Saturday, April 22, 2017

Exploring Fear: Mitigating the Dangers of an Adventurous Life

Skiing Flagpole Peak, photo by Ray Sena
I have a complicated relationship with fear. I'd say that I am probably more adventurous than most people, however fear is always present in some form or another in both my professional and personal life. When I'm doing what I really love it's always present. I cannot separate fear from the joy I feel when I am most free exploring the world. It's just a part of the process. When I fastpacked the Bigfoot 200 course completely alone so that I could create a point to point 200 mile race in the Cascade Mountains, it was both exhilarating and terrifying. That course is incredibly remote and there was no calling for help if I needed it. Many of the trails I was scouting I wasn't even sure existed, I'd come up with a route on a mapping program ahead of time and there was a chance it might not work out. Some of the trails were very faint and there were times I wasn't sure I was where I thought I was or that the trails would continue. I had a handheld GPS and maps to keep me on track, however that wouldn't help me much if the trails I planned to explore didn't actually exist.
Sleeping alone at night in the middle of the wilderness in a bivy and going through torrential downpours was probably the scariest part. The Cascade Mountains are beautiful but can be an unforgiving and dangerous. Would I be able to stay warm enough if my rain jacket didn't work? What if my sleeping bag got wet inside of my pack? What if an animal attacked me while I was running/hiking/sleeping?
Read about my fastpacking Bigfoot 200:
Such amazing beauty while fastpacking the BF200 course 

There are countless times I've balanced my fears with my adventures. I don't think you can have a real adventure without fear and the possibility of failure or injury or worse. Fear can be a motivator and can save your life. Most the time I think fear is an early warning sign that you're entering into one of the following:

1. You're doing something completely new and your fear is motivated by the unknown. Maybe you are learning a new sport or trade. It may be a vague uneasiness that stays with you, but usually it's a mild form of fear. This kind of fear is usually good to explore with careful planning and assessment.

2. You're unaware of your physical limitations and perhaps in an extreme environment and your fear arises out of the possibility that you will deprive your physical self to the point of injury or death, for example: dehydration, heat problems, hypothermia, hunger. These situations require careful assessment and planning. Before putting yourself in an extreme environment for a prolonged time you should take baby steps. Take shorter outings in the environment. Test your body and equipment. You can quickly be in real danger if you do not prepare and plan ahead.

3. You're pushing past your psychological and/or physical comfort zone and this causes fear of the unknown. For example, perhaps you're doing your longest run ever or a new race distance or you're fastpacking alone. Most the time, pushing past these comfort zones is highly beneficial. Always be prepared and assess the situation.
Assessing the most fun (and safe) ski route down the peak. Photo by Tony Guan
4. You are alone and your fear arises from not having someone to rely on if something bad was to happen. You could feel these emotions in a regular daily run or during a longer unsupported route. Making sure that someone knows where you are and what time you expect to return is key. For longer routes carry an emergency beacon like a DeLorme or SPOT. Carry a cell phone or a satellite phone. Preparation and communication can save your life.

5. You're in actual immediate physical danger. You may be skiing down a mountain during high avalanche danger and cause an avalanche. You may be running and see a mountain lion. You may get injured and not be sure if you will be able to get back to your car/home. You may get caught in a storm or get lost. This kind of fear should be taken seriously and your intuition should be trusted. Careful planning, knowing what to do when injured or when making contact with wild animals and having emergency gear and warm clothes can help in many cases. Always let someone know your adventure plans and when you expect to return. Carry an emergency beacon like a DeLorme or SPOT. Have a cell phone or Satellite phone. When backcountry skiing have all your avalanche safety gear and even a avalanche balloon bag - this applies to any sport where safety gear can save your life.
I think that it's important to control your fears and to listen to them since they can point you both toward some of the greatest achievements in your life or alternately, toward injury or death. Finding that fine line between adventure and death is key. You wouldn't want to live a life of mediocrity, but you also want to live. You want to have as much time exploring and adventuring AND with your family and loved ones as possible. Life is a balance. We cannot live allowing our fears to control us, but we can use them to better assess the safety of our adventures and to achieve amazing feats.
Here are some ways that I like to use to mitigate the dangers of my adventures:

1. Carry a Emergency Beacon: Most popular versions are Delorme InReach or SPOT devices. The InReach has tracking, maps, and you can text through your satellite subscription. Both devices have a button you can press in case you require immediate rescue. It will allow Search and Rescue to find you. Only for use in the most extreme and dangerous circumstances but a nice fall back plan if you do need rescue.

2. Have a GPS device AND maps/compass: Most important thing here is that you know how to use all your navigational gear. Practice, practice, practice! I am a huge advocate of handheld GPS devices. They have allowed me to navigate complicated routes successfully. I have the Garmin 64st, now a bit outdated so if you plan to get one, look for a more modern equivalent.

3. Carry plenty of warm clothing and rain gear: This is so important in so many adventures. When I go fastpacking I always have a truly waterproof jacket (testing it ahead of time can save your life), down jacket, tights/pants, extra socks, gloves, and a hat. No one plans to get injured on the trail, but if you do you will be ready to hunker down and wait for help. Keep ALL your extra clothing in a waterproof bag. If carrying a sleeping bag also keep that in a waterproof bag.

4. Carry more water and food than you think you need. Assess your route for water especially. Make sure you have more than enough water for each section. Bring a water purification device. I like the Steripen and the Sawyer mini filter. Sometimes I carry both.

5. Communicate with someone your plans. Let someone know where you are going, when you plan to be back and how to communicate with you while you are on the trail.

6. Carry the essentials for safety. This really varies depending on what and where you are going. For fastpacking trips of 2+ days I carry:
  • rain jacket
  • pants
  • hat & gloves
  • sleeping bag
  • bivy or small tent
  • lighter/waterproof matches
  • knife
  • light & batteries
  • GPS device and maps and compass- must know how to use or they are useless!
  • SPOT or Delorme Emergency beacons
  • water purification method
  • extra food and water
  • waterproof bags for clothing and sleeping bag
  • sports tape & duct tape
  • anti chaffing cream
  • sunscreen (if it's going to be sunny)
  • small stove (ok so I never bring one, but if you're hiking mostly or your pack is big enough go for it)
  • personal medications. I like to have aspirin, ibuprofen and bendryl just in case
  • hat: I prefer a trucker hat, keeps you cool in the sun and warm in the cold
  • and of course coffee :) Starbucks Via or instant coffee is good if you don't have a stove. I've been known to mix Starbucks Via with cold water in a Ultimate Direction water bottle
Put duct tape on your water bottle. I used it when I sprained my ankle badly on day 1 of the tahoe 200 scouting. Life saver. 

Now go out and explore your fear!


  1. Your story sounds so attractive and impressive. I really like it. Hope that I can have wonderful experiences like you. Thank for sharing!

  2. Wow.... I can only dream of such trips.


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