The (Vertical) Limit Does Not Exist

The trick to being unafraid isn’t living without fear, it’s learning to live with it.

This past weekend, two wonderful friends of mine, Kody and Dillon, came to visit me in Phoenix, Arizona.  The trip was spontaneously booked about 6 days before they arrived – apparently, after a few glasses of wine, the three of us will book a plane ticket at the drop of a hat (which we’ve now done twice), but we managed to fit all sorts of incredible adventures into our last-minute weekend together.  Aside from the massive amounts of eating and drinking that went on (there was no shortage of mimosas or bacon last weekend), we made our way to Top Golf, which never disappoints as a super fun activity, and we hiked Camelback Mountain, in the heart of Scottsdale right outside of Phoenix.

Saturday night was Top Golf, which was a blast.  If you haven’t heard of Top Golf, I highly recommend finding the location nearest you, inviting a group of your friends and doing it the next time you’re looking for a fun, casual activity.  Top Golf is basically the world’s nicest driving range.  You book your own little “bay,” complete with couches and TV’s, and hit golf balls all night while a “bay host” brings you food and drinks.  The golf balls have little computer chips in them that track their distance and whether they make it into one of the various targets on the range, and you get points based on how far and where you hit the ball.  It’s INCREDIBLY addicting and fun, and you don’t have to be great at golf to enjoy yourself.  Unlike traditional driving ranges, which are usually so quiet you can hear a pin drop, Top Golf has live music and keeps the drinks flowing all night long.  We had a great time pretending to keep score (after a few Miller Lights, who cares?) and then we headed home to get ready for our next day exploring Phoenix.

Sunday morning was gorgeous and sunny, and just a bit chilly, so it was the perfect day for our hike up the well-known Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, just outside of Phoenix. We arrived at the trail head just after lunch to begin our hike, which I had done once before (and, as it turns out, blocked entirely from my memory).  This “hike,” which I would actually refer to as a “climb,” was SO.DAMN.TOUGH. The beginning isn’t bad at all – the trail is clearly visible and easy to navigate.  It’s pretty rocky, though, and you spend a lot of your time hopping over large rocks and boulders, but overall it’s a pretty standard hiking experience…for the first 75 or 80 percent of the ascent.  The last 20 or so percent, though…that’ll get ya.

After about 2 miles of hiking, when you’re roughly 2,000 feet up (and sore, tired and soaked in sweat), the trail basically stops being a trail, and you find yourself staring up at (what us mere mortals would call) sheer rock faces.  Seriously, there was no more dirt path, no more clearly delineated trail…just…rock. I am not exaggerating when I say there were several spots where I was literally climbing this mountain – like, spidermanning up this thing.  Let’s just say that, on the way down, there was a lot of sliding involved (as in, sitting down and letting gravity work its magic).

I like to do pretty adventurous things: I’m always up for mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, hiking…whatever.  That being said, I DO NOT like heights.  At all.  Aside from the fear factor, I just get plain old dizzy the higher up I get.  So, for me, this hike was sort of scary (read: I was terrified). There were plenty of moments when I seriously thought about letting Kody and Dillon scale the rest of the rocks without me, but I kept reminding myself that nobody ever had any fun by only or always choosing the safest, least terrifying option.  I didn’t actually want to stop climbing, I told myself, I just thought I wanted to stop.

I was nervous: were my shoes right for climbing? If I started sliding down one of these rocks, would I be able to stop myself? If I looked down, would I get dizzy and fall? Were the people behind me annoyed with my (borderline geriatric) pace? What if I got to the top but couldn’t get back down?  These thoughts replayed in my mind for the first part of that last 20%, but I took a second to remind myself that they don’t matter.

The view before scaling a sheer rock face at Camelback Mountain.

Fear, like most other emotions, is something we can’t always control.  Fear will bubble up even when we don’t want it to and even when we desperately ask it to subside.  Fear is the voice in our heads that tells us we shouldn’t or can’t do something.  Fear sucks.  But fear is just a thought.  Fear isn’t my behavior, and I can control my behavior.  I can be terrified that my shoe will slip and I’ll fall and hurt myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep hiking.  I can’t force the fear to go away, emotions don’t work like that – they’re there, in our minds, whether we want them there or not, but I don’t have to give in to fear just because it’s there.  In fact, the only way to train my mind to not be afraid of hiking at 2500 feet is to simply keep hiking.  Odds are I’ll make it to the top of the mountain unscathed, and show myself that there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

The idea that a thought is just a thought, and that behaviors are what really matter, is something I’ve been working on understanding and implementing in my life for years.   I see a therapist (whom I absolutely adore) who specializes in behavioral therapy, which basically means that she and I work on controlling, adapting and adjusting my physical reactions to my thoughts, as opposed to trying to force thoughts out of my mind altogether.  For example: when I lived alone in Philadelphia, I would often get scared (like, irrationally scared) at night after hearing a strange noise. My instinct when I heard something would be to get up, go downstairs, check every corner of the house for an intruder (burglars hide under couches, right?), get a knife from my kitchen, go back upstairs, get my phone ready to dial the police and try to get back to sleep.  Aside from the fact that that’s a clearly ridiculous response to a non-existent situation (I mean, seriously? Bringing a steak knife to bed because I heard the heat turn on?), it’s also just the straight-up worst way to go about reacting to an irrational thought if you actually want it to go away.

You can’t feed your fear with steak knives and 911 speed-dial.  In fact, you have to kind of starve it, deny it until it you’ve reduced it to something manageable.

What I’ve learned in therapy is a process that helps me identify irrational emotions or thoughts – like fears of a home invasion or falling off a mountain- so that I can control the way I react to them which, in turn, helps decrease how frequently I have them and how much they stress me out. Whenever I find my mind racing with fear or anxiety, which is usually when I’m in an uncomfortable situation, like sleeping in my new house all alone or scaling my personal version of K-2, I stop and take stock of just how rational (or irrational) I’m actually being, and I force myself to react to the rational thought, not the irrational thought. When I’m at home sleeping by myself, I remind myself that I have a working alarm system that would immediately alert me (and the cops) to an intruder in my home, I remind myself that my neighborhood is safe and I tell myself that the house is 100 years old and is bound to make some weird noises. When I’m “hiking,” as we’ll call it, I tell myself that literally thousands of people hike this trail every year without incident, and I remind myself that I’m more than capable of doing something exciting and athletic.

After I take stock of the situation, I still want to grab a knife or stop hiking, but instead of doing those things, I stay in bed or continue putting one foot in front of the other – no matter how uncomfortable or unnatural it feels.  The fear doesn’t go away because I’ve evaluated the situation, but I force myself to base my physical reaction on the risk associated with the rational thought, not the ridiculous, fear-based thought. It’s highly unlikely that someone is in my alarm-protected home in a safe neighborhood so, instead of getting out of bed, I stay there and count sheep.  Similarly, I’m probably not going to die from falling off a mountain (it’s far more likely to be the result of copious wine and cheese consumption) so, instead of stopping, I keep climbing.

When I reached the top of Camelback, a/k/a the Mt. Everest of the Southwest, I felt such a rush of accomplishment.  Not just because I completed a difficult climb, but because I managed to overcome fear that could have prevented me from having such a wonderful experience – and from seeing an amazing 360 degree view of Phoenix – had I let it.  For me, it’s not about being unafraid, I think I’m just kind of wired to be a little anxious and I’m working on accepting that; it’s about recognizing that I am way, way more powerful than the fear that lives inside my head.  The more comfortable I become with that idea, the more comfortable I become doing the things that scare me the most, and the more limitless my world becomes.

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