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Backpacker Magazine – September 2008

Never Fear: The Phobias

Use this step-by-step guide to beat 7 common backcountry fears. Plus, ideal hikes for overcoming–or avoiding–the source of your scare.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Photo illustration by Stephen Beneski
Photo illustration by Stephen Beneski


Hiking the trail up to Yosemite’s Half Dome, Caryl Shaw’s dread grew with each step. She knew what was coming: a smooth granite slab so steep that it’s climbable only with the help of a thin cable bolted to the rock. Once there, Shaw’s stomach flip-flopped. “I really wanted to go up,” she remembers. “But I worried I’d get up there and freeze, and then I’d be in big trouble.” Shaw had made it more than seven miles, but she turned back 400 feet shy of the epic summit.

The Real Risk
Yosemite’s SAR crew responds to just five or six falling incidents each year—and the park gets 3.5 million annual visitors.

The 4-Step Fix

  • You don’t have to be on a knife-edge ridge to expose yourself to heights. The gains you make on ladders, balconies, and glass elevators (often found in hotel atriums) will help you on big-mountain scrambles.
  • Make your first summit attempt a group effort, advises George Gardner, a mountain guide at Wyoming’s Exum Mountain Guides with 30 years of experience talking clients through steep mountain terrain. “You feel this connection with everyone,” he says. “Unconsciously, you can’t really retreat [because of fear].”
  • If you freak near a sheer drop, bring yourself back to the moment by concentrating on your hands and feet, not the gaping chasm. Try Gardner’s “Figure Eights for the Eyes”: With your thumb a foot from your face, slowly trace a sideways eight in the air, following it with both eyes. This helps you see the entire visual field—including your rope, anchor, and the solid rock you’re standing on—and integrates your rational frontal lobe with your primitive back brain, he explains. “You can think and move at the same time.”
  • Paralyzed by the fear of slipping and tumbling down an icy slope? Practice safe snow-travel techniques, such as kicking steps on a steep pitch and self-arresting with an ice axe. Train with an experienced instructor before tackling advanced terrain.
  • The Big Test
    Expect 4,000 feet of elevation gain, class IV scrambling, and a 30-foot rappel on the Maroon Bells Traverse—a baptism-by-fire test for vertigo.

Safety Zone
On Olympic National Park’s Shipwreck Coast, hike the 8.7-mile section between Rialto Beach and Cedar Creek at low tide. You’ll skirt rocky coves and spy California sea lions, puffins, and hermit crabs—all while gaining exactly zero feet of elevation.

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Reader Rating: -


Jun 22, 2014

Slow loading 7 pages to get this. More useful on one scrolling page, right? BTW, what is the fear of being watched by wildlife while doing a #2 called?

Oct 29, 2010

Thank you for this. I had a mini "panic attack" on Shasta this summer. My guide was intimidating when I needed more words of encouragement. Now I'll let my partner know he has to help me with the words the guides hesitate to provide: "You can do this. You've done it before. It will be alright."

Sean C.
Jan 06, 2010

My main fear on this list is being alone in the dark. When in a protected shelter, this typically isn't such an issue. but once I'm out in an unfamiliar place doing an activity, anxiety will start to kick in as the sun goes down. Thankfully I've used similar techniques to mostly overcome this irrational fear. Being an avid bike rider also, I set out on a 10mile, one way, trail through the woods about half an hour before dusk. Timing it perfectly, I made it to the end of the trail right as the sun set. Due to being a one way trail though, I was forced to ride the 10 miles back in the dark in order to get home. while this might have been a little extreme for a first step, it was successful, and now I find nighttime riding almost more enjoyable that in the sunlight.

Keith D
Oct 29, 2009

I'm still with Indiana Jones, "SNAKES! It just had to be snakes!"

Keith D
Oct 29, 2009

I'm still with Indiana Jones, "SNAKES! It just had to be snakes!"

Lil Jimmy Norden
May 19, 2009

Raaammooonnnee!!! Bring me a snake with some girth!

Lil Jimmy Norden
May 19, 2009

I love big long snakes with big heads

Jerry Doyle
Oct 30, 2008

The article is correct to say that snakes are more afraid of humans than humans are of snakes. The safest response to snakes is to make vibrations on the earth (such as heavy walking) and to proactively never put your hands, feet, etc. into closeted areas such as crevices, logs, etc. Snakes will feel your foot vibrations on the earth and move out of your way. Strike a rock or log that you plan to sit on and the snake will move away, although be careful of scorpions and spiders. A snake will only strike you if it is cornered, or if you have ignored its warning. In the south in swamp land while in a boat, look overhead at tree branches, or better yet, avoid boating under the tree branches to prevent the possibility of a snake falling into your boat. Good Hiking... Jerry D


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