Fear. Alarming the senses, quickening our heart rate, sending every cell into high alert, always on the lookout for the stealthy unknown hurt to strike. A gaping wound, an entrapping relationship, financial destitution, a wrong decision, screwing up, screwing up someone else, abandonment, and the universal fear of missing out, or the more mundane but still terrifying fears of bad breath, looking stupid or just generally not being good enough.
Reaching adulthood, I realized I was carrying a lot of fears, some from the past, some for the present and most especially, fear of what the future would bring. I was tired of them and decided to live my life courageously and confront my fears.
In the early 80’s I went backcountry skiing, alone, in the Sierra Nevada north of Kirkwood. This was before cell or satellite phones and GPS so I would have no way to communicate or call for help. Adequate on medium level Blue trails, to challenge myself, I would tackle an advanced level Black Diamond trail. With a fierce storm expected by late afternoon. Alone.
At 10am I filed my trail plan and schedule, spoke to two rangers about my plan, parked my car right in front of the ranger station, and calculated I’d have enough time to make it back before they left at 5 pm. I did everything I could to have them remember me and where I was headed.
If the trail was too intense, I figured I’d just backtrack. If I got stuck or had an accident, I had filed my plan with the rangers who would come to rescue me. And there would be other advanced skiers on the trail, too. Right?
Starting out, I am flowing down a lovely slope one instant and in the next I’m careening down a rocky, tree strewn, hellacious precipice that took every bit of skill that I never knew I had. As a touring comedian, I had studied with the Pickle Family Circus, an amazing Bay Area acrobatic comic group, so I knew how to fall, but a fall here could prove deadly so I just kept repeating to myself, “stay on your feet, stay on your feet, stay on your feet!” When I reached the bottom upright and intact, my heart was beating so hard it was making my ears ring and while I was thrilled I had made it, I realized I now had the dreadful fear that I had taken on more than I could handle. I was on full alert and needed to get off this trail immediately.
As soon as I settled my nerves, I began looking for different options to get back up that hill and to the safety of the trailhead. First one, then another small but menacing avalanche let me know there would be no climbing back up here today. The thought that the only way out was through began throbbing in my mind like a far away lighted sign on a dark roadway announcing ‘danger…danger…danger!’ If this is how it starts, how is this trail going to end?
Merriam Webster defines courage as the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous, and moving forward on this trail would definitely qualify.
I reassessed my supplies, I had a daypack with a day’s worth of water, the ubiquitous gorp, which would later be known as trail mix, a first aid kit, a whistle, a Swiss Army knife, a compass, trail map, a lighter, a red bandanna for bandaging or for extra warmth or signaling for help, a small roll of duct tape which could temporarily repair gear and limbs if needed, and one of those 59 cent silver survival blankets. Even though I had blown my whistle several times, so far I had not seen or heard any other skiers so the only thing I could do was proceed on the trail which would challenge me at every turn.
By far, the most treacherous part was crossing an icy river on my skis over two thin pine trees that had been laid over the river and were covered in icy snow. The pines were as thin as my skinny skis, with a space between them, so if a ski slipped or slid off them, I’d be in the freezing water. No room for error here.The gushing river was too far below me to use my poles for balance and I had never trained for or come across this situation before. I first searched – in vain – up and down the river to find an easier crossing. There was no other way to the other side. I thought of taking off my clothes and tying them in a bundle and throwing them across in case I ended up in the icy water. At least I would still have dry clothes. However, with no sun on this cold, cloudy, breezy day, as soon as I began to remove my outer layers, I began shivering so intensely that I quickly gave up on that idea. I would neither be able to manage an effective throw of my clothes over the river nor the almost naked ski across it. Hypothermia quickly became a possibility and I knew death would surely come before rescue. I debated shuffling across, backing up and taking a running ski over, or taking my skis off and walking across, or even scutching across on my butt. I could wait for other skiers who might be able to help, but quickly returned to the realization that there had been no sight or sound of other humans. If I fell off and got wet, I had on wool pants and a wool sweater and wool can retain heat even when wet. I realized my best chance was to ski across fully clothed.
Now, I’m beginning to get concerned about the time. I’d spent over an hour searching and reasoning options here and still had not crossed. It was getting late and the sky was getting darker. In a flash of inspiration, I reminded myself that if these two icy poles were just inches over solid ground, I would have no trouble skiing across, so I blocked out the deadly consequences and began to quickly and deliberately ski across before I could change my mind.
Reaching the ground on the other side, I was flooded with relief and an amazingly wild exhilarating energy and began jumping up and down, hooting and hollering! What a thrill! What a death defying victory! What courage I had displayed! What joy! I jumped and shouted and twirled and celebrated being alive! I seemed to just fly back to the trailhead arriving around 3:30 with time to spare. I had made it without accident or injury!
Still pumped with massive energy and time before the ranger station closed at 5, I started playing around on a downhill slope when some snow caught on the bottom of my skis. As I pitched forward, all I could see was the toe of my skis coming up to take my head off and poke my eyes out. I tumbled over rocks and bushes, thinking this may be where they find me. Luckily, I just received some nasty bumps and bruises and a realization that having courage didn’t mean I was invincible. My joy however was untouched.
After six hours of this life-challenging experience, I felt extremely alive. I gratefully and triumphantly limped back to the ranger station just before dark to close out my trail plan and got the surprise of my life. There was my little Beamer sitting in front of the closed Ranger Station all alone. The rangers had all left! They left a single skier (ME!) out on a Black Diamond trail with a storm coming! Before quitting time! I stood there stunned! What if I had been hurt and was still out there! Surely I would be dead by morning.
I checked the trail plans posted outside and I found that I was the only person who had gone out that day. I had indeed been out there alone and the rangers had abandoned their station and me.
As I started my drive back to the Bay Area that night, my smile was so wide my cheeks were hurting. The snow storm hit and I smiled with gratitude and joy as I drove out of the mountains that had so challenged me. Several times I opened my sun roof and just howled, wild animal-like howls of danger and fear and anger and most beautifully, triumph and joy and dominance. As I descended further, the snow turned to rain and I grinned and I’m still grinning now remembering that day. I love that fierce, courageous young woman that I was.
Would I recommend people ski alone, on a more challenging trail than used to, with a snowstorm coming? Absolutely not! Would I ever do it again? Now way! Am I glad I did it? You betcha!
Moral of the story – Even though I was terrified a good deal of the time, I’d spent an amazingly beautiful day, completely isolated in the snow packed High Sierra and the courage and confidence I gained that day continues to serve me. I would later develop programs helping others deal with their fears but for today, I was good enough. I was enough.
Joanna Jeronimo is an artist, art columnist, Telly Award winner for writing, creating and directing ArtScapes: The Power of Art and Culture in Hawaii, creator/writer and director of Blood Ties: Hawaii. Always an adventurer, she’s a university lecturer, international touring comedian, a national cooking champion and sourdough baker, published in three cookbooks, and former VIP hotel broker for luxury groups.