I’ve mentioned my friend Johnny Hunter on occasion. He’s a fantastic hiking and climbing buddy. And he has one thing I sorely wish I had.
He has no fear of exposure.
When talking about the term “exposure,” I need to define it a little better. In climbing terms, exposure is loosely defined as the level of risk of falling. Something with low exposure would be, say, a hike up Elk Mountain. Virtually no danger of falling anywhere off that trail unless you trip and fall on your butt. Higher exposure, like the Class 3 and 4 routes on Mount Mitchell, means you’re dealing with dropoffs and steep terrain that could results in serious injury or even death if you fell. Large, sheer dropoffs, like the kind you find on vertical faces, offer the certainty of death if you fell. High-exposure areas are also those in which you have to climb/traverse the section and can’t go around. Uncompahgre Peak, for example, has HUGE vertical dropoffs of several hundred feet, but the standard route to the summit avoids them. Therefore, the exposure level on that route is relatively low.
As I said before, exposure doesn’t bother Johnny. It bothers me, however. So for the last several years, I’ve tried to gradually push myself to tolerating higher levels of exposure. That way, more of the backcountry is open to me for exploration. And if I ever want to try a more major undertaking when it comes to mountaineering, I’ll need to feel comfortable — and confident – in my skills and not get freaked out by heights.
The good news: The relatively high exposure on certain sections of Mount Mitchell didn’t bug me. To the contrary, they were fun. The bad news: I still don’t like sheer dropoffs. No tightrope traverses for me, thank you. So this is a work in progress.
If you’re like me and have a fear of heights, you might consider this approach. Gradually test your mental limits on successive trips. Go with someone who is pretty confident when it comes to dealing with exposure. What will happen over time is that you will realize much of your fear is irrational. The stuff that once appeared scary isn’t scary anymore. And as long as you have a high level of respect for high exposure areas (a little fear is not a bad thing), certain hikes and climbs can become fun, even exhilarating.
One side note: If you attempt more challenging hikes and climbs, stay within your skill/fitness level, have the proper safety equipment and be well-versed in their usage. And never push anyone beyond their skills/fitness. No one has fun when people get hurt.