Nine years of fear

I learned a while ago, and have re-learned many times since, that fear before a trip rarely has much to do with conditions or hazard, and has everything to do with the concern that you’ll soon have to do something difficult.  To perform close to the known ends of your abilities.  The sooner that fear grows large, and the further out from said trip it starts to disturb your sleep, the further your perception of your limits is about to be pushed.  Experience suggests that sleep disturbance a week or more in advance strongly correlates with a good trip, one you’ll remember vividly for many years.  Hazard in the backcountry is rarely much about direct threats to ones life, and is almost always about talking yourself down from what you’re most likely capable of.  Ignore 98% of the in-print chatter about safety being the same as fire starters and extra layers, safety is being content with where your footsteps went, years after the fact.

R0002062Relaxed during the last night of the 2015 Bob Open.  It was a long journey to get so I could be that content in that time and place.

My recent retrospective showed me that experience, and complacency, had taken the edge off things in the last couple years.  It was easy to think of prominent instances of fear between 2007 and 2012, and less easy for the last three years, especially 2015.  That can’t last much longer, and to that end I’ve been loosing sleep for the last couple nights, trying to decide how much of the desire to trim the route I’ll take through the Bob Marshall next week has to do with fear, and how much has to do with legitimate concerns over horrid snow conditions.  Such a debate, over the origin and reason for fear, is always a healthy one.

That being said, the following are prominent sources of fear from the past decade, along with links to the original accounts, and outlines of the lessons which have persisted through to today.

2007: Moab Rim Ride

The Rim Ride was a gnarly, technical, ~90 mile “race” during the golden era of self-supported mountain bike racing.  We had moved to Arizona, the mecca of mountain biking, the year before, and I got sucked into the endurance scene via the MTBR forums.  I had done plenty of long dirt rides before this, but 3/4 of the original Rim Ride route was singletrack, and most of the 12,000 feet of climbing were slow and techy.  It was a huge step up from anything I’d done before, and that I could not only finish such a thing, but do so faster than a bunch of people who were far stronger riders, just by being deliberate and not making mistakes (in either route finding, nutrition, or pacing).  That perspective, to ride or hike smart with an eye towards the long game, is a piece of confidence I’ve carried around prominently ever since.

2008: Kaibab Monstercross

In the 15 months between the Rim Ride and the second running of the Monstercross I did a lot of 100+ mile dirt rides.  That distance, on technical terrain and with five digit vertical gains, quickly became as close to routine as that sort ever can.  What I hadn’t mastered was the mental aspect; my inclination to push myself consistently came up short relative to my ambition and logistical abilities.  Just for example, I (mentally) limped through the 2007 Kokopelli Trail Race, outright bailed from the 2007 Kaibab, and came up short in the 2008 KTR due to dehydration and not being acclimated to climbing on a geared bike.  For the ’08 Kaibab I put everything together, in what is still one of my top-five all-time athletic performances.  Having accomplishments like that in the bag empowers like little else.

2009: Le Parcour de Wild

Hiking across the Bob Marshall during a brutal cold spell in October of 2009 is a big leap from mountain biking in Arizona in June, 16 months prior.  I signed up for this with a rather imprecise understanding of what it would entail, and powered through based on inertia, grit, and Kevin Sawchuk’s excellent attitude.  Being able to mostly hang with a 20-time Western States finisher and former JMT record holder was another empowering experience, and set up very well just about everything I’ll mention below.  Even more empowering was having my feet get trashed and not having that do more than make the second half of the trip a lot more painful.

2010: May in the Thorofare

Trying to cross Yellowstone, solo, in May was a big mental jump and a major step towards applying everything I’d learned in the three years previous to a wilderness context.  I was scared in the days before I set off, the commitment highlighted by M driving all the way back to Missoula immediately after she dropped me off.  Alone the first night, with the grizzly tracks and pouring rain, the mystery ahead was massive, and little more than the huge inconvenience bailing would have entailed kept me pushing on the next morning.  Thankfully the bulk of the ambiguity was dispensed with the next day, in what is still the hardest single day of backcountry travel I’ve done.  I was too tired that night for much introspection, and when I woke up the next day all evidence suggested that the worst stuff was over, provided that the two creek crossings didn’t get me.  They didn’t, and the certainty that I could get through the mental hurdles such a trip entailed, alone, set the bar high for all future endeavors.  My excuses got a lot shorter thereafter.

2011: The proto Bob Open

That first May trip in the Big Wilderness of the northern rockies was so much fun I just had to do it again (and every year since), and Monture Creek to Holland Lake in the Bob was the most logical option.  It worked, surprisingly to plan, though the navigational and physical challenges during the over-snow sections were considerable.  The Yellowstone trip suggested that late spring trips in the big Wilderness was possible, this confirmed it, and led to the Bob Open as we know it today.

2012: The second Wilderness Classic

There was a lot of fear before and during my first Wilderness Classic, in 2011, but the Wrangells course was a big step up in difficulty and commitment, and was the first time I realized the fast progression I’d been on the previous three years might have passed some important details by.  I had all the pieces necessary to complete this course, but wasn’t physically or mentally ready to put them together, hence the flight out and business left unfinished.  Today I am ready for that trip, but I needed the rest of 2012 and much of 2013 and 2014 to consolidate my skills off trail and further hone my mental game.  If you never fail you’re not trying well enough, and while I do regret not seeing the alpine first hand on this trip, I don’t regret going.

2013: Spotted Bear elk hunt

As mentioned 2013 was on its face a slower, more modest year than those previous.  In fact, I did more backpacking and skiing than any year before or since, a record which will probably stand for quite a while.  All of these trips were great, but most stand out as fun/learning as opposed to truly limit-pushing.  Instead, my first serious backcountry hunting trip stands out as the most intimidating of the year.  I was initiated into the complex, uncontrollable variables that are an essential part of a successful hunt.  We did some things right, namely finding a spot used by elk and deer, and some things wrong, namely camping too close to the spring and not going higher into the meadows to investigate bedding areas.  Those days back in the steep tributaries of the Spotted Bear caused a paradigm shift and showed me just how different hunting actually was, compared to all the stuff I’d been doing before.

2014: The Grand Eight loop


One of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing spectacular places for the first time, and just about the only way to better such an experience is to do it via an elegant, original route which marries plenty of unknowns with minimal logistical snags.  Brendan and I absolutely nailed this one, with Todd Martin’s guide providing just enough beta so that we knew things would be possible, if not always exactly how.  Not bring any written descriptions or detailed maps along enhanced this, and the whole process provided a road map for how I want future trips to big areas unknown to happen.  But I don’t ever expect to top this route in overall quality.

2015: Tahr and Chamois in New Zealand

See above, in all detail, but applied to hunting, whose success is more difficult to achieve.  To this day I’m as proud of how our research and planning worked out as I was nervous we’d be skunked right before.  This was a big confidence boost for hunting generally, and a reminder that much is possible with the right information.  It also continues to be a good reminder to celebrate success and good weather when you get them, because no matter what they do not hang around for long.

Today, much unknown revolves around how to manage the logistics and fear of taking our budding family out into the woods.  How many miles, and how far afield, is enough to satisfy ambition, but not so much that it eliminates fun (and wiggle time)?  Evaluating the limits of a thing which cannot yet talk is a while new adventure.  And how are we to carry him, and all that gear.  We’ll be continuing the investigation soon.


8 responses to “Nine years of fear”

  1. I had 24 hours by myself in the car to talk myself out of the ’14 Bob Open. I talked myself into not turning around at least once an hour. I’m so glad I did.

  2. I have been able to get myself through some huge things (by my standards) by simply telling myself “it’s just walking”. If I’m hiking a local trail, walking across the bob marshall wilderness, or making the tough choice between following the canyon to a potential dead end waterfall or detouring up 2,500 feet in a half a mile onto a coastal ridge of unknown brush density, “it’s just walking”. I trust myself to move my feet.
    I have been beaten, frustrated, and cried alone in the wilderness.
    The most disconcerting type of pre-trip anxiety is a trip through complicated terrain that may or may not even be possible to get through, but with no available information to determine if it is or not, and then the unsettling realization of how incredibly inconvenient not being able to pass through that complex terrain would be. I have a bucket list trip in the ventana wilderness that gives me anxiety every time I think about it because at a certain point I have no idea what I will run into. Turning around is one of the hardest things for me to do and the reluctance to turn around is the real danger.

    1. This is a great comment. Thanks.

  3. Great article. I can’t wait for the vimeo packing for the 2016 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open video! They are my favorite, all the best Dave.

    1. If circumstance allows I’ll do a video for this trip, either before or after. They’re handy references for me, as well.

  4. I think anyone who has ventured into the backcountry for any length of time has almost certainly experienced fear at some level. I remember my first hitch (a million years ago) into the Middle Fork as a Wilderness Ranger- they gave me very little direction on what to do or where to go, just that I’d be back there for10 ten days. I had a lot of trepidation leading up to that, half way through the hitch I got the hang of it and didn’t want to leave :) I’ve had a couple of unplanned nights out (one hunting, one working) and would be lying if I didn’t say fear creeped in rather heavily.

    Good subject that tends to simply be unspoken.

  5. […] valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these […]

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