Fear-Frozen on the Moab Arches

Fear is a fascinating phenomenon—it keeps us grounded in our safe zone, and when we do venture out and encounter frightening situations, we freeze up. After free-climbing a Class-4 section of featureless sandstone in Moab last week, I found myself crouching atop the 140-foot Corona Arch, reeling from the ascent. Zach, leading the questionable excursion, broke the strained silence by asking if we knew any jokes. I was hyperventilating too much to respond, but Josh verbalized my mental paralysis perfectly:

“My Darwinian superiority is taking over. Can’t think.”

Approach to Corona Arch

Approach to Corona Arch

If you allow it, fear will limit your experiences and leave you on the couch watching your life dribble by. Fear can be irrational (I’m terrified of fish), but it’s also ingrained in us for a reason. The purpose of fear is to promote survival, and Josh wasn’t being a snot when he referenced human’s evolutionary success. Through evolution, those who tread carefully did so through self-preservation instinct, surviving to pass down their cautionary genetics. But we wouldn’t be where we are today without risk-takers. Someone’s ancestor discovered fire, and probably got burned before they got it right. Taking risks puts you in danger, but it’s just as scary to spend your best years on the ground watching everyone else climb.

The scramble scared me so bad I clipped into the FLAT GROUND.

The scramble scared me so much I clipped onto flat ground.

I completely froze in the middle of the unroped ascent. On this trip, I’d climbed finger cracks, led my first desert climb, and done an unanchored counterbalance rappel. But creeping up Corona Arch with a 70-meter rope butterflied to my back, knowing I’d die if I misplaced one foot, I couldn’t handle it. I tensed and started hyperventilating, unable to continue to the traverse. I heard a scuffling to my left and jerked my head around. It was Kala, the other girl on the trip, who had pushed past major climbing fears in the past few days. She galloped (really… on all fours) past me and grinned: “Hi Maggie! Just run, you can do it! The faster you go, the less time you have to think.” Then she cruised up and away like a veritable mountain goat. I stared at the rock, ignored the thought of a 100-foot ground fall, and galumphed on hands and feet after her.

Scary part over. Waiting to rappel.

Scary part over. Waiting to rappel.

The ascent was scary, and it was effectively pointless to put myself in that sort of danger. But sometimes you have to throw yourself into uncomfortable situations where backing out isn’t an option. I couldn’t downclimb if I’d wanted to—it was either get to the top, or wait for a helicopter. This same thought can be applied to embarking on a 2,180-mile trek. When you’re  on an exposed bald in a thunderstorm, or hearing bear sounds outside your tent, you can’t say “Never mind. I want to go home right now.” You have to grit your teeth and keep going. Accept the fear—it’s there for a reason. You can analyze it later.



I didn’t really know how to tie Moab into an AT-focused backpacking website, but the limit-pushing and fear-facing is comparable. I was out of my comfort zone during much of the trip, but it was so worth it. That’s it: I’m scared to hike the AT next year. I’ll be leaving a comfortable job, my friends, and the secure life I’ve built. But if I stay within my comfort zone, I’ll always be stuck on the ground wishing I could rappel off the arch.



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