It started about 25 years ago when I was a little over 50, and a friend persuaded me to go on a five-day Outward Bound Adult Invitational whitewater rafting trip on the Yampa River In Utah. Sleep in a sleeping bag? In a tent? It sounded like girl scout camp without the cookies, but my friend was very persuasive. Since I’d never been out west other than to Los Angeles, I signed up, not realizing the tradition that adventure would launch.
We divided up into three rubber rafts and took turns paddling through deep sandstone gorges and ran little rapids, none particularly scary. We learned to avoid “sleepers” (rocks covered by water) and other objects sticking out of the water.
On the third day, we pulled into a clearing near a large rock cliff. “And now we’re going to belay,” the instructor said. “You will each have a chance to climb up the cliff, roped in. An instructor will be at the top of the cliff keeping the rope taut, so if you fall, you won’t fall more than five feet.”
The feeling of accomplishment is so much greater than the fear of failing.
From the bottom, the cliff looked taller than the Empire State Building, and my heart sank into my stomach. A corporate titan as big as a football player volunteered to go first. It seemed to take him forever to get up the rock wall and at one point, I heard him let out a sob.
One by one, my expedition mates ascended to the top until finally, it was my turn. The instructor hooked my harness to the rope. “Remember,” he said, “Find the holes with your fingers and use your legs to pull you up.” I tried to hide my shaking hands and looked for a place to start up the rock. I could barely swallow, my mouth was so dry. “On belay,” I called out as instructed.
One foot stepped on the rock but there was no perch for my other foot. Three times I tried and failed to ascend. Why was this so impossible? I wanted to quit, but the Outward Bound motto is “To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield.” I told myself I would not yield, no matter what. I could hear my mother’s voice discouraging me. “Don’t do this, you’ll hurt yourself.” Or “I could never do that so why do you think you can?”
Suddenly, my foot found a crevice to rest, my finger found a hand grip and I was climbing! Step after step, hand over hand. It was easy. And then, just like that, I was at the top of the rock face. “Holy Cow!” the instructor said, “You were so fast! You’re Spider Woman.” I could hear everyone around me applauding.
Starting the Tradition
It was a pivotal moment because I had achieved something I had never thought I could do, and in that instant, I knew that If I could climb this rock face, I could do anything. I vowed that from now on, every year I would do one thing that scared me to death because the feeling of accomplishment is so much greater than the fear of failing.
The following year, I entered a 25-mile bike race in Fairfield County, Connecticut. My hybrid bike was used to hills, but these were more like mountains, plus all the other competitors had road bikes and wore clipped shoes (both of which gave them greater speed and control). I was the last to cross the finish line and as I did, I heard a little boy say,” Is she just finishing now?” I could hear his father say, “Be quiet.” But nothing bothered me. I’d done it!
Every year I became more fearless. While hiking in Alaska and wearing bear bells, I lost my terror of having a close encounter with a grizzly. Skip Barber Racing School taught me not to be afraid of driving downhill too fast or turning corners at speed, and I learned to downshift like Mario Andretti. Then there was the corporate ladder ropes course at an upstate spa in which the higher I climbed, the more impossible it was. I called down to the guide, “The rungs are farther and farther apart. I can’t do this!”
“Why do you think they call it The Corporate Tower?” she yelled back.
To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield, I reminded myself, took a deep breath, managed to finally reach the top rung and screamed with joy.
Challenging Yourself: To Fear is To Live
There are things I’ve tried like scuba diving, marathons, Olympic distance triathlons, adventure races, all which were frightening, but all at which I succeeded. And each time I achieved the goal, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.
I figured that if I could dare myself to walk around this platform, I would finally be able to move past the event that shaped so much of my life.
One of the most frightening things I did was climb to Advanced Base Camp on the North Face of Everest. The air was so thin we seemed to crawl forward, gasping for breath. We had to wear helmets in case a chunk of ice fell on our heads, and the most terrifying thing was having to cross a frozen lake that even the yaks didn’t want to set foot on. The ice cracked, but no yak fell in and neither did we. And afterwards, I felt an overall confidence boost that translated to my work and my peace of mind.
The second most heart-thumping challenge I attempted was circumnavigating the top of Toronto’s 1,815-foot CN Tower. You had to walk around a five-foot ledge while harnessed to two huge cables.
I’m not afraid of heights, but I am terrified of looking down at the ground from the top of a skyscraper. When I was in my teens, my father committed suicide by jumping from the window ledge of an office building. For years, I conjured up an image of him out there alone on the ledge. I figured that if I could dare myself to walk around this platform, I would finally be able to move past the event that shaped so much of my life.
As I looked out at a puffy cloud, I suddenly felt the pain I had been carrying around stop. I didn’t climb on this ledge to end my life; I did it to understand my father. But it wasn’t about him. It was about me. I was on a ledge but not going toward death as he had. I was embracing life. And suddenly, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
Conquering an Emotional Fear
My scariest physical adventure was paddling 16 days on the Colorado River where the icy world-class rapids whipped me in the face and could flip the boat at any second without notice. It took me three days to learn to enjoy stabbing at the rapids from my position at left bow. But there was another fear to conquer. I had now learned to love being out in nature and my husband hated the outdoors. He even described bird calls “noise.”
I knew I was enjoying and appreciating something I could never share with my husband.
Sleeping beneath a universe of stars for more than two weeks gave me plenty of time to think. I knew I was enjoying and appreciating something I could never share with my husband. And for the first time, I admitted our marriage was deteriorating. In the beginning, when I met him, I loved being a “corporate wife,” but now all those designer clothes and glittery events felt empty. He and his clients always came first. It was time for me to put myself first and find my own way. When I returned home, I told him I was leaving. Suddenly I was alone after so many years as a couple.
With no one holding me back, my publishing career skyrocketed. I continued to attempt scary new things, but was ready for feats that didn’t involve so much physical activity. I decided to take up blues harmonica: it was small enough to fit in my pocket and could easily travel the world with me, which I did often for my work.
Getting on the Big Stage
A year later, I dared myself to get on stage and perform at an open mic jam. My entire body was shaking and sweaty, but once I started to play, I loved it. The music jams have been closed since COVID, but with a year of free time, I‘ve written songs, sung them, and played them on my small but essential harp. Some friends suggested I make a CD, which I thought it was a ridiculous idea, but why not? I contacted the greatest blues band in the country, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, and amazingly, they wrote back, “Come and play!”
Everyone thought it was performance jitters, but I knew it was a different kind of terror.
Is spending three days singing and playing harp as an amateur on a CD with brilliant musicians scary? Absolutely not. It was probably the most joyous thing I have ever done in my life. The terrifying thing was driving to the event. I have only rented a car a couple of times since I sold mine 25 years ago. And while I’m not afraid of taking the wheel (see: racing school, above), I panic about getting lost. I’m sure I’ll be stuck on some super freeway unable to get off because I can’t get into the exit lane in time.
For three nights before meeting up with the band, I was too wired to sleep. Everyone thought it was performance jitters, but I knew it was the terror of never finding my way. But I did, thanks to my iPhone (though the app had to re-route me four times).
Now that I’m back from conquering the fear of getting lost, it’s time to start thinking about what chilling thing will be next. Why does it have to be scary? Because each challenge has helped me chart my own path and reveal a new way to think about life. And each has led me to try adventures and make new friends I never otherwise would have met. These days, even though I’m in my 70s, I feel there is nothing I cannot do. And, passing from the moment of abject terror to the moment of sheer joy is about as good as it gets.