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Forging our fears key to embracing life & the future

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POSTED March 21, 2009 5:35 a.m.
Fear is our worst enemy.

It was a lesson I almost paid for with my life.

I was descending seven years ago from the 14,407.01-foot summit of Mt. Whitney overlooking Sequoia National Forest, the Great Basin, the Sierra and Death Valley. I had reached a precarious ledge across a gap in the granite ridge called a “chimney.” This one was narrow, not quite four feet wide on the final leg that the Mt. Whitney trail clings to at the top of John Muir’s beloved Range of Light.

The view from the chimneys on the trail — there are four of them — are heart-stopping especially coupled with the powerful, howling wind that blows through an opening framed by a bridge of solid rock on the top. On the backside are sheer 700-foot plus drops to the eastern edge of Sequoia National Park.

On the front side is an equally impressive view of the ascent from Whitney Portal and beyond well into the Great Basin accompanied by a 110-degree plus drop that covers over 2,000 feet.

I was two thirds across the chimney when a malfunctioning hiking pole I had stuck in my backpack oscillated just as I was moving my left leg forward. I tripped. My fall was broken by the good walking pole I was using. I rolled over to my left. I was a bit stunned and started to get up when a hiker behind me told me not to move.

He then told me to look to my right.

The right side of my body literally was at the edge. I’m not wild about heights but when I looked down and saw nothing but air between me and a sea of rocks a hundreds of feet down, panic did not sit in.

The way my leg was positioned and my jagged rock of the trail, the only way up was to try and use the good walking pole I still gripped in my right hand as a way to steady myself.

There was no way the hiker could help me because of the narrow ledge and where I had fallen.

My first attempt to get up by rolling to my left shifted my backpack toward the right. Not good as the weight tugged on my body. I tried to think of how I could get it off but it was physically impossible — if not extremely dangerous — from the semi-prone position I was in on the ledge.

The only real way up was to lean to the left and hope the walking pole I was gripping in my right hand was in a secure enough place to hold my then 215 pounds as I pushed upward with the awkward added weight of the backpack.

Everything was riding on a titanium point at the end of a lightweight pole and whether I found a secure place to put it.

Without hesitation, I put all my weight on the pole and pushed myself upward. I took a step up on a jagged rock just beyond the opening to make a quick inventory.

My left hand and wrist were swollen from breaking a blood vessel as I instinctively tried to soften the fall. I had two fingers bleeding and a bunch of scrapes and cuts. But my knee was OK and so was the rest of my left leg. I would be able to make it down the mountain OK.

Sixteen months ago I stood atop a 70-foot high sand dune in Death Valley for the better part of three hours watching the sun set in the western skies over Mt. Whitney and the moon rising over the Great Basin bringing with it a brilliant burst of stars.

I thought back to that day on Mt. Whitney. I understood well that could have been my last memory of this earth. In the stark and stunning stillness that only Death Valley can provide I gazed on the horizon reflecting on my fears.

I realized that I was still carrying fear from that day. It was a fear not of death but of the unknown.

I understood much of my life was being checked by fear. Not the fear that is a good thing such as a fear of burning your hand so you don’t place it on a hot burner, but the fear of “what if.” I had promised myself to go back up Mt. Whitney on my own again but I hadn’t because I was subconsciously paralyzing myself with “what if” scenarios.

It was harboring a fear of failure. Yes, I know something could go wrong again, but that’s life.

When I returned to Manteca, I was in the frame of mind to do things I thought I’d never do again because of a fear of falling whether it was challenging myself or buying a home.

Life can’t be lived to the fullest until we forge our fears.
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