Conquering My Fear Monster
Some of the hardest trails I’ve ever hiked are just a few hours north of NYC in the Catskill Mountains. Let me rephrase that – some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done anywhere in the world is to the tops of the Catskill mountain peaks that don’t actually have any trails. How do you get to the top of a mountain without a trail, you may ask? By bushwhacking, of course! No, I don’t mean by bringing a machete and chopping down brush, but by learning how to read the contours of a map and using a compass to forge your way to the summit. Hiking in this manner is not only hard physically, by navigating over rocks, across streams and through thickets of trees, but like most things in life, it’s hard mentally to have faith in yourself that you’re going the right way when you can’t clearly see the path forward. It’s only by plugging along, one step at a time in a general uphill direction, that you make it to your goal.
In some places, where the mountains are tall and you hike above tree line, it’s relatively easy, especially in sunny conditions, to see where the top of a mountain is, even if there’s no path to it. In the Catskills, where the highest peak sits just only at 4180 feet above sea level, you’re in amongst the trees and the rocks and you almost never have a clear sightline to the top, even in the winter when the leaves have fallen. So why do it? Why challenge oneself like this?
For me it’s partially about finishing a to-do list and it always feels good to cross something of a list, doesn’t it? There are 35 peaks in the Catskills over 3500 feet, 16 of which don’t have maintained trails to the top and 10 of which are total bushwhacks without any trail at all. You can earn a patch and recognition from the Catskill 3500 Club when you’ve completed them all, (plus gone back and hiked 4 of them in the winter). Back when I was in college, my dad tackled all of the peaks and I went out with him for a few. It seemed like something fun to do, albeit a bit obsessive. 13 years later, after I had completed hiking the Appalachian Trail and was jonesing for some multi-night backpacking trips, I realized that Catskills were my closest option to NYC. By the time I did all possible circuit hikes, I was close to half-way with the 35 peaks, so I thought, why not just complete that list?
I’m still working on the list. 19 years after that first summit with my dad, (with a nearly 13-year hiatus from the Catskills in-between), there are 6 peaks left for me to hike. For convenience sake (or so I thought) I saved all of the bushwhacks for the end. Now completing the 35 has become more about the challenge of overcoming fear and of learning what I’m made of than simply finishing a list. A big part of bushwhacking is shutting out that fear monster in my head that allows doubt to creep in – that I’ve miscalculated my compass bearing & should have just brought a GPS device, that I or my hiking partner is going to twist an ankle, or the worst kind of doubt – the imposter syndrome sinks in – “So you call yourself a hiking guide, huh? You sure you know where you even are right now?”
Navigating by map and compass is one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever done and the only way to get beyond the fear is to just get out there and do it. I’ve had some miscalculations and ended up on the summit of a neighboring mountain. I’ve had to turn back before reaching a peak after getting started too late in the day and not wanting to descend in the dark. But increasingly I have had successes. And knowing how good it feels to get to the top is a huge confidence boost! Like any longtime professional, sports or otherwise, the more you practice, the better you get.
The more I’m out there the faster I can clamp down on that fear monster too. I take precautions and come prepared for the worst. I know that if I was to get off track I could survive an unexpected night out because I have brought extra layers, food, water and fire starter with me. Just knowing I have those items with me, (and remembering all those other successful hikes I’ve done in my life), gives me even more confidence to trust my compass bearing and keep forging ahead. Before I know it, I’m at the top, celebrating by signing my name in the summit register!
The hardest part of any challenge in life is to trust yourself in taking that first step into uncharted territory. Reminding yourself of what you’ve already accomplished in life can go a long way and be just the boost you need to help you face your next challenge, be it a bushwhack hike or brand new job. It may not be easy, but by not trying to begin with, you’ll never learn what you’re made of.