2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine –

The First 30 Seconds

What you can do to thwart a panic attack in two common crisis situations

by: Jason Stevenson


Despite stories like these, panic is seldom diagnosed as the cause of catastrophe. One possibility is because it's humiliating. It's one thing to blame backcountry trouble on bad weather or dangerous terrain, but who wants to admit that they got so scared they lost control of their senses? Nobody. It makes you look wimpy and weak.

I was 15 when I panicked badly. I was learning how to rock climb, and my instructor, Coach Kopishka, was a god to us kids. As far as we could tell, he knew no fear. He was a black belt in karate, climbed as stealthily and calmly as a cat, and was merciless as our high school swim coach. He'd lead the team to 17 straight state championships.

We were out at Vedauwoo, a Wyoming climbing area known for hard, wide cracks in flesh-ripping granite. I had climbed just a few times before, and all on a top rope, when Coach handed me two metal hexes, chunks of aluminum used to protect a fall, and pointed to a notoriously fat crack called Upper Slot Left.

It was my first lead—a 40-foot, 5.6 off-width. More than that, it was a test and a dare and an honor, and I stepped up to it like any adolescent boy with so much to prove. I didn't know how to place gear, so I put in both hexes early on and kept climbing until I was 10 feet from the top, where the crack narrowed. Narrow cracks require a technique known as hand-jamming, a skill I hadn't yet acquired. Before long, I found myself slipping out of the crack. I was so far above my last piece of protection that if I fell, I would hit the slab of rock at the base of the route and be seriously injured—or possibly killed. The thought of falling set my heart pounding and my mind racing. My legs began quivering (what climbers call "sewing machine leg"). My hands started sweating, further loosening my grip on the rock. In that instant, I lost control of my mind. All I could think was: "I'm going to die!" The logical approach would have been to get a grip on my emotions and either down-climb slowly and carefully, or continue up the crack. But at 15, I didn't have the courage or skill to get out of this fix. I was stuck, I knew it—and I panicked.

At some point Coach recognized that I was freaking out. He soloed up behind me and handed over a hex. I placed it with a trembling hand. Gathering confidence just by his presence, I climbed to the top. Then I vomited.

I didn't fall and die, but I was profoundly embarrassed. Coach had proven his hero-god status, and I had proven my cowardice. Inside, I resolved to never panic again, no matter what.

Almost all of us have panicked at some point in our lives, whether over losing a child in the grocery store, flipping in a kayak, or getting turned around momentarily in the backcountry. We know what it feels like, but what is it?

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

The Political Arena
PTB time is upon us, agree?
Posted On: Aug 23, 2014
Submitted By: Ben2World
The Political Arena
At what age did you come back....
Posted On: Aug 23, 2014
Submitted By: Ecocentric

View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions