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Fear is your friend

Normal SnowbridgeWhen I was sixteen I approached the edge of a deep crevasse, trying to decide if the collapsed snow bridge inside it would be strong enough for our team to cross so we could get on with our climb. It was 4:30am and everything on the mountain was frozen solid. The full moon was all the light we needed.

I asked for a belay from one of the climbers. He chuckled, a serious violation of the rules. (If a climber asks for a belay there is no question about it, no reaction other than to set the belay.) The belay was set and as I approached the edge of the crevasse a crack formed the size of a box car, completely encircling me. The entire thing could go at any moment, or it was no big deal. My heart beat was telling me it was a big deal. A really big deal. And my buddy that set the belay wasn't chuckling any more.

After a few minutes it appeared that the ice was stable, so the next thing I had to do was cut steps down the inside wall of the crevasse. This way I could use the steps to get to where I could jump over to the collapsed snow bridge and test it to see if it would hold our weight. (People were always asking me why I did this stuff; unless you do it there's no way to explain it.)

After climbing to the bottom step I took a deep breath and jumped over to the snow bridge. I looked down into the blackness of the crevasse and the only way to guess the depth of it was to listen to the ice falling into it and see if you could hear it hit the bottom. I never heard anything hit the bottom.

I jumped up and down on the snow bridge and it was rock solid. Everyone was able to cross with no problems. There was no guarantee, of course, that when we came back down the mountain, and the sun had been on it for a few hours, that it would still hold our weight. We might need to find another route later. Another rule broken. The fact that I'm writing this is a good indicator that we found another route.

I'm writing about this to talk about fear. Did I have to deal with fear during this little episode? Sure. Did I let fear defeat me? It's not that simple. I've read many so called experts write about fear but their words leave me wondering if they've ever felt fear, real fear, cold, numbing fear.

Fear isn't something you conquer... it's something you learn to work with. Conquering fear is a trap. It sounds so macho, but fear is like a friend. You learn to trust and respect fear. Fear is always with you and it's there to watch over you. If you 'conquer' fear and you ignore it you usually wind up getting hurt.

Cops, firefighters and mountain climbers, and anyone else that's extended beyond their comfort zone, learn to appreciate fear. They train and work with it, and exercise courage so they can do what they do in spite of it. Fear is ever present, and it should be while your training eventually builds confidence and your friend fear steps aside, or at the very least it stops talking.

Training and experience teach you not only how to use your equipment, but that you can trust your equipment. And, beyond that, you learn that you can trust the guy next to you. When a team knows their job, trusts their equipment, and trusts one another, they're in a good place to get the job done, or the mountain climbed, safely. Trust helps your friend fear to relax and know it's all going to be OK. And, at the end of the day, everyone goes home to their loved ones in one piece.

There's a difference, of course, between fear and risk. I'll talk about that next time.

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