Andrew Evans confronts his acrophobia on Canada’s newest vertical challenge: the Via Ferrata.
Not that I wouldn’t mind dying in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a pretty spectacular place inhabited by friendly locals and mild-mannered grizzly bears. The extreme drop-offs are tremendously beautiful, I concur. I also find them hugely terrifying.
As a self-diagnosed acrophobic, I try to avoid rock ledges, steep mountain chasms and thousand-foot-high cliffs. Smart people have often explained that I am not really afraid of heights–I’m only afraid of falling. Reading up on vertigo, I have learned that mine is not an irrational fear. I merely have “vestibular issues” that affect my balance and which are most likely evolutionary. Apparently, my ancient ancestors also suffered from falling dreams.
In Canada, I got to face my fears head on. Travel helps us do that by dropping us into unusual or difficult circumstances and then forcing us to do things we don’t normally choose to do. For me, that meant getting dropped off by helicopter onto a mountain ridge some 7,000 feet above sea level.
Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) are better known for inventing heli-skiing, where hardcore skiers can access some of the greatest and highest virgin powder on Earth by helicopter. The same idea works for eager hikers in summertime: the 3-minute helicopter ride lets you skip the ten-hour base climb and get right to the good stuff. Or in my case, the super scary stuff.
I could have stuck to simpler paths and enjoyed the wild alpine vistas of Canada’s Columbia Range. Only a few hours’ drive from Banff, the clear streams and awesome geology of these high mountaintops and glaciers make for magnificent walking–something low-altitude walkers rarely experience. And yet I wanted to go there–wanted to confront my ultimate fear and see what happened. Would I lose it completely or could I keep my cool?
The opportunity to find out came on CMH’s new Via Ferrata, a fairly intense all-day climb over a series of steep ridges, peaks, and cliffs. The Italian name, “iron way,” comes from the iron pins, handholds, and steel cables that assist the climber along the way. Thankfully, the addition of a harness, which lets one stay double-clipped to the cables, makes the experience merely adventurous instead of rather deadly.
I found my hands a little shaky that morning, even before we lifted off. The helicopter added an eerie Apocalypse Now soundtrack to the moment, my own heart thumping with adrenalin as I tried to focus on the shadowy slopes covered with spindly lodgepole pines and the milky turquoise rivers below. Across from me, an older woman in shorts bore the parallel scars of a double knee replacement. I thought, “If she can do this, I can do this,” but I wasn’t so sure. She seemed a lot calmer than I was.
After landing on a narrow rocky ridge, I looked up at the summit I was about to climb–the 9,000 foot-high tower of Mount Nimbus. The jutting rectangle of rock stuck out against the cloudless sky like a jagged bronze tooth.
Honestly, the scariest moment for me was the first ascent. I raised one foot onto the tiny iron bar and then hoisted myself up to the next rung. Unclip, reclip; unclip, reclip. My body hugged the rock while I reached out with one hand and slid my carabiners up to the next pin: unclip, reclip, unclip, reclip. Climb then clip–clip then climb. The process of clipping and climbing took such terrific concentration, I did not have the energy to be afraid. Bit by bit, I grew more confident–I began swinging my hand to the next place, hoping that my grasp would hold. I learned to rely on the rock instead of the metal–feeling for holds and wedging my boot toes into the cracks. I was climbing upward, closer to the top, and as the hours passed, I began to feel at ease, even giddy that I was actually doing this very scary thing.
That’s until we reached the bridge. Before the final ascent to the utmost pinnacle, one must cross a treacherous chasm by means of a 300-foot long swaying suspension bridge. To make things more interesting, the bridge’s wooden slats are placed one step apart, leaving an unavoidable view of the 3,000-foot drop below. Maybe I was clipped to a safety cable, but that didn’t keep me from going over the edge mentally.
And yet, out of nowhere, a powerful sense of survival kicked in that was much stronger than any of my fears: I knew there was only one way out of this and that was across. I walked forward mechanically, pushing every finger muscle forward, forcing my legs to take each step over the abyss. There was a steak dinner and a bubbling outdoor hot tub back at the lodge. . .I just had to keep walking.
Needless to say I made it to the summit, which for me was a massive accomplishment. It was a perfect moment in perfect weather and a great relief for me personally, except that I had to get back down.
“How do we get down?” I asked the guide.
“Rope,” he answered, tying me to a single length of soft rope.
Did I mention that I also don’t like rappelling so much? I never have. Maybe it’s my fear of heights, or maybe as a kid I used to rappel from my second-story bedroom window until the day I fell and only survived thanks to a small shrubbery that did not.
Yet once again I forced myself to do it–forced myself to completely unclip myself, forced myself to walk backwards and fall gently over the rock overhang.
Suspended by a single cord over the 200-foot emptiness, I felt absolutely no fear, even when the rope twisted and spun me around, forcing me to take in the mile-wide panorama of granite and glaciers. I had transcended this one fear and as I was lowered back down to the ground, I felt completely relaxed–on the verge of jubilation.
I don’t know if I ever need to do it again. I probably won’t. The point is that now I know that I can.
Photos: Andrew Evans