The weather's perfect, the wind is calm, and no threat of thunder clouds loom on the horizon. What's the problem?
For many hikers and climbers, a fear of heights can stop them dead in their tracks, preventing them from making the final push to the top and enjoying the killer views they've worked so hard for. It seems counter-intuitive, but many outdoor-minded folks struggle with heights, especially when terrain reaches Class 3+ territory.
Not familiar with terrain levels? Take a look at this blog post on hiking classes.
It makes sense that Class 3 is where many hikers and climbers might start second guessing themselves. Increased exposure can play some serious mind games on us, so knowing techniques for mentally and physically preparing for Class 3+ terrain can really come in handy!
1. Be prepared -- in more ways than one.
Climbing unfamiliar and potentially risky terrain, especially as a less experienced hiker, is stressful enough by itself. Don't add to the stress and anxiety by questioning your physical and gear-related preparedness. Getting a solid night's sleep, eating a hearty meal, and being well-rested -- and confident in your fitness -- prior to your climb will imbue you with confidence.
Beyond being physically prepared, be sure to be prepared gear-wise. You might have perfect weather for your climb attempt, but you might not, and minimizing the impact the elements have can mean the difference between making the summit and turning around. For me, this means extra layers (especially for my hands), a tight-knit cap that covers my ears, sunglasses that fit snugly on my face, and grippy, comfortable shoes that have been sufficiently broken in. Bringing the appropriate amount of food and water goes without saying!
2. Build your confidence slowly, and practice in controlled environments.
I notice a considerable difference in my ability to hike Class 3+ terrain confidently when I am climbing regularly in the climbing gym, either sport climbing or bouldering. The repetition of doing route after route in a controlled environment instills me with confidence, because I know that if I can hold on and make it up a vertical wall, I can definitely scramble my way over some Class 3 talus. If you haven't tried rock climbing in a gym, check out your local meetup groups and join in on a group outing. It's a great low-risk way to become more comfortable with heights.
3. Employ some zen-like meditation techniques, and know what works for you.
I do my best climbing in more exposed areas when I maintain a steady pace. If I allow myself to stop and noodle on the challenging terrain in front of me, I can get nervous, so I trust my gut and move forward steadily. But, I have a good amount of experience with multi-pitch trad climbing. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is a less experienced climber and prefers a different method -- he likes to stop, breathe, and consider the path before him, steadying his mind (and his hands!) before he moves forward.
The latter is probably the best technique for those uncomfortable with heights, as long as you don't linger so long you become paralyzed. Breathing deeply, practicing focusing techniques, and clearing your head are all great ways to move forward. Just be sure to practice these techniques in your day-to-day life too.
4. Remember that the elimination of fear isn't the point, and be patient with yourself.
Fear is necessary and healthy. It prevents us from doing potentially dangerous things. The goal with regards to gaining confidence with Class 3+ terrain isn't to eliminate fear, but rather to acknowledge it exists and exert a smart level of control over it. It's about being comfortable inside your fear, not banishing it entirely. And remember that being upset or frustrated with yourself for struggling with fear is entirely unproductive. Focus your energy on managing your fears through smart techniques, not on berating yourself for not being good enough!
I like to remind myself that being scared isn't the problem; the problem only arises when that fear prevents you from doing what you love.