I’m scared to go into the mountains. There, I said it.
I’ve enjoyed some of the most incredible, inspiring, and challenging experiences in the Chamonix hills but I have recently struggled to get out and make the most of this amazing valley. My reticence has been about embarrassment and a reluctance to talk about the challenges and dangers that are out there. Talking with a friend about it recently I realised that I am in the second stage of my concept of mountain experience and judgement.
Why am I scared?
I don’t think it is particularly difficult to appreciate why people would be scared in the mountains here. They are big, they can be committing, and they have a force unlike no other. For me, over the last year or so, I have become much more aware of this.
I have had a few close calls from objective dangers such as rockfall or avalanches and I have heard stories from friends of the results of when things go wrong.
This has started to give me a deeper understanding of the risks I take, my ability to assess and mitigate those risks, and my willingness to take them. I believe I am clearly in stage two of mountain experience and now it is time to work out how I progress onto stage three.
But what are the three stages of mountain experience?
Stage 1: Ignorance is bliss
I vividly remember my first waterfall ice climb. I was in Cogne, Italy, the local ice climbing Mecca, and I was following Robin up the first pitch of Cascade de Lillaz, a great first ice climb. The pitches are short, you can easily bail after each one, and none of the climbing is too difficult.
As I followed Robin up, there was water running down the ice and I could see the fast flowing water running behind the thin sheet I was climbing. I was buzzing though. I had never done anything like this before and i was loving it. I made it to the belay with a huge grin on my face to see Robin’s face aghast. I couldn’t understand what was wrong but later he told me how he was genuinely worried that the whole ice fall was going to collapse with us attached to it.
As I later reflected on that moment, I could understand what had worried him but I don’t think I appreciated it. Over the next few years I was out in the mountains more; summer rock, winter ice, skiing, everything. There were a few times we had to dodge rock fall or we could see the debris from a recent avalanche but I always felt ok, safe even.
Ignorance was bliss.
Stage 2: The mountains are out to kill me
As I gained more experience, I started to find myself in bigger and more committing environments; places where a fall or an accident would have serious consequences. Whether it was a few summers ago, climbing on the Aiguille du Peigne with rock fall raining down around us by the crumbling mountains and careless climbers above, or climbing ice and feeling pumped, worried about making it onto easier ground. The fear started to chip away at me.
I have been very fortunate in the hills. I would like to say that the experience I have gained and my basic survival instincts have allowed me to be safe but, if I’m honest, I have to accept that luck has played a part. How could it not when I’m still learning? While I’m still such a novice?
My recent trips out into the mountains have given me pause for thought. As I go out, I am viscerally more aware of what dangers are out there and worry about how I can avoid them, how I can protect myself against them, and how I can still enjoy myself at the same time but I’ve been struggling.
I have learnt so much since moving to Chamonix. I believe I am competent and safe but very much so only within my comfort zone. As I’m inspired by the amazing things my friends, peers, and even the local professionals are getting up to I find myself paralysed with uncertainty as to whether making choices on what I should and shouldn’t do.
Whenever I leave the house to go out into the hills I very deliberately think about what I can expect, what I need to be ready for, and what I am capable of. I think of it as my bandwidth; how much resource do I have to look after myself and those I’m out with. If I’m climbing with stronger partners then I might allow myself to be closer to my limit, relying on their back up to help the day go smoothly. Likewise, if I’m out with Hannah, she will be relying on me in the same way and as such I need to make sure I’ve got enough bandwidth for both of us.
This hesitation has stopped me going out as much. It most certainly has also helped keep me safe, though.
What I’m working towards now is transitioning to stage three..
Stage 3: Respect, experience, and good judgement
As I gain experience, learning from those around me as well as just having more time on the hill, I am gaining a deeper respect for the mountains. They might be dangerous and, at times feel like they are out to kill me, but at the same time they invite us into to an arena that provides experiences I’ve never come close to elsewhere.
The experience I develop is allowing me to make better decisions, enabling me to make good judgement calls about what I should and should not do, where I should and should not go, and how I should and should not behave. I am sure, and I deeply hope, that I will be learning from these incredible days out, environments, and situations for the rest of my life; all of them building on what came before, so that I can comfortably go out and know I deserve to be there on my own merit, fully aware of the risks I am taking, and making the right decisions to keep on doing it.
In the meantime, it is about still taking baby steps, keeping an open mind to all the advice and experience of those around me, and still letting myself enjoy this wonderful place.