Fear in the outdoors and why we need it
The Fear. It’s gets us all at some point, it stops us making a move, paddling a rapid or stunts our enjoyment of what we expected to be a pretty awesome day. It’s a natural reaction to what can often feel like an unnatural situation. In years gone by the places we now like to explore were seen as dangerous, we learnt to avoid them to stay alive.
We want to talk about 3 types of fear: Rational, Irrational and perceived.
Let’s focus on the first 2 for now.
The voice in our head telling us to stop climbing when we’re completely safe, on fixed gear and a brand new rope. It’s the feeling of panic when you know there’s nothing to panic about, when you’re in control and out of harms way. It’s the thing that stops you running that rapid that’s easier than others you’ve run, just because it used to be hard a few years back.
This one’s a good thing. It’s what keeps alive. That’s the feeling that you need to turn back because something isn’t right. It’s what leads you to down climb carefully because there’s no gear and lose rocks and your belayer isn’t paying attention. It’s what keeps you away from a sheer drop in a storm or forces you to leave a cave because the river levels are rising.
Rational fear is what keeps us alive, but irrational fear can creep in and stop us living our lives to the full. But how can we tell the difference?
3 questions to ask yourself when you’re afraid:
1. Am I safe?
If you’ve never taken a step back and risk assessed your practice, Its a habit you should start developing. Look at the hazards, can you put controls in place to minimise the risk? For example; the hazard is falling from a high place, control this by using a rope and good anchors, trusting your belayer and knowing your limits. The control measures reduce the risk. If you can reduce the risk and be safe, then you’re looking at irrational fear. If the risk still outways the reward, it’s time to turn back. the crag/mountain/river will still be there tomorrow.
2. What will happen if I continue?
Use your risk assessment to help determine what will happen next. If you continue, could you be lost in the fog in a craggy area or trapped in a cave in flood? Or do you have the skills to navigate in the fog and simply need to slow down? Do you have a safe way to continue? If so, Great! If not, listen to the rational fear. It’s there to keep you safe.
3. Is the outcome of continuing desirable?
Having a tough time in the outdoors is how we learn, it’s what helps us to grow and develop our skills by really putting them to the test. There is, however, a point where that adventure becomes a misadventure and both physical and emotional damage can occur. If the outcome is likely to result in misadventure, the fear is real and you should consider turning back and saving it another day.
Our comfort zones grow the more we stretch ourselves, often making us outdoorsey types less afraid of the things we have learnt to enjoy; heights, fog, small spaces, raging rivers. We can so easily forget what it feels like to find a small walk challenging or a VDiff climb difficult.
You should always consider all members of your party when making a decision in the outdoors. What is one persons adventure is another’s misadventure. Just because you aren’t feeling fear, it doesn’t mean another person isn’t afraid for their life.
This all comes down to our perceptions and experience; what one person perceives as safe, another may find terrifying. When understanding and experience are low you cannot make informed decisions about real fear and irrational fear because you do not understand the risks. We are often told as children; come away from the edge, don’t go too deep, don’t climb that. We develop a perception of fear that surrounds many things we like to do. It’s hard to reverse this education and it must be done slowly to avoid psychological damage and being put off of a sport forever.
If you have a party member with less experience, be sure to explain the risks and controls to allow them to build their own knowledge.
If you are unsure about the risks involved with a sport you wish to enjoy, we recommend finding a local club or hiring a guide to learn the ropes before heading out. Partially for your own safety, but also to allow you to make informed decisions and not allow fear to stop you from enjoying the outdoors for years to come.