If you read this blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that I talk a lot about overcoming fear. One of the greatest gifts has been the connections I’ve been able to make between my sports and fitness and the rest of life. It helps me learn, grow and build confidence unlike anything else. This is why I call it The Stretch Life … it’s about stretching myself both in body and mind.
Yesterday was no exception. I finally hiked the entire Headwaters ridge in Big Sky, to a chute called Second Fork. Technically, Third Fork is the final final chute, but I’m giving myself a pass on this one, since ski patrol was doing their sweeps behind Tim and I, and we had to hurry up. So there.
I hiked this area earlier this season, but less than half as far. The rest of it was elusive, mainly because of panic sparked by vertigo and fueled by a very active imagination. Yup, a few weeks ago I had a full-blown panic attack …. while hiking a narrow, icy, snowy ridge with rocky drops on either side … in ski boots and with my skis strapped to my back.
Yeah, no fun. Do not recommend.
Needless to say, I had to bail on that hike. And ever since, I’ve been determined to get back out there and do it, despite not only my general discomfort, but also the new fear (greaaaaaat) that I might have a panic attack.
Yesterday was the perfect day to try for it. It wasn’t too windy, the snow was good and visibility was decent. Because I knew there was a possibility this could go south, I decided to face it with some extra preparation:
The right gear.
Part of my panic stemmed from not trusting my footing on slippery, rocky, narrow sections. As a result, I got overwhelmed with the thought of falling and tumbling down the rocky face. Full-on crampons would be overkill, so I got myself a pair of rubber grips for the bottom of my ski boots. They’re actually intended to wear off the slopes to prevent slipping in the parking lot (ha!), but I discovered that they kick ass for providing a lot more traction while doing this kind of hike.
A plan for panic.
As I climbed the initial, easier section, I planned what I would do if I started to feel panicky. The last time it happened, I froze, and the longer I stayed still, the more the panic built, until it was beyond my control. So I decided that I would give my panic a time limit. If I started to freak out, I would stop and take 5 deep, slow breathes, remind myself that everything is OK, and then keep moving. I ended up using this technique a few times and it worked great, and gave me a sense of being in command of my reactions.
Tools to focus.
On hikes like this, you need to pay attention and stay focused, even if you’re comfortable and not panicking. It’s still a no fall zone, and each step should be deliberate. I found great comfort in focusing on two steps at a time. No more, no less. I also found it helpful to literally look only at those two steps, rather than staring down the mountain or looking to see what’s far ahead on the trail. This kept my vertigo in check. After awhile, I got into a zen-like zone, and felt myself relaxing into a steady pace.
The last section of the hike was a crawl/scramble up a steep face, which was fortunately already bootpacked. But still, I’d never done anything like this before. When I saw it, I all of a sudden felt mentally fried. I asked Tim if maybe it would be best if we just skied from that point instead (which would have been First Fork). He reminded me that I could do it, and that the sense of accomplishment would be worth it. Translation: you got this far, don’t wuss out!
So press ahead I did. Like many things, the anticipation while looking up at the face was scarier than actually doing it. I got a huge rush and (gasp!) found myself enjoying it!
After the scramble, we walked over the ridge and the hike was done. We strapped on our skis and enjoyed a super fun, long, powdery, interesting run. I knew I would enjoy the skiing, and now I know I can (kinda) enjoy the hike.
Reflecting on this experience, I walked away with a bunch of new life tools that are applicable far beyond the slopes:
- Solid preparation goes a long way when facing your fears
- Arm yourself with right tools to make the work easier
- Understand the root of your discomfort and design tactics to manage it
- Stay focused on what’s in front of you. One (or two) baby steps at a time adds up quickly to significant progress.
I’m so psyched that I completed this hike. The skiing was amazing, but the real prize was proving to myself that I can work through the doubts and get it done. In January I talked about my 2016 resolution of “doing more than I think,” and this experience was most certainly a notch in that belt.
So the only question remaining is, what’s next??
P.S. A note on panic attacks …
I didn’t go into detail about them, but they’re no joke. They’re real and they are terrifying. I’m fortunate that I haven’t had many (although this wasn’t the first time), and I’m grateful that I’m able to manage them pretty successfully using techniques like breathing and meditation. But for some people, they can be frequent, debilitating and affect their life in larger ways. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the US age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. Panic disorders specifically affect 6 million. That’s a lot of people! Unfortunately, for whatever dumb reason, anxiety disorders also have a stigma and many people who suffer are ashamed. The funny thing about anxiety is that the more you try to keep it to yourself and pretend it isn’t there, the stronger its hold on you can become. So, for that reason, I say face it head on and talk about it! Whether it’s with trusted friends, loved ones, or via talk/behavioral therapy. Or, via a fitness blog