I’ll go straight to the point: there is NO magic pill.
I got over my fear in the course of two years, constantly showing up at the brink, backing down, and then showing up again like the constant ebb and flow of the ocean rushing to and running from the shore.
Took me a few tries. By few, I meant climbing twenty-five mountains within a period of two years.
I am a mountain hiker. On weekends when I have the time, I go out of the city and climb mountains. We do not have alpine climbs in the Philippines, being tropical, but the mountains are no less challenging. The ones I especially like to climb are the steep, rocky ones, sometimes involving ninety-degree ascents.
But I wasn’t always this way. All my life, I was afraid of heights. It’s very cliché but the physical manifestations weren’t imaginary. The mere thought of being at the top of a steep flight of stairs used to send shivers down my spine. My throat would go dry and my knees would start to shake. Not a good state to be in for anyone climbing anything at all.
Then in 2015, a friend invited me to go climb a “beginner” mountain. I hesitated knowing what I knew about myself but having nothing better to do, I agreed.
It was an exhausting eight hours with no proper gear at the time. I wasn’t going to buy expensive mountaineering shoes just for a one-time hike.
I cursed every little incline. Swore at the dirt caking my bare feet (I was wearing sandals, of all things). Dust was everywhere and the sun was merciless. Of course, I failed to make the summit.
Funny thing was, that one mountain hooked me into climbing.
Why? I don’t know. I was brought up to be a girly girl, played with Barbies, stayed indoors and read books. I didn’t even know how to climb trees. Didn’t swim either. I was never the type who included the outdoors in my bucket list, least of all climbing.
Yet Nature charmed me in the foulest, dirtiest way it could.
In the course of two years after that, I climbed mountains. Easy ones. I simply refused summits that I thought were too hard to reach because of steep trails.
There were times my climbing buddies left me in the middle of a mountain while they continued on up because I couldn’t make the ascent. I’d wait for them for a couple of hours or so until they came back down to collect me. They’d talk about how much fun it was and I envied them. I wanted to kick myself for fearing something so irrationally.
But I persevered.
One, because climbing was the perfect antidote to stress. As hard and sweaty as it is to get out there, living in the city has nothing on Mother Nature.
Two, because I wanted to get over my fear of heights. Going on climbs and not summiting is ridiculous. I wanted to feel the joy my friends got from overcoming obstacles. Above all, there’s that incomparable view from up top which I knew I’d never see from below.
I needed to face the fear. It seemed unbreakable but in my heart of hearts, I believed that sooner or later, something had to give.
Then came 2017. I decided to go climb one of the most challenging trails in the Philippines, that of Mt. Pulag via the Akiki Trail, a notoriously grueling 10-hour hike up continuous sixty to eighty-degree inclines. It is hard enough that national park authorities require health certificates before anyone can climb. A few have actually died on the mountain.
I prepared for the ultimate challenge by climbing one mountain every week for more than a month leading up to the Akiki climb. One of these was the Mt. Makiling Traverse, a five to six-hour hike that involved steep inclines.
Thanks to a trilogy of ninety-degree rock faces that involved rappelling, I was forced to face my fear head on.
I barely held my own during the first two, but the third and final one required hanging in midair over a cliff for a few seconds and trusting the hand of my guide to pull me up. I had to stop and take my time deciding what to do and how.
I had no choice. I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t stay and wait for my friends to return and pick me up because we chose a traverse, meaning we had different points of entry and exit, five hours apart at best. I had to do it.
I remember thinking that I was probably going to die a horrible death. That the rope would snap. That I didn’t know how I was going to get over that cliff face. I remember my hands getting sweaty and the atmosphere going cold in the heat of the summer sun. I remember wanting to sob and then holding back knowing that if I started I might not stop.
But I also remember the moment I chose to trust myself. The moment when I shut my mind from all other thoughts and focused on putting one foot over the other, one hand over the other. Blocking all noise except my buddies’ encouraging words. Holding on tight to the rope. Feeling myself hover over endless space. Seeing my guide’s hand like it was the only thing that mattered in the world at that moment. Letting go of the rope. Feeling my guide’s strong grip. Being pulled up over the face of the cliff. And then… solid ground.
It took all of five seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I remember looking over the cliff’s edge, deep into an abyss that moments before I thought would claim my body. But it didn’t. I was safe. I was alive.
My friends all rushed to hug and congratulate me. That’s when I lost it. I sobbed. From relief, from joy, from that unmistakable feeling that something had just been broken.
From that point on, I was unstoppable. I have summited other mountains since and proven that I was no longer acrophobic. There’s that feeling of freedom and joy now when I climb to the top that wasn’t there before.
I feel I have become fearless in that I can climb what were previously impossible heights for me, walk over with confidence to the edge of a cliff and look down while also enjoying every single minute of it.
Yet I know deep down that I will always have a healthy respect for heights. I believe this is what prevents me from becoming a mindless daredevil.
From this I learned that fears can prevent us from living life to the fullest.
That the absence of fear, on the other hand, can also hurt.
That, like many things, it always has to be just right.
Balance is key.
Face your fear. Respect that fear. Who knows just where that might lead you?