“Many are harmed by fear itself, and many have come to their fate while dreading fate.” – Seneca, Oedipus, 992
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? I have. Two summers ago I traveled to Maine with my friend Chris. Our hope was to get the perfect weather day that would allow us a hike up Mt. Katahdin, and a traverse of its knife edge. The rub…I have a very serious fear of falling. Chris left our campsite at the Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park as the sun was finding its place above the ridge. I’d never seen him with so much energy to spare. Per the trailhead check-in sheet, I was 30 minutes behind him, but he somehow managed to separate by another hour as we hiked.
We both took the Saddle Trail, spent time at Chimney Pond, soaking in the beauty of a day beyond expectations. I was fine until the last .2 miles of Saddle. The Slide lacked solid footing and presented itself as close to an 180-degree ascent as I ever experienced. I shook with every movement, fearing any loss of balance would find me cascading backward with no hope of avoiding injury.
But I continued on.
Pulling myself up to Tableland (the flat area at trails end) I felt an incredible sense of relief, and I knew full well I would not be hiking down the way I came. On my way up I was passed by a 20-something hiker moving across the very same Slide like a well-traveled mountain goat. I envied that confidence.
By the time I found myself at the sign marking my success in reaching Katahdin’s peak I was shaking. My options of getting down the mountain were all terrifying. The Saddle Trail is the least demanding of those which I could take with the time left in the day. The Knife Edge Trail to the Helon Taylor Trail was the goal. Chris had waited an hour and a half for me to complete our first task. A new friend I met along the way up, Larry, (who I would hike the Presidential Traverse with the following summer) and Chris patiently waited as I worked through this crisis. For 30 minutes I sat at 5,267 feet, waiting for my mind to settle, while my two friends assured me I could this. The hike from Katahdin to Pamola Peak (where the Helon Taylor Trail meets) is only 1.1 miles long, but there are sections where you’re free climbing with nothing below you but a 4,000-foot drop. There are blind climbs to find the blazes.
It was the most focused I had ever been in my entire life. The only time fear made itself felt was when we stopped to rest. For a brief moment I could take in the majesty of my surroundings, but my mind would inevitably focus on my elevation and task still before me.
When I finally pulled myself up to Pamola Peak the joy I experienced at completing this dream made every bit of fear I experienced meaningless. Hiking the Southeast cannot prepare you for the challenges of Maines rugged terrain. But I was more ready than I realized. Instead of letting fear make me an unstable hiker, I allowed it to make me a more focused one. True, I could not have done it alone, and that’s what makes the experience even more inspirational. It will always remind me how important it is to prepare. That it’s important to accept that you may need help.
Fear is not something that should stop you. Instead, understand how you can use it gain your footing.