My Journey to Fear (Or: The Mountains)

I grew up in Prescott Valley, Arizona, which has some awesome wilderness opportunities. My parents weren’t climbers, but loved being outside. Consequently, I spent a lot of time camping, hiking, biking, walking, and exploring. I remember being in a gear store and seeing posters of people climbing. Those images are still stuck in my mind.

When I turned 13, we moved to Ohio, a state with no mountains, virtually no climbing, and limited outdoor activities I enjoyed. Thankfully, we had a large piece of property with some forest to play around in, piquing my interest in survival.

I remember watching the Lord of the Rings movie and wishing something amazing would happen to me. Planning a road trip up to Alaska in my shitty car got me excited, but it never happened. I trained for and attempted to join the Army Rangers. Fortunately, they permanently disqualified me due to hearing loss in one ear. Looking back, I was doing whatever I could to get some excitement, exploration, and challenge in my life (both internal and external).

The opportunity to move with my job arose; I jumped. The company was heading to Texas, a place I’d never been or knew much about. Being in a new location was exciting. I listened to audio books while I worked. This allowed my interest in the outdoors to be indulged with accounts of survival, mountaineering, and climbing. I wanted more than anything else to be on those snowy peaks, staring death in the face and outwitting it with fitness, skill, and knowledge.

While listening to others’ adventures was great, I still needed something to challenge me, to push me physically and mentally. Unfortunately, Texas has no peaks, no real elevation gain at all. Knowing Colorado was nearby, I decided to train for mountaineering by backpacking. I did a couple overnight trips, my enthusiasm overtaking my knowledge. Thankfully, all this meant was carrying far too much weight and wearing myself out. I wanted to climb Denali, but this was the best I could do at the moment.

Super psyched on backpacking… :-/

When my neighbors told me about a rock climbing area nearby (~2 hour drive), I was captivated. Here was an opportunity for something that sounded more appealing than tramping around a hot forest carrying a heavy load! Learning from my backpacking mistakes and recognizing the seriousness of the endeavor, I decided to read as much as possible to educate myself. After a long period of top-roping, I moved into leading sport, then trad. Once I was ready, I took a couple climbing trips to destinations around the US. This allowed me to expanded my abilities. It also made me realize I loved the lifestyle of rock climbing. It was simple, liberating, and easy.

While TX climbing was fun, it was often far away, short, and very hot.

The Texas portion of my life lasted about 3 years and is a story in and of itself. I will say that after 6 months of arriving there, I was ready to move again. My job, the prevailing attitudes of Texas, and the fact I was spending almost as much time driving for climbing as I was actually climbing made me want to leave.

I crafted a plan to move to Colorado, the place that had a mythical status in my mind, not only for it’s climbing, but for the mountains I’d spent so much time away from. Tired of working a job I had no passion for, I decided to become a route-setter (a person who creates routes for others to climb in a climbing gym). I would take a massive pay cut, but it would be worth it. Amazingly, I was hired by a gym in Colorado Springs. My three years there was a time of amazing growth and learning: I got really strong (climbing all the time), made some cool friends, and met the love of my life (and now, wife), Sarah.

Sarah mid-route on one of our best Colorado adventures:
A December ascent of Better Lock Next Time (South Platte).

Surprisingly, during my entire time in Colorado, the desire to be in the mountains lay dormant. It was a crowded hassle to hike or climb 14’ers and subsequently, I really only wanted to rock climb. Sarah and I’s skills continued to improve and we worked our way into longer, more difficult routes.

Then, my itchy feet struck again and Sarah and I decided to move into a mini-van for a year and a half so we could travel and climb. This part of my life was stellar. We visited so many climbing areas and spent our days doing what we loved. During our travels, I also re-discovered my desire to get into the mountains. We began taking our rock climbing skills into higher, more remote alpine locations in Idaho (more), Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta.

While I loved the challenge of being in these exposed, difficult places, I found myself becoming overwhelmed with fear. What if one of us got hurt? What if we got up a climb and couldn’t find the way down? How did I ascend something if it had snow or ice on it? What if we got stuck on a climb overnight?

Sarah leading Upper Exum to the summit of Grand Teton.

I had found the challenge I wanted, pushing myself out of my comfort zone both physically and mentally, but I wasn’t sure I actually liked it. I’d been wanting this for so many years, and now that I had it, I was overwhelmed. There was even a route I forced us to back off of because it felt too dangerous and help was many hours away. I cried that day, both in fear and frustration for my weakness. I’d used up all of my mental reserves and only anxiety was left.

By the end of the summer, I was glad alpine rock season was over. I just wanted to go back to short, one pitch climbs. I’d lost much of my rock climbing strength (my prized possession), but it came back eventually and I was happy. Alpine climbing seemed like so much work for so little reward. Sure, you stood on top of mountains in fantastic locations, but was it really worth all the fear and anxiety? As fall began, I decided it wasn’t. The mountains were pretty to look at, but short, sunny routes with easy access were far more fun, easy, and appealing. Why make it complicated?

As fall turned to winter, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we’d gone through. My mental muscles regained their strength and felt tougher. Time gave me perspective, and I digested the experiences. I’d went into the mountainsthe place I’d dreamed ofmentally unprepared. All my technical skills, gained from many years of climbing, had kept me safe, but my mind was weak. I’d permitted my imagination to dream up nightmarish scenarios, none of which were likely to happen. Furthermore, I had been idealizing a harsh environment, thinking it would always be fun. The reality was much, much different.

After we finished our van trip, our initial plan was to move every three months (Sarah is a travel nurse). On our second stop, (Bozeman, MT) we loved it so much we decided to stay. The access to mountains here is amazing, with lots of alpine climbing, trail running, and rock climbing. I enjoy the fact it isn’t as crowded as Colorado. With more hindsight, I’ve realized that living in the van created a lack of discipline that caused many weaknesses in me. Now, with a structured training program, I’m become much stronger, both mentally and physically.

Since arriving in Bozeman, I’ve tested my renewed toughness several times. I feel it still has a ways to go, but I’m excited to take part in that process. You can’t be good at everything all the time (which I’ve tried in the past) and you can’t become awesome all at once (which I’ve also expected of myself previously).

This is how you go fast and light, right?

Looking back, I feel like I’ve completed some kind of weird cycle: I wanted to be in the mountains, but couldn’t and developed the climbing skills I needed to be there. Then, when I could be in the mountains, I didn’t find it appealing. Next, my desire and skills allowed me to climb peaks, but I quickly lost my motivation. Now, I have both the desire, skill, motivation, and resiliency to do the objectives I’ve dreamed of for so long.

On a side note, Sarah has been an amazing partner and I couldn’t have done this without her. I’ve never had someone that shared my love of climbing and personal challenge in the way she does. Her support enables me to do the things I do, including making a trip to one of my dream locations: the Bugaboos. She even set our 2017 objective: The Grand Traverse. Together, we’ve created a life that allows us to pursue our passions and face our fears. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

 

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Loving life in the mountains.

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