I've always been on the cautious side. I could never see the benefit of being upside down in the air. My speed on a bike was usually slower than my buddies. The idea of fighting for fun has always been completely foreign to me. On the other hand, I think I'm adventurous, having hiked, climbed and hitched all over the northern latitudes. It is interesting to see how age and experience have tempered some fears and sharpened others.
There was a Japanese adventurer named Naomi Uemura whom I became aware of in the late 1970's thru a National Geographic article covering his solo trip to the North Pole. This was a man who in his 20's had already climbed Mt. Everest, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn and made the first solo of Denali. On that 1978 trip to the Pole he emerged the winner in an intimate encounter with a polar bear. The trip became even more dicey when an ice floe he and his dogs were on started to break apart. Inches below his wet feet was the Arctic Ocean. You would think that this was a man who was missing the fear chip, but he later described his emotions,
"Such experiences do not strengthen one's courage, on the contrary - they shake one's confidence. During the moment on the tilting ice slab I recalled the Greenland incident and the memory increased my fear of the freezing water. Once we come to know fear the more quickly it seizes us, and the longer it takes to gather up our courage."
This past week I caught the last chair up to Union Peak at Copper Mountain. Despite daylight savings time it was getting dark - an impressive snowstorm had moved in. The flakes and wind were intense enough that I had to guard my mouth with my hand to keep my face from freezing and to keep the snow out of my windpipe. Then the lift came to an abrupt stop. I could see no one in front or in back. The slopes below were empty as well and I knew the line to the chair had closed behind me. Of course they keep the lift running for some time to empty all its passengers, but as the minutes dragged on, feet dangling in the air with only the sound of the storm in my ears, stories of skiers abandoned overnight on chairs jumped into my brain. Senseless fear welled up in my throat and it took a cold blast to the face with goggles off and a shake of the head to clear out the foolishness. The panic was only there for a few seconds, but Uemura's words came to me, "Once we come to know fear, the more quickly it seizes us and the longer it takes to gather up our courage."
It took about ten minutes, but the chair restarted and dragged me to the top. I glowed as I floated down the mountain, carving fresh tracks on the feather-weight snow, but I was embarrassed at how easily the fear had come.
(Naomi Uemura disappeared in -50 degree cold, February 13, 1984, on Mt. McKinley after successfully summiting the day before.)