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.
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.
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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