This post was orginally published on my old site, thetype2funtourist, but I loved it so much I decided to move it over here. Read Time: ~8 minutes
A week or two ago, I posted a photo from some ice climbing I had done. “Wow you’re so badass” one of my friends commented. I was surprised. I certainly didn’t feel badass while I was climbing. I felt terrified, awkward, ungainly. I had 4 bits of metal connecting me to some frozen water. While I was almost as safe as you could possibly be, I had a tight line of rope between me and the person belaying from above, my brain continued to tell me that I was in terrible, terrible danger. I shook. I snivelled. I smacked myself in the lip with my ice axe. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation as I tried not to cry. I would have liked to give up several times but I had nowhere to go but up.
You would think such a traumatic experience would occur very rarely. However, living in Chamonix I seemed to find myself in such a state at least once, twice or even three times a week. My first time down the arrete off the Aiguille du Midi, a lift accessed razor back ridge line at 3842m that leads to the most famous off piste run in Europe – La Vallée Blanche, was before the ropes, paths and endless guided groups of punters had been installed on the ridge. I walked carefully. One step at a time. I focused only on the snow in front of me and Rovin murmuring reassuringly behind me “you’re doing good Feli, keep going, you want a rope you just tell me”. It took me a long time for me to descend the 50 or so metres of “if you fall you die” territory. I felt extremely inadequate compared to everyone else confidently striding down the ridge. I often wonder if people see me and think “what on earth is that girl doing here? She’s clearly out of her depth” as I huff, puff, shake, and snivel my way up and down some quite imposing terrain.
Last week on my 5th time down the arrete I felt a lot more comfortable waiting patiently behind an old mountain guide with a tiny cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth, roped up, but paying no attention to his four nervous clients. It was reassuring to finally feel not like the most hopeless person on the ridge.
However, at some point, if you want to improve, you have to be that person. The slowest, the most scared, the least capable. The mountains provide a life long learning curve and if you start as late as me the curve is steep and slippery. Everyday I feel lucky to have people who are patient, kind, and willing to share their experience with me. Even though, I’m always last to get my skins on so they have to wait in the cold. Even though, I am always slowest to reach the Col when the only thing I’m carrying to share is a camera and a smile. I often promise myself as I am lagging behind, faffing about, or after I have been frozen somewhere in terror for an indistinguishable length of time, one day I will be one of those people to someone else, to continue the mountain butterfly effect.
“I’m going to find this quite frightening” I admitted to Rovin and Anne looking down the other side of Col du Chardonnet. “Of course you are” was Rovin’s matter of fact German response. He proceeded to continue setting up an anchor and a rope to lower me in to the couloir below. I gulped nervously having flash backs to the previous week where a miscommunication had left me stranded 5m above where I wanted to be on a rappel descent or the day before when I had first abseiled with skis on and been torn between wanting to lean in to the slope and dig my ski edges in for safety and to lean back in my harness for safety. This time it all ran smoothly, and I made it to the bottom of the couloir, and across the bergschrund, without so much as a whimper of terror. Along with successfully completing seven steep kick turns where I practically had my face pressed against the snow on the ascent out over Fenetre du Tour the day felt like another baby step towards being less of a liability to have around.
In short, my point is to provide some context for those Instagram photos of wild places, altitude, exposure and danger. These views are not reached without a good dose of suffering, and fear, lots of fear. I do not feel brave or badass. Normally, I feel some combination of inadequate, exhausted, and terrified. But one of my favourite quotes is from T.S Eliot “if you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”.
When I was scrubbing potatoes in the basement of the restaurant I work in, questioning my life choices as I often do, I was thinking about the word brave. It occurred to me that perhaps bravery is not always feeling no fear. Perhaps, bravery can be feeling a huge amount of fear, but doing it anyway. Perhaps, being brave is about being afraid.