Real adventure is about pushing physical abilities, shrugging off danger and conquering harsh environments. Most of all, it’s about being fearless in the great outdoors.
Funnily though, however strong fear may feel, it’s surprisingly hard to see in photos and won’t likely come up in stories or articles. Even for me, at challenging points in the outdoors, you’re still not likely to notice elements of fear on my face, just a wild smile and eagerness to keep going.
Adventure is about being fearless after all. Or so it’s easy to believe.
In the outdoors realm you’ll find new experiences, environments and opportunities around every corner and up every mountain.
You develop your own personal attachment, with unique aspects that make it special to you. That’s part of the appeal.
Like many, I was hooked straight off the bat and quickly became an enthusiastic adventurer with the great outdoors as my playground. As an adventurer, the thing I loved most was getting out of my comfort zone. Skirting along the edges of my physical and mental ability was hard to beat.
The adrenaline starts to flow through your body, your heartbeat starts to raise and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Then the mental responses kick in, generally going one of two ways…
Option 1) A crazy rush of adrenaline hits your awareness and within a split second you’re overwhelmed by the feeling of excitement and anticipation, “hell yeh, let’s do this!”.
Option 2) Adrenaline hits, heartbeat freaks, knees weaken and stomach drops, “holy sh!t, what am I doing!?!?”.
A normal person might experience this standing on a high cliff edge, trying to find a place to wild camp for the night or even just the prospect of going on an outdoors trip.
I was most definitely an option 1 kind of guy and for good reason.
Fearless in the outdoors
If you’re at all influenced by media, it can be easy to think that fear is an alien concept to an adventurer. Look at the Red Bull videos of people throwing themselves off cliffs with parachutes, mountain bikers hurtling along razor-sharp ridges or magazine covers showing mountaineers bravely climbing hostile alpine environments, they’re all Option 1 type people.
What else do they all have in common?
They’re pushing the boundaries, conquering dangerous situations and showing no signs of fear. The adventure is going higher, faster, steeper, deeper, riskier and harder, the more daring or challenging the better. The only limit is your physical ability.
I was inspired.
I was also under the impression that you had to be fearless. So, when others stepped back I jumped forwards and when they hesitated I was already halfway gone. I learned that if you could physically do it then there was no need for nerves and fear was irrational.
If there were any signs of fear you just needed to remember your physical ability, know there was a low risk of danger and rationalise.
For a large portion of my life, this was my outdoors experience.
Hold on a minute, these fears seem pretty rational…
A guy in front of me jumps. Sarah is already in the water. Two kids are just coming round for their second go. I’m standing at the top of a 20m high cliff with the lake teasing me below. Surprisingly my knees are shaking, heart pounding and head spinning. No excitement, just fear. There was no danger but still, I felt scared.
I did jump, but this was my first realisation I’d developed a fear of heights, though I didn’t want to admit it at the time. I have no idea where it came from, there were no bad experiences I could remember, but I was definitely scared.
My whole concept of adventure was been thrown off. The pros didn’t show any fear. Adventure was about being fearless. If you could physically do something, what was there to be worried about?
I became determined to conquer this silly problem with heights so I could get back to embarking on real adventures. My solution was jumping in at the deep end.
The next few years were filled with me trying to suppress panic attacks on high mountain passes and cliffs where you could have a bad accident. I had no idea how to overcome a fear of heights and facing anxiety head-on clearly wasn’t working.
Not surprisingly things got worse.
Gradually hiking in mountainous areas became completely nerve-wracking, camping on high peaks avoided, even watching videos of alpinists would give me shivers. Heights became a big deal out of nowhere and kept on getting worse.
Eventually, any situation that might involve high places would be avoided altogether. I was running away from my fears.
I knew enough was enough.
Facing Your Fears in the Great Outdoors
Having now experienced things from both sides of the fence, I realise fear isn’t just about knowing there’s a low chance of having an accident and rationalising, it’s about actually feeling safe. And, it’s pretty hard to just feel safe with a pragmatic pep talk in your head or from a friend.
With most fears, you need to learn, or re-learn, how to feel relaxed in a controlled setting within your comfort zone.
Take a step back and find a controlled place where you feel comfortable and safe.
No matter your anxieties, whether you’re trying to do something for the first time or regain your confidence, start somewhere you feel completely in control. Here you can go back to the foundations and work back up, rebuilding your confidence slowly in an enjoyable way.
For me, that was in a climbing gym.
After climbing for a number of years I knew my physical and mental limits, most importantly the heights at which I still felt 100% relaxed. Instead of jumping in at the deep end I could gradually spend more and more time at heights that still felt relatively secure. All the while making sure not to get to a point where nerves started to kick in.
Many people have a burning desire to experience the outdoors but fears and anxieties hold them back, my advice: start small.
If you want to camp but you’re feeling apprehensive, don’t start by wild camping in the middle of nowhere, start in your back garden. Then a friend’s back garden. Then a local field. Keep taking baby steps, nice and slowly.
Your comfort zone will grow without you even realising and before long you’ll have the confidence to try new things if you want to. With more confidence, you’ll feel safer and start trusting your own abilities. The more you trust your own abilities the safer you’ll feel. See where this is going?
Turns out some people call it exposure therapy, though adventure exposure suits it better!
My mountainous test
Over the last few years, there have been many tests and progressions with my new found fear, though one really stood out.
Mt. Sous Dine in the French Alps was set to be an absolutely stunning hike, climbing to an altitude of 2004m with panoramic views across the Alps, Switzerland and The Jura Mountains.
With my favourite vegan hiking boots on and a hiking rucksack filled with snacks, the secluded trail started with an hour of gentle incline through a mossy forest, perfect weather and nothing but the sounds of birds and insects in the air.
Rising from the shade of the trees, the hiking path got steeper and gradually gave way to a crude rocky outcrop, towering thousands of metres into the sky. The hiking path zig-zagged towards it with only one way to go.
At the base of the mountain, the path skirted to the side, with bare rock to the left and a sharp drop to the right. Then it stopped abruptly. Ahead, the steep rock face was fitted with a metal cable and stepping stone like pegs: a Via Ferrata section.
For those that don’t know, a Via Ferrata is when wooden or metal fixtures are bolted into the mountainside so you can climb up particularly steep bits of the rock face. Commonly this is done with a harness so you can clip yourself in. We didn’t have a harness.
Hands sweating, heart pumping
There was nothing physically hard about it but if you fell… well, best not to. It was all about the nerves and I knew this was my test. Adrenaline already in full swing, my emotions sat on the fence for a second, then a smile crept across my face.
Approaching the last metre of solid hiking path, I took hold of the first metal bolt on the rock face, reached with my second hand and pulled myself onto the first foot-peg. At this point, you could step back down onto solid ground but the moment you moved your feet onto the next holds, away from the path, there was a whole lot of free fall before the ground below.
I took the next step. And the next one. I was terrified but I still felt in control and safe. I was loving it.
20 metres and about 2 minutes later, with both feet back on the path, a huge rush of excitement and accomplishment washed over me. The old me had never experienced anything like it.
3 or 4 years ago this section would have been nothing special and I would have run across it without a thought and without a thrill. Now I felt over the moon, accomplished and proud. Despite being scared it was the ultimate outdoor adventure and a day I’ll never forget.
“Adventure isn’t all about rowing oceans or climbing mountains. Adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking. Live by that philosophy and you’ll make more of the short time we’ve been given on this rock” Sean Conway
I spent a huge period of my life thinking that adventure was about being fearless, then a number of years seeing the outdoors as a coliseum to conquer fears. Both are bo!!ocks but I’m grateful for the experience as I’ve learned two important things.
Firstly, adventure is exactly what you want it to be. Instead of seeing it as this unattainable thing in magazines and videos, learn to make it your own. This deal with heights turned out to be an adventure in itself and now I appreciate all my outdoor experiences a lot more for it.
Secondly, adventure has nothing to do with being fearless so don’t try to conquer fear, instead, learn to control and embrace it. All the videos and photos I’d seen of adventurers, they probably got scared too. Heck, even people like Alex Honnold get scared, and that’s okay. It’s all part of the process so don’t let it hold you back.
Having experienced both walks of life, I can honestly say that accomplishing something you’re nervous about, even if it takes more time, is far more rewarding if you found it a little terrifying.
When that adrenaline kicks in, if you’re an Option 2 type of person then embrace it and bask in that nervous excitement and pride.
Most of all, whether you’re scared of heights, the dark, wild animals… whatever it is, it’s worth every baby step to build up your confidence. There are so many incredible experiences in the great outdoors, do whatever it takes to get out there and make your own adventure.
Found yourself in a similar situation? Maybe you’ve embraced your fears or maybe they’re still holding you back? Share your experiences in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!