“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” – Jack Canfield
I sit on the edge of the sturdy rubber boat, staring at the rare spectacular blue emanating from beneath the water. I wonder about hidden depths of ice below, and my heart begins thumping beneath layers of protective clothing. Sea ice crackles as our driver and naturalist Christian stands at the back of the boat, one hand around a long steering handle, navigating us away from the safety of the expedition ship. I glance around at icebergs everywhere and notice the emphasis of white under vibrant sunshine, cloudless skies and zero wind. This does not look to me as terrain to touch. I feel as if I have been transported either to another planet or another time period.
None of us nine passengers say anything. We glide with grace, crunching through sections of ice toward a tall, wide, snow-covered mountain. Cracks, ridges, and one long slope of thick white smoothness covers dark rocks below. A few whispered “wows” mine included, are all emphasized like I’ve never heard before. It’s like being in the presence of a spectacular cathedral. So sacred, I’m frozen by it. Beauty and wonder exist here, yet a sense of harshness and danger is present too. It is sensory overload – the serene, devoid of smell, emptiness and unknown. I am drugged by it.
I glance up at the inchworm type straight lines of five or six specks climbing up the mountain ahead, spread out in various sections. They look like dot to dots along the quiet white ice. They are skiers, my husband included, roped together making their first ascent to the summit with the reward of skiing down.
One of five trekkers and ninety-seven skiers, I am the only one who is afraid to venture out and explore Antarctica on a roped line. I am questioning if I belong here. If I should’ve come after all. I’m not a skier or mountaineer. I do not light up at freezing temperatures, fresh tracks, and powder. I am here because my husband Gordon asked me to accompany and support him in his dream of skiing Antarctica. He wants me to experience this place very few people get to see, with him. But I’m feeling vulnerably alone. Separate from and different than all these bundled up extreme adventurers. None of them seem to own an ounce of trepidation.
Heading now for the landing area, my stomach feels queasy. I am worried that a snow bridged crevasse – something I never knew existed before – will somehow swallow me up if I participate in the trekking excursion with my group. I feel a lump in my throat, but voice my feelings to our guide anyway. “Uh…Sarah, I…I am not going to go after all. I can’t do it yet. This just feels…I…I…I am just overwhelmed at all of this.”
Minutes later, it’s just me in the boat restraining tears. “Ok, how about we take a little cruise around and find some penguins before heading back to the ship?” Christian asks. I nod, take a deep breath, and find a smile on the exhale.
It’s a day later and another opportunity to trek. “You should go!” Gordon whispers before kissing me goodbye and heading out to ski. I am in our stateroom reluctantly beginning the process of layering clothes. Wool long underwear, waterproof Gore-tex pants, black Lucy workout jacket, Acteryx wool under layer. I step into each leg of my harness and raise it to my hips. I grab the center loop holding the heavy carabiner, glance down, and open and close it a few times. Like I was instructed, I straighten the harness so the loop faces forward, pull the side straps snugly above my hip bones, and secure it with a quick tug of the belt. I pick up the avalanche beacon, unzip the case that holds it on a shoulder harness, and turn it on. Even the beep letting me know it’s actively transmitting a silent, lifesaving signal, injects adrenaline into my bloodstream.
All of this is so foreign to me. Yet, I imagine for others on this ship, it’s as familiar as brushing teeth. I catch the image of myself in the mirror, and when I look closer, watery green child eyes reflect back. I want to be fearless, but I wonder how. How to make the bubbling in my stomach subside. How to lessen jittery legs and the onset of a flood-full of tears. I know I must do something. It can’t just be this way.
I close my eyes. Breathe more slowly and deeply. Feel the floor beneath my wool socked feet. Seek that heart space I’ve learned to connect to and with every sunrise when I meditate. C’mon. Where is my heart? My strength? My God? I grab my iPod and search my Meditation playlist. I press play on a random track of Deepak Chopra’s Expanding Happiness meditation. His soothing voice speaks of no fear present when there is no separation of self from others, or from the Universe. He reminds me that I am one with everything and everyone. I concentrate carefully on each word, my heart, my light. I let the tears free.
Thirty minutes later, I stand in snowshoes at the base of a snow blanketed mountain. I’m looking through goggles at hundreds of feathered creatures in black and white suits. They waddle along in close proximity, unfazed at snow blowing sideways. I smile. Doug, the guide and owner of Ice Axe Expeditions places the six of us trekkers in a line twenty feet apart. I am fifth on the rope. I listen to the metal click of safety as Doug attaches me. My legs are shaky as I focus and take my first steps. I hold my poles tight through gloved hands and look forward to the line of rope in front of me. I am to keep it at a relaxed smiley face length. Not too loose to trip over, and not too tight that it pulls on Katy ahead of me.
Fluffy flakes of snow fall on my nose and wind is in my face. The step. My breath. They are the only sounds I hear in this scene of white. As the speed quickens, I concentrate on the line length and adjust my pace, settling into the group momentum. There is no one beside me, but I see jackets ahead. My heart is beating rapidly. Powerful gusts of wind kick up a face full of icy grit. I glance up the mountain to the summit and watch sheets of snow traveling down in layers. Suddenly, my eyes widen and my mind takes over. Oh no! What about an avalanche? Isn’t this exactly how it happens? All the skiers ahead of us disrupt the terrain up there? What if…us down here…oh God, I don’t want to be buried in snow. Survival chances are slim. They say if you are buried not to panic – just clear some space in front of your mouth if you can. Oh God…I…I…I don’t want to… Panic wants to take over and I suddenly want to flee. But something stronger within squelches it. “No, no, no! We are NOT thinking about that, Michele. Be here. One step. One breath. That’s it. Again. Step. Inhale. Exhale. Yes, good. You got this.” I am talking to myself. Out loud. And that’s okay.
I’m settling back into one step at a time. The low cloud ceiling has meshed with snow. I glance three hundred sixty degrees around and feel as if I’m locked inside a snow globe. During our descent, I hear wind strength build and increase behind me before I feel the shove of gusts. I grimace. Stand still, with all my weight firmly on snow and hold on to my submerged poles, bracing myself through the attack. I don’t like this. My pulse increases and anxiety returns. And then I remember…I won’t disappear into nothingness unnoticed. I am attached to a safety line. I am responsible for only me, yet part of a whole at the same time. I am not alone. Instead of resenting the harness and rope, it has become a comrade. A gift.
It’s an hour later. I am removing hand warmers from my gloves when I hear the stateroom door swing open. Gordon steps in with a vibrant smile, ski helmet still on. He holds our gaze, water beginning to fill his hazel eyes. I smile back. He must know.
“Did you hear?”
“I did.” He closes the door behind him. “Wow, Michele! You trekked on the continent of Antarctica today!”
“I did it, Gordon!” Tears of pride and joy emerge.
He opens his arms and I rush to be enveloped in them. I breathe in comfort, warmth, and love. I hold this moment, us standing chest to chest squeezing each other tight.
Relaxing in the ship’s front lounge later, I am reading my book quietly, a Stella Artois on the table. One of National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurers of the Year, Mike Libecki had given a presentation a couple night’s earlier about mountain climbing expeditions he’s done all over the world. I was impressed with his courageousness and when he walks past me, I decide to tell him. He thanks me and takes a seat to continue our conversation. I share that I am feeling separate and different from all the brave, adventurous people on the ship like him.
“Do you ever feel fear?” I toss out the question I’ve been curious about since day one.
He smiles and responds with a quiet, compassionate tone.
“We all have our vulnerabilities, our fears. I’d be concerned about someone who claims to feel no apprehension or fear”.
“Hmmnn…I guess to me, it seems like it’s not much of a factor for you.”
He looks perplexed by my assumption. I feel compelled to elaborate further.
“For you to do all the expeditions you do, in all the unknown conditions and circumstances… I…I…wish I was less afraid, more adventurous and brave than I am.”
I feel vulnerable, but I’m willing to risk. I want to learn.
“Ahh..I remember you. That first morning… I think you were in our Zodiac. You shared that you were overwhelmed by the scenery. You weren’t ready to touch the land”.
I nod, feeling self-conscious, even a bit embarrassed to admit this.
“Yes. Um, that was me.” I glance downward for a moment.
“For you to speak that truth is vital. It is way more brave and courageous of you to know and listen to your gut instinct, trust, and go with it. So many others would just lie and say ‘Oh yeah, no problem, I’m good to go.’ It took more guts to stay in that boat with your truth than it would’ve to go along with the group. Good for you.”
“Yes. If I was going on an expedition and I had the choice of taking someone like you, or someone who says they aren’t afraid of anything…I would take you. It’s all about making informed, calculated decisions. It has nothing to do with not being afraid”.
The light filled room after midnight isn’t keeping me awake tonight, it’s scenes of reflection replaying through my mind. Until a sudden wave of awareness washes over me.
I am in fact much more brave and courageous than I think I am. I made the assumption that being brave is about being fearless. I was wrong. Fearlessness is not about not feeling fear. It’s about meeting fear face to face, eye to eye. Standing in the center of the ring with it, shaky legs and all, feeling it’s force and impact…and trekking through it anyway. I can trust myself to access inner strength and courage. I now know that like changing states of sea and ice, I may freeze but I can also thaw, one step at a time.