I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
“Of course I’m going to climb it,” the woman said, looking at me with that “why state the obvious?” question on her face. “I’m here. I have to do it.” We were in the cooking shelter at Taylor Meadows campground on Garibaldi Mountain, a starting point for several hikes, including the dramatic Black Tusk, which rises above the mountain like the black tower in the Lord of the Rings. We had arrived by hiking three hours up from the road, our packs laden with tents and supplies and at least twenty pounds of food, or so it seemed to me. I was worried that our nineteen-year-old son, who even at that moment looked like he might eat the table, was going to starve. The woman had given us her leftover Kraft dinner, and my husband was cooking chicken he’d insisted on bringing. “It wasn’t that heavy,” he still protests when I complain. “You weren’t carrying it,” I remind him. I had asked the woman about the Tusk because we were still considering our options for the next day, and I was curious besides, having admired it so often from the car on the road from Whistler.
“It’s not hard,” the woman said. “And you’re not exposed. You’re in a chimney. It’s quite safe. There are lots of handholds.” “What about the top?” I said, thinking, and you’re safe on a ladder too, until you fall. “The top is fine. It’s flat, and yes that’s exposed, but it’s absolutely gorgeous.” She smiled and left, a no-nonsense kind of woman, the kind I try to avoid, myself being full of quite a lot of nonsense.
“Let’s go up there,” my son said, without hesitation, and I looked at my husband, knowing he would happily have joined him. He is comfortable climbing on our roof to clear the gutters or patch things. He walks up there with confidence, while in the house I listen for his footsteps and wonder if our life insurance is up to date. But he said nothing, and when my daughter and I chose Panorama Ridge, he agreed.
The next day my whole body felt like someone had poured flour in my veins instead of blood. But we were walking through meadows blooming so profusely with wildflowers it looked like someone had cast bouquets through the grass. New vistas opened over every knoll and around every turn, and I felt like we should be yodelling or singing “Edelweiss.” I looked at my kids when I could see them, several hundred feet ahead, and my husband, also some distance away and thought of a friend, an athlete, whose teenaged children and younger husband are all bigger and stronger than she is now. “I’m getting to the point where I can’t keep up,” she told me, looking, for a moment, infinitely sad. I nodded in sympathy. These are the shocks you get in life. Not keeping up. It’s inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a surprise.
According to the map, the trip from the campground to the top of the ridge is four-and-a-half miles. By the time we reached the base of the ridge proper, I was counting my steps, something I do when I need to stop myself from looking for places to lie down. A man who looked to be as old as Methuselah passed us on his way down the path. He tripped and recovered himself so easily he made it look like a sort of dance. We smiled and said hello, and I continued my laboured upward steps, thinking even Methuselah, who lived to 969 years old, apparently, was fitter than I.
We stopped and ate an orange. I produced chocolate. The next hundred feet I felt almost hopeful again, though the ridge was getting narrower, rockier, higher. Panorama Ridge rises above Garibaldi Lake to a height of almost 7000 feet; it’s 2000 feet up from the meadows where we had camped. The trail was getting steeper and more diffuse, broken by rock and open to the sky. Our children were a long way ahead. I babbled to my husband about feeling better, as the trail veered right towards the edge, which wasn’t, as these things go, all that edgy. If I wanted to fall there, I’d probably have to jump, and then would just roll and roll and roll, and yes, maybe break some bones. This didn’t matter. My rational self, possibly overwhelmed by fatigue and whatever’s wrong with my circulation, gave out.
A fear of heights is common, according to Wikipedia, and so are fears of “ghosts, evil powers, tunnels, bridges, and cockroaches.” I generally don’t worry about ghosts or evil powers or tunnels or bridges, and the cockroaches that inhabited our house when we first moved in didn’t disturb me that much, even the one that crawled out from behind the faucet when I was in the tub, but I’ve been afraid of heights as long as I can remember. My mother had this fear, my siblings do too. Fear is one of the innate emotions. Joy, sadness, and anger are others. How odd, really, to consider emotion. Part of the survival apparatus, but really, just odd.
On the ridge the fear seemed to come from deep in my body like a wave that was going to sweep me up and toss me over the ridge. I felt woozy and a little sick, my mind swimming in some kind of electrified fog and my body uncertain. I wasn’t surprised, had already warned my family I might not go to the top. At a place where the ridge levelled out and the rock and dirt gave way to snow, I told my husband, “You guys go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
“You okay?” he said. “I’m fine. Take your time. Have fun.” I smiled, and he shouted up to the kids to tell them to wait for him, then turned to me again. “You could make your way down from here if you like, and we’ll meet you at the bottom of the ridge or down by the lake.” At the thought of facing the stretch of path I’d just scrambled up, steep and littered with small stones as treacherous as ball bearings, next to an edge where all I could see was sky, I said no and walked over to the opposite side of the ridge with snow on it. We’d been watching people slide down a snowy slope to the left of the ridge. I thought maybe I could cut out the rest of the climb and just slide down from where we were, but I couldn’t see the bottom. I imagined jumping just to get it over with. My husband was watching me. I forced myself away from the edge, forced patience, and walked back towards the path. “I’m going to wait here,” I told him, and sat on a rock.
People streamed past me. It was as if the whole world had read Into Thin Air and wanted to be in a line of people going up. No one even paused, though I could hear fear in some voices. Some, I imagined, thinking as I used to, Why did I agree to this? How much farther and when can I have tea? But they kept going anyway. Why wouldn’t I? I did in the past. I was able to manage the phobia then—at least I did for a while. I climbed rock walls and mountains, for a time followed a man who would eventually climb the Eiger and other insanely frightening mountains. When I think back to that time, I wonder what version of myself I was then, or was that a completely different me that’s been layered over since, not just with more flesh, but also more fear, more doubt, more anxiety? The day before, I had recognized the name of a mountain on a map and pointed to a peak in the distance across Garibaldi Lake. “I climbed that,” I told my family, disappointed when they didn’t seem more impressed or even dumbfounded. Me? Climb a peak with ropes and then rappel off the top without bursting into tears? But maybe they just couldn’t imagine it, which wasn’t that surprising because even as I was pointing it out it felt like a fiction.
There was a gap in the stream of people, then another set of footsteps, another set of lungs panting. The sounds passed me and then stopped. I opened my eyes to see a wobbly-looking older Chinese man standing a few feet away. He was dressed in ordinary clothes and had an open, kind-looking face. We smiled at one another, and he waved his pole up towards the snow slope above us, the one I couldn’t look at for fear of seeing someone slide off it. “I’m following my daughter,” he said. And then asked why I’d stopped. “I’m terrified of heights,” I said, feeling for a moment how freeing confession can be, letting a piece of truth slip out without the usual modifiers to ward off shame or embarrassment.
The man nodded. “I don’t really do this kind of thing.” He pointed up the mountain again. “It’s my daughter.” I nodded too, thinking of my daughter, who I’d abandoned to the mountain and the care of her father and brother. I wondered how she was doing. I knew she was nervous, but determined. Her boyfriend had been there just a week earlier with friends. She had already done a lot of hiking and was strong and sensible, so I wasn’t that worried, but still felt I’d failed her by showing myself as weak and lesser-than. The man and I talked about the weather, and where we were from. I liked his company. I could tell he was as reluctant as I was to be up there. But he girded himself again and faced the mountain, a better parent than I. I watched him begin to ascend the snow slope, but not for long. It made me dizzy to turn my head and the fear rose again as I imagined him sliding helplessly over the edge.
Women are more prone to phobias than men, I learn. As with almost all the bad things. We are more anxious, more depressed, and more phobic than men. Some say it’s because of hormones—the ebbs and flows of estrogen and progesterone, which are like tides. The sea sweeping in and out again. Storms, shifting currents. And just when you get a sense of the pattern of it, you recognize the signs, they change. You’ve entered a new phase. Colette Dowling, author of Red Hot Mamas, The Cinderella Complex, and many other books about the female psyche, says that with less estrogen women are doomed to “reduced brain power along with increased levels of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.” That’s not very reassuring. What happened to We are women, hear us roar? I search among scholarly articles in hopes of something to offset this narrow, darkening view. It’s not reassuring. Estrogen is important in building dendritic spines, thereby helping to create links between neurons, says one article. Stress hormones increase with aging, says another. This is depressing, my body against me. I picture my mind flooding with bad hormones, my neurons losing contact with one another as the spaces between them turn from ditches to chasms.
We keep our balance by using our eyes, our proprioceptors (sensors on the nerve endings throughout our bodies that tell us where we are in space), and the tiny labyrinth of the inner ear, a delicate system of canals filled with fluid and hairs that helps us maintain equilibrium when we’re moving. Tip your head down to the right and the liquid in these channels dips down on one side of your head, up on the other, like a glass. Your eyes, meanwhile, slide the other way, so the image you’re looking at remains in the centre of your field of vision. I love this—the body, a delicate and intricate machine.
Unless a person has vestibular damage, acrophobia is considered a learned fear. Therefore it can be unlearned. I know this is true because I’ve unlearned it before with the climbing, but mastering a phobia is, apparently, not like riding a bike. You have to keep practising. At home, I climb a ladder to do some kind of task and feel it immediately, the dizziness, the mistrust of my own body. It’s so physical a sensation it’s hard to believe it’s just in my head. I hang on to the underside of a door frame or some other small point of contact for balance and this makes me feel so momentarily clever and competent, I’m distracted enough to finish whatever job I’m there to do.
The day I decided to give up climbing I was a few hundred feet up, safely clipped into a bolt in the rock and sitting on a small ledge. I was belaying my partner as he climbed the next pitch above. I looked down, curious to see what death looked like. The fact I wasn’t afraid, some kind of miracle. I had learned by this time that at crucial moments where I might fall if I didn’t pay attention, a voice in the back of my head would tell me what to do. This voice was always precise, clear, unassailable. It wasn’t God, and it wasn’t my mother, though it sounded as clear as both, a sort of God-Mother combination, Charlton Heston and my mother combined. As I looked down, this voice spoke again, and this time it said that if I or my partner made even the slightest error, we could both die. This should have been obvious to me, of course, but the voice was never sarcastic. “This is not your death,” it added, speaking for the first time in editorial terms, instead of instructions.
Last spring my husband and I hiked in to the base of the Chief, site of my last climb. We stared up at the wall of clean, beautiful granite, rising higher than we could see without backing up, straining our necks. There were climbers nearby, a couple making their way inside what looked like a corner, the rock split in straight clear lines. They moved slowly, their voices happy-sounding, their lives dependent on their ropes, their chalks and slings and carabiners. I remember some of the language of climbing. I remember the electric feeling of being surrounded by air. On the way there, I had climbed up through the woods, following a route that wasn’t really a route but was marked by the occasional impression of someone else’s foot on a bit of forest duff, and a bit of moss scraped from a cleft in a boulder. Some of this scrambling approximated climbing. I had the same intoxicating sense of upward movement, only without the fear. And so for a moment I felt what I had given up, it shot through me the way an orgasm does. Did I say that? Oh, what the hell. Say it. And so then I wondered what I had done, walking away from something I must have loved. When I put the question to my husband, he said, “You can’t do everything,” and while I agreed, and know at some level it’s true, I’m still confused between the things I could do if I wanted to, and the things I won’t.
My family descended from the ridge, my daughter’s eyes wide. “You are so lucky you didn’t go up there. You would have freaked.” I laughed, glad to be absolved by her, if not by myself, and then followed them down, keeping my focus on the path, on weighting my feet, concentrating on where I placed them.
We had a picnic beside one of the small lakes, and they showed me the pictures they’d taken at the top—the three of them standing with the backdrop of sky and snow, Olivia sitting, her legs hanging over the edge, the brilliant blue of the lake visible far below. She was trying to smile, but looked sick with fear. “Oh dear,” I said, recognizing what I have passed on.
Jane Silcott’s debut collection of personal essays, Everything Rustles, was published this spring with Anvil Press. She lives with her family in Vancouver where she writes, edits, teaches, and thinks about getting a cat. This excerpt appears courtesy of the author. Slideshow photo courtesy of the author.