to my fascination with it. I suppose this is a recipe for respect.

By contrast, in all my falling dreams I was nonplussed. In a significant portion of them I hit the ground. I am never injured, and it doesn't seem that big a deal. This is a palpable lack of respect.

Why do these things at all? It's a fair question. I believe a life lived well within the "safe" zone is uninteresting. Even what passes for "safe" nowadays is subject to all kinds of peril. City dwellers have runaway buses and, sadly, hijacked airplanes. The real difference is that I enjoy my chosen moments of danger. I evaluate the objective hazards and choose which I will subject myself to. I train to minimize others. I am engaged in the process; alive!

I visited Zion several years ago. At the Emerald Pool, Eric and I decided to climb up and trace the waterfall. Eric was 13. Priscilla thought nothing (or said nothing at least) about her baby going off with me to follow a water source so soon after a rainstorm in the desert.

We were on this heavily touristed trail because the more interesting routes had an unacceptable flash flood danger.

We made our way for about a half-hour and paused briefly. I was slightly uphill, perched on a rock about 4 feet above the running water. Eric was on a much larger boulder just downstream. In less time than humans can register, the water rose about 4 feet. It went from down there, to just below my legs.

I looked at Eric who had burst into tears from fear. Absolutely a reasonable reaction. I told him to stay put and I'd make my way to him. He was very scared and wanted/tried to run off the boulder to some perceived safety along the side of the much-enlarged stream.

I yelled to him, told him to trust me. He was safe where he was, and we needed to work together. I wouldn't let anything happen to him. Just work with me. He did and I have nothing but respect for his self-discipline.

Together we made our way down the swollen waterway to safety. Priscilla had been a bit unnerved when the wall of water arrived suddenly, but she didn't report any panic, post hoc.

A cool head makes it easier to survive. But this doesn't mean a lack of fear. I was rightly afeared of the flash flood I'd almost been atomized by. I just was able to compartmentalize that fear and deal with the situation.

So, why am I so scared to climb now?

Well, the simple answer is that I took a really bad fall. I've done the getting-back-on-the-horse thing. I'm still scared silly. Not panicked. Just afraid. A hyper-sensitive awareness of risk that isn't objective. Your mother reacting to news of your new hobby: non-caged Great White shark diving.

I theorize that I'll eventually get back to where I was, but that's crazy. I don't really believe I'll remain this scared for good, but I doubt I'll ever again look down 150 feet to the tops of the trees, while leaning off a cliff attached at only 3 points, and actively try to feel any fear.

And in the scheme of things, I'm grateful.