I have a fear of heights. You know, that kind of irrational fear that makes you think you’ll fall to your death from a high window that’s barely big enough to fit your hand through.
I also have a love of adventure that has forced me to face that fear more than once. A couple of years back I was on a trek through the Indian Himalayas to a mountain called Stok Kangri (in fact, I was meant to climb the mountain and didn’t make it… but that’s a whole other story).
The group I was with was amazing. Almost all of us had met for the first time at the start of the expedition and had become super close, quickly, as tends to happen on trek. Things had been going well, the country side was stunning, the air clean and peaceful.
Then, a few days in, we hit a stretch of the path that took place almost exclusively on high ridges, or death ridges as I came to call them. These are paths cut into the side of very high hills (what we’d probably consider a mountain in flat ol’ Australia!) that are not quite wide enough to stand with both walking-booted feet together.
To the left is the hill, going straight up. To the right, a sheer drop down, varying in steepness and depth. The sides of the hills that far up in altitude are bare, with hardly a couple of dead branches sticking out. Basically, if one were to fall, there would be nothing to grab onto to stop it.
For hours we walked on the high ridges, and for hours I had to constantly talk myself through it. I was terrified. And that kind of fear isn’t irrational – it would be easy to fall, and it would be easy to die.
The rest of the group, all experienced mountaineers, were completely unphased by it all, while in my head I was making up songs about how I was safe and alive, just to try to calm myself down. There was a particularly hairy moment when I got my walking pole stuck in my shoelace and tripped a little – but thankfully forward, not sideways.
That night we finally make it to the camp (where we were stuck in a storm and my tent blew away – again, another story!). The next day – very few high ridges and a fairly quick walk to the next camp.
The next morning I woke up and got out of my tent, looking around at the beautiful countryside. I made a joke about some high ridges across a valley beside us, saying I was ready to go as long as we didn’t have to go that way.
Of course, that’s exactly the way we went.
After an hour or so of high ridges, we came to a section where the path had either fallen or been washed away. Instead of the narrow path, for about five metres across there was nothing, just a vertical drop that fell probably sixty metres down to the valley below.
I was second in line. Our sherpas were back at the end of the group, helping people over another short drop. My trek mate in front of me turned around and told me he was going across. I watched him walk it quite easily, noted where his footprints were. I could do this, I thought.
I put one foot out, copying his foot placement. Then put another foot out.
Then I slipped.
It was a small slip, but that’s all it needed to be. I instinctively slammed my walking poles into the dirt. I stared down at the drop, which I was close to falling into. I tried moving one foot, and I slipped again.
My trek mate was already walking away, and I couldn’t risk turning around and unbalancing myself to see where the rest of the group was. So I just stood there, still as I could be. I didn’t really know what else to do – in retrospect, it was the best possible thing I could have done! If I’d panicked and tried to run across, I’m sure I would have fallen.
After what felt like a lifetime, but was probably less than a minute, our head Sherpa, Tashi, appeared beside me. The Sherpa’s are incredible, the strongest people you’ll ever meet, and with an almost unfathomable sense of balance. He stood on the vertical drop, shaking his head.
He laughed. “Oh Jenna, you have to be more confident!”
I think I whispered something like “I’m stuck I’m going to fall” in reply.
But I wasn’t stuck and I didn’t fall. Tashi and his supernatural balance helped me across to the other side. It didn’t even dawn on me until a few minutes later, when we stopped for a break and I was looking at the height of the fall, how close a call it actually was.
If I didn’t have walking poles… if I hadn’t frozen and waited… if I didn’t have Tashi… I think the outcome could easily have been different.
And yet, almost certainly, the situation would never have arisen if I didn’t have that fear of heights. Tashi was right – it all comes down to confidence. My trek mate made it across because he was confident he would. I slipped because I was afraid, and I’d spent days freaking out over the paths.
Confidence can mean the difference between life and death. Confidence is everything.