Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – II

Yesterday, I made note here of my activities on the first of a pair of days of guided climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Our plan for the second day was to try to summit Mt. Washington, a beastly business in the winter. I had hoped a) to become proficient enough in climbing to attempt one of the gullies in either Huntington or Tuckerman Ravines as an ascent route and b) that the avalanche risk in those ravines was low enough to allow us to do so. Neither conditions were realized; I was still far away from being competent enough in climbing to try to do a gully ascent, and moreover avalanche risk ran high in those ravines (the Forest Service assesses the ravines’ conditions and posts updates on their website.) We would stick to the standard Lion’s Head Winter Route.

On Saturday morning, Nick Aiello-Popeo (of Synnott Mountain Guides) and I geared up at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and set off; the snow lay thick about us, and kept falling lightly. I found the going hard; winter hiking is slow and tedious at the best of times. I was also still coming to grips with the cold-induced clumsiness and stiffness; everything–putting on crampons, changing layers, grabbing a quick snack–was harder to accomplish. Once the Winter Route began, the slope pitched steeply upwards, and some caution, including roping up, was required on a couple of sticky sections.

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We slowly cleared the treeline, heading for shrubs, which is where we encountered a fierce wind and swirling snow. We pushed on for a while; our steps were slow and labored. The wind–which had been forecast to pick up during the day–was strong enough on occasion to push me back down the slope I was attempting to move up on. I followed Nick, who kept breaking trail, but even his steps were quickly wiped out by the snowdrifts that came cascading down. My goggles were fogging rapidly, and my slightly shortsighted vision meant that I kept misjudging the depth of the snow in front of me. Indeed, the swirling snow and poor visibility meant that at one point, I lost sight of my leader and had to call out to confirm his location. (Thankfully, Nick was only a few meters ahead.) Finally, Nick walked back down the slope, and suggested we call it off; unsurprisingly, I agreed. Conditions were pretty hostile; we were moving too slowly; we ran many risks in pushing on. (Especially as, I suppose, Nick must have reckoned that my inexperience was unlikely to be an asset in pushing on.)

Our return wasn’t much easier; I kept slipping and sliding, finding it hard to internalize the simple lesson to place my cramponed heels first on the downward slopes. At one point, the endlessly patient Nick’s patience ran out, and he suggested I rope up for going down as well. I agreed; I had had my ice axe knocked out of my hands once on one slip, and a repetition would not be pretty. Fortunately for me, my slip-sliding adventures ended quickly thereafter, and we made it down to the end of the trail safely. We had been unsuccessful in making to the summit; a disappointment for sure, but it wasn’t clear to me that I could have pushed on in those conditions. (This photo gives some indication of what it was like in the Dragons’ Lair just below the Lion’s Head; as you can tell, I had my head down as I tried to move on.)

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I was cold, exhausted, and sore all over once we had finished; I drove back to my motel, changed out of my wet clothes, stripped off the multiple layers (five on top, three below), and tried to warm up. Four of my fingers and two of my toes still complained about their treatment by the cold; one blister on a finger showed I had acquired a little frost-nip. Sustained further exposure might have made things worse.

All in all, winter climbing was an educational and humbling experience.; I need to be stronger, more practiced, more flexible, mentally more resilient. Like most things pertaining to the mountains, you get your ass kicked, but still harbor a curious desire to repeat the dose. Which I will, soon enough.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – I

Last week, I drove up to New Hampshire–more specifically, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire–to do a little guided climbing. (With the endlessly patient and tremendously knowledgeable Nick Aiello-Popeo of Synnott Mountain Guides in Intervale, NH.) Climbing in the winter is supposed to be hard work; this past weekend turned out to be just that. Friday saw some of the coldest weather of the year as temperatures fell to below zero Fahrenheit; Saturday featured steady snowfall, and then later, up on the higher reaches of Mt. Washington, high winds that eventually forced us back down, aborting our attempt to make it to the summit.

During my drive from Brooklyn to North Conway, NH, on Thursday I sensed, from the falling temperatures during the day, that the guided climbing that lay ahead of me would be good and frigid. My impressions weren’t mistaken; my abiding memory of my time in the White Mountains was the bone-chilling cold. Nick and I spent most of Friday practicing some elementary moves on Willey’s Slide and Frankenstein; on the former cliff, we did some basic ice axe and crampon work, moving up and down a snow and ice slope to get comfortable with controlled moves on those surfaces.

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I made a small belayed ascent using some front-pointing and low-dagger technique; the slope featured some thin ice over rocks which made this interestingly challenging for a total novice like me. We also spent a lot of time just trying to warm up: windmills galore issued from our freezing bodies. We then changed venues to a): warm up a little by returning to the car and driving to a new location and b) work on a steeper slope to do some ice climbing.

At Frankenstein, Nick set up a bottom belay–anchored to a tree a little way up the slope–and I made two ascents using a pair of ice tools and my crampons. (I rappelled down while being belayed by Nick.)

frankenstein

This was very hard work. I was clumsy and uncoordinated, and frequently slipped. To make things worse, the ice on the rock face was not very thick, making most of ‘sticks’ into the ice of not very good quality. My poor technique didn’t help either as I often forgot to front-point and ended up standing sideways on my boots, which had the bothersome effect of scraping off more ice and snow than was useful for my next move up the face. At one point, I heard Nick reprimand me gently from below, “Ice climbing isn’t a sport in which you can jump or lunge!” I took short breaks to rest and warm up my hands; I was learning in short order just how hard swinging an ice-tool can be when your hands are frozen. (Nick also provided a couple of quick lessons in ice anchoring; I continued to marvel at the amount of gear he carried, and how deftly he was able to manipulate it all while wearing heavy mittens in the freezing cold.)

Finally, with the light starting to fade, we packed up our gear and headed back to the warmth of the car. I headed back to my motel to get some sleep and rest before trying our ascent of Mt. Washington on Saturday. A report on that failed attempt follows tomorrow.

Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

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There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.