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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.
Panic snakesPhoto illustration by Stephen Beneski

HEIGHTS

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. fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver

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. nps.gov/olym

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