Scrabbling up the side of the mountain, I reached out until I found a handhold on the sheer rock face rising above me. At Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park, Colorado, I was safely hooked into the harness and treated to views of the forested slope below. But I’m actually scared of heights, and though I followed the advice not to look down, my mind see-sawed between fear and elation.
I was never the audacious one when I was a kid. I was the one with my nose firmly planted in books while my friends traipsed around having adventures. So how is it that I came to be hanging off a Colorado cliff? When did that change happen? Not overnight for sure.
During my travels whenever I’ve come across outdoor adventures that sound too far out there, I’ve tended to assume they are for people who’ve always been athletic. This is especially the case when I’ve travelled to places like Colorado, which immediately summon up images of young, fit mountain climbers dangling off precarious ledges. It’s an image that has older, less fit travellers shaking their heads and shuffling off to the nearest brewpub. Thankfully, more and more companies now offer services for complete beginners.
Which is exactly how a novice like me was hanging off a rock. Less than halfway up, I had been tempted to turn back. But I persevered, bit by bit, chanting “one more step” in my head like a mantra, until I completed the climb. Finishing, I lurched awkwardly onto the ledge pinned to the cliff face. The whole world seemed to spread before me just as a wide range of new options in travel opened up in my mind. I was shocked when I realised that despite my fears, I had actually enjoyed myself.
Earlier that week, I had confronted another fear: descending down a mountain on a bicycle. Leafing through a brochure about biking the nearby Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the United States, the words “arctic tundra” and “29 miles of biking” leapt out at me as a challenge. Though I had been an avid cyclist in high school, those days were long gone. “That’s not me anymore” I had initially muttered, thinking only of the pain that I’d have to endure. But soon enough, the visions of tumbling down the mountainside disappeared and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.
The tour operator kitted me out with a bike, warm clothing, and assurances of a leisurely downhill glide, and I began to relax. I stopped frequently to admire the view, which shifted from intimidating icy walls of snow to warm alpine meadows.
My journey to enjoying outdoor activities started unexpectedly, during a visit to Argentina in late 2013. I attended an event organised by a company called Argentina Polo Day that spreads appreciation for the sport of polo. I’d assumed I would learn about the game from the sidelines. As professional polo players thundered across the field, my group learned the game’s rules and history. This quickly changed to more interactive demonstrations, and soon I was practising swinging the long-handled mallet. Before we realised it, we were mounted on horses, and the practice session culminated in an actual game. This step-by-step process made a daunting task like playing polo quite doable.
In an Internet culture obsessed with snapshots of life, many of us also long to be that person in the amazing adventure picture. But sometimes it’s difficult to take that first step. We think that it’s best to watch and appreciate. What I’ve learnt instead is that gradual changes eventually have an impact on our identity. Breaking a skill into smaller parts makes everything possible.
At a kitesurfing festival in the Dominican Republic, I met some amazing athletes that seemed worlds apart from me. Later, when the resort offered a class in kitesurfing basics, that feeling of impossibility first arose in my mind. But then I remembered the people I’d met, and it sparked a curiosity. Soon I was practicing movements with a gigantic kite. I learnt how to keep it in the air, and got comfortable with the arm movements that would move the kite higher or lower. Did I become a kitesurfing athlete instantly? No. But broken down into smaller components it didn’t seem like an impossible thing to do after all.
Travel has the ability to open new doors, offer untrodden paths and passages yet unknown. When we overcome fear and venture into new territory, we encounter opportunities to redefine ourselves, and for a moment, glimpse who we could be.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Am I Tough Enough?”
is a travel writer currently based in Barcelona, Spain.
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