Bravery Takes Practice: Facing Fear In The Culture Of Outdoor Adventure

words :: Cassidy Randall

On February 3, 2017, I broke my ankle in a high-speed ski crash—a soul-crushing blow as that winter evolved into the most epic snowpocalypse in recent memory.

However, the largest setback didn’t arrive until the following winter. Stepping into my bindings to start the season, I noticed pain and a lack of control in my once free turns. This created a new monster my head, one that had never existed in my skiing.

Fear.

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Suddenly I was sliding around with a mental hitchhiker I’d never known before. Fear tamped me down into a cautious skier with next-to zero risk tolerance, and transformed the mountains from a dream playground into a minefield. In a community of outdoor adventure addicts where few people talk about being afraid—even as we hurl ourselves off cliffs, charge into whitewater and scale sheer walls—I felt like a weak link.

Janice Redford in Squamish, BC
Janice Redford knows a thing or two about facing fear in the mountains. Photo: Jannicke Kitchen

In the midst of this unwelcome dance with fear, a friend handed me End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood, a memoir by Squamish local, Jan Redford.

I couldn’t put it down. The book chronicles Redford’s complicated relationship with climbing—a relationship hopelessly tangled in the childhood influence of her alcoholic father, the loss of her first love to an avalanche, a stifling subsequent marriage, the deaths of fellow climbers, an unrealized dream of university, and a persistent need to prove herself on the wall—all wrapped up in the addictive joy of the sport.

End of the Rope is a snapshot of the climbing world in the 80s with a twist: Redford is incredibly open about how external circumstances inform her mental dance with fear. It’s a huge dose of vulnerability that’s traditionally absent from the hyper-masculine climbing culture. In an era that glorifies adventure sports with little acknowledgement of the difficult or painful aspects that come with it, Redford’s book is mesmerizingly honest. And her own journey with fear was the exact perspective I needed to convince myself I wasn’t the only one wrestling that demon.

“Bravery takes practice,” Redford writes as she ultimately comes to an understanding of her fear and the circumstances that shaped it. That phrase ran circles in my head until I finally sat down with her to dive deeper into what it means to acknowledge fear, its origins, how it holds us back, and—if we can’t overcome it—how we can perform alongside it.

“Outdoor sports attract a lot of walking wounded, people dealing with trauma from before they ever got into the outdoor community,” Redford muses. “I think a person who needs a lot of control over their own lives and emotions is drawn to throwing themselves into situations that require control to survive. Personally, I grew up in a household where my father was irrational, and I never knew what would happen next. So, I wanted to feel control.”

Is a need for control in scary situations the common denominator in people attracted to high-risk adventure sports? Is the bliss of riding that line between in control and out of control, but somehow holding it together, what drives us to confront fear again and again?

Redford continues, “For me, the judgement I put on myself for having fear, is actually so much worse than the fear itself. I finally realized that I’m not a shitty person just because I’m afraid, and that I used to do things that were really dangerous to prove myself to my community and my boyfriend.”

I realize this is an iteration of a narrative I hear from many women in the adventure sport world: this complicated need to prove ourselves as good enough, fast enough and strong enough, that Redford so eloquently captures in End of the Rope.

“There’s no shortage of strong women in the outdoor community,” Redford says, “but I don’t know that we ever give ourselves credit for our strength because we compare ourselves all the time. Often, others perceive us as stronger than we actually perceive ourselves.”

Redford ponders the fine balance between fear and stoicism that informs our judgement in high-risk situations. We all have a different balance point, and it shifts between pursuits, influenced by the elements of risk and reward at hand. “It’s almost like we’re in a war zone when we’re on a mountain, and you want to be with someone who can really keep their shit together under pressure.”

As we close our conversation, I’m inspired by Redford’s rare mix of honesty, vulnerability, and badass-ness to rethink my own situation. Skiing is one of the things that makes me happiest no matter what: that feeling of flying, the simplicity of the skin track, of being exhausted at the end of a beautiful day, all of it. I realize that the joy hasn’t changed, even if it’s now inextricably tangled up with the fear. It’s up to me to decide which one defines my relationship with this thing I love so much.

Whatever the origins of our individual fear—injury, family relationships, grief, a complicated relationship with proving ourselves—it is woven into our addiction to adventure whether we like it or not. After reading End of the Rope, I’m even more convinced that it’s how we choose to deal with fear that ultimately shapes the course of our lives. — ML