Inside My Head – Fear of Heights

Looking into the crater - for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.
Looking into the crater – for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.

I wish I could stride along the rim of this volcano’s crater. After months of waiting, endless hours looking at photos of it, and then finally marching from the Rangipo Desert up the thick scree on its slopes, I’m here.

And I’m too afraid to appreciate it.

I find an off-camber lip. The wind pushes me toward the inner lip, and every rock seems to slip out from under my feet. The very ground under me frightens me -- it buttresses out
unsupported, ready to crumble and swallow everyone on the rim.

A wind-swept ridge.
A wind-swept ridge – with a steep drop on either side.

I don’t how to put my fear in a neat compartment with the right label. Am I afraid of heights? Hmm, I love to fly -- helicopters, airplanes, from a Cessna 172 to a 747.

No – it’s a fear of falling from a high place. And imagining the anticipation of hitting bottom.

Here at the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, it nearly freezes me. I hunker down to lower my center of gravity. I grit my teeth through a few photos and then plunge down the slope – which is steep, but covered in cinders that won’t let me fall far or fast.

Just try finding a better view. Oh, and this is the start of the drop down the scary ridge.
Just try finding a better view. Just be sure you can enjoy it past a fear of heights.

I can count on this sort of paralyzing, stomach cramp-inducing anxiety at least once per trip. There’s always some sort of epic hike everywhere I go. And epic hikes usually mean some high place with lots of exposure.

What I felt that day in New Zealand has already repeated itself. On the Laugavegur hike in Iceland -- there are plenty of spots where a false step could send me sliding hundreds of feet down an icy slope with an 80-degree angle. Near Busan, South Korea, scrambling up a rope headed to the peak of Geumjeongsan. On the Besseggen trail in Norway’s Jotunheimen, the trail plunges more than a thousand feet in barely a half-mile. The hand- and foot-holds leave me little margin for error. Straight down, a rocky pitch. On either side? Two frigid glacial lakes.

I know this is something I’ll never master. My gut will clench every time I look down and envision possibilities that could lead to the last few moments of my life. I wish I could not only contain my fear, but also keep it to myself. But I also project it to my wife, who handles this sort of thing so much better than I do. As I worry for the both of us, it scrubs some of the shine from what should be perfect moments in life -- I anticipate these places so much. I think about them every day leading up to a trip, and the anticipation makes it hard to think straight or get any decent sleep the night before.

Like they say in Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before and will happen again. No matter where I go, there will be a high place that waits for me, someplace where I have to just keep moving forward.

My goal isn’t to be free from fear. No, that’s too much to ask. All I want, all I will try to do, is to not let my fear ruin the moment.

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Norway – Hike in the Land of the Giants

Jotunheimen isn’t a place I’d ever thought about until seeing the movie Thor.

There. I admitted it. Sometimes I need a little mindless entertainment. And Thor’s reference to Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants, made me wonder about its place in Norse mythology.

And that’s what led me to Norway and to Jotunheimen (or Land of the Giants) – to clinging to a steep ridge between two icy-cold lakes fed by snowmelt. Earlier today, sleet and rain pelted me. Powerful winds buffeted me. I sawed through all my Rise energy bars.

Sarah leads the way through the beginning of the snow.

Jotunheimen is not the dark, bleak land of Thor’s foes. It is, though, as spectacular a landscape as I’ve ever seen and every bit worthy of a mention in Norse mythology. Our hike started just around 1 p.m. on the far east side of Gjende, the largest of the glacial lakes in sight. We parked our rented hybrid Toyota at Gjendesheim Turisthytte and loaded up. In our packs – rain gear, energy bars, water, sleeping bags, tent (just in case).

Our plan is to hike the Bessegen route. This will take us to a maximum elevation of about 5,725 feet. We’ll pass by Bessvatnet, a smaller lake 1,200 feet higher than Gjende. Our goal is to reach Memurubu, a tourist hut about 9 miles away. In this case, “tourist hut” is a misnomer. It’s a rather nice back-country hotel. The next day, we’ll take a boat down Gjende back to Gjendesheim.

This GPS track will give you an idea of what to expect if you hike the Besseggen.

We have the route virtually to ourselves for the first 2 hours or so. Then we start running into people who started their day at Memurubu; many take the boat in the evening and hike back the next day.

The views of Jotenheimen are spectacular. And it spoils the rest of Norway for us. A few days later in Flam, we’ll be at a magnificent fjord. And we’ll shrug and say “Meh. It’s no Jotunheimen.” That’s how cool it is.

The hike itself starts with a rigorous climb. And there’s one ridge that tests my fear of heights. The exposure is sharp on either side – and we descend about 1,000 feet in about a half-mile. I’m hyper-aware of my backpack’s effect on my balance, and the way my gloves compromise my handholds. And shoving my huge Lowa boots into the available space? Also a chore. But I get down after using every part of me – buttcheeks included – to clutch the rocks.

This is me getting my third wind.

It takes a third and fourth wind to get me to the descent into Memurubu. As we drop lower, a rainbow appears – ending right at the hut. And probably right to the table where I’ll find a plate of ham, mashed turnips, carrots, baked potatoes and gravy waiting to refuel me from the hike. The Middle America-ness of the meal reminds me that many northern Midwest settlers came from places like Norway. It’s an interesting thought that sticks with me through dessert – and into an uninterrupted slumber in a roomful of backpackers.

Watch my Facebook page for more photos of Jotunheimen and other places from my trip to Norway and Finland. And here’s a short video clip!

Memurubu, the end of the rainbow and a big plate of ham.
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