I Climbed Telluride’s Via Ferrata — And It Completely Changed My Perspective on Fear

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This post originally appeared on She Explores.

“I’m going to die.”

That phrase played on repeat in my head as I stared at the steep rock face of the mountain.

I was affixed to the stone by two carabiners that were attached to my climbing harness. I was wearing a helmet, hiking boots, and fear blatantly across my sweaty face.

I unclipped one carabiner from the metal cable strung along the rock wall that looked like it had been there for 25 years. I made yet another unsteady step on the narrow trail, carefully clipping the carabiner into the next section.

Then I turned my head to peek behind me. Bad decision. My eyes took in the 500-foot drop to the valley floor below me, the town of Telluride in the distance, and Bridal Veil Falls cascading down a mountain in the other direction.

I turned back toward the rock, and took a deep, shaky breath.

“How the f&*k did I get here?” I thought to myself, as I hung onto the side of mountain for dear life.

***

That’s a great question.

A few months earlier, I received an email asking if I’d like to explore the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, testing gear — Vasque boots, Smartwool clothing, and Osprey backpacks, and Otterbox cases — in the type of rugged environment where it’s meant to be used.

The trip would include climbing Telluride’s Via Ferrata. Translated as “iron road” in Italian, a “via ferrata” is a narrow trail along the exposed side of a mountain with cables and iron rungs to help climbers along the way. (Via Ferratas originated in Europe as a way to move troops during WWI, but today they’re catching on as recreational activities across the U.S..)

“Sure,” I replied to the email, not giving it too much thought.

This was my “summer of yes,” after all.

***

Back in June (which feels like a lifetime ago), I was living in Atlanta, GA, working as a content marketer and freelance writer. I had lived there a year and a half, and due to personal circumstances, felt desperately ready for a change.

After spending a few days in Park City, UT — a part of the country I’d never experienced before — I realized exactly what that change should be. When I returned to Atlanta, I packed up my entire apartment and put everything I owned — except two suitcases’ worth of clothes — in storage, and headed out west.

I didn’t know exactly what was waiting for me there, except a handful of acquaintances, freelance work, an inexpensive studio apartment, and hopefully, all the adventure and excitement I’d been craving.

When I arrived in Park City, I said “yes” to everything. I learned how to mountain bike, barreling down rocky trails. I hiked miles and miles to reach alpine lakes surrounded by pine trees and towering mountains. I went whitewater paddle boarding on the Colorado River. I met amazing new friends from all over the country. I was happier than I’d been in a long time.

All in all, this summer had taught me that if you’re craving something different in life, just say “yes” — and life will surprise you, in the best way.

***

Still, as I boarded my flight to Telluride in August, I had no idea what I was getting into. Sure, I had Googled photos of a “Via Ferrata,” which basically looked like a ladder on the side of a mountain.

“That’s doable,” I thought, shrugging my shoulders. I figured I’d tackle this adventure just like I’d tackled my other adventures this summer: not being the best at doing it, but doing it nonetheless.

The next day, on a bright, bluebird morning, I found myself peering up at a jagged, steep mountainside overlooking a box canyon outside Telluride. Apparently, my fellow writers and I were about to hike up and traverse that sheer cliff. I’m slightly — but not terribly — afraid of heights, and I started to feel a little nervous.

“I can’t do that,” I thought to myself, as I tightened my helmet chin strap, my hand shaking.

When we reached the beginning, our guide helped us gear up with a harness, carabiners, a Via Ferrata-specific lanyard, and a helmet. He also filled us in on what to expect: a trail no wider than a couple of feet, with a rock face on one side and a steep drop-off on the other.

That’s when it really hit me.

“I can’t do that,” I thought to myself, as I tightened my helmet chin strap, my hand shaking.

I sidled up to the guide, my harness hanging awkwardly around my legs. Shaking my head, I muttered, “I don’t think I can do that,” breathless already.

“Yes, you can,” he replied, and started up the trail.

And that was that.

We split up into groups of four, each of which had a guide. Let’s just say our group was… special. We had not only my very hesitant self, but also another person who was possibly even more hesitant than me. For some reason, we went first — no turning back now.

As soon as we got on the trail, my heart began racing, even though we weren’t doing any intense cardio. We were just walking — well, walking on a path where one misstep or mistake could mean sudden death.

Even though I don’t like to swear, I started letting out a flurry of curse words that didn’t let up until the end of the two-mile trail.

“F&*k, I hate this.”

“What the actual hell is this?”

“Holy sh*t. I want this to be over—now.”

Weirdly, I also couldn’t stop laughing. It wasn’t the I’m-having-so-much-fun-I-can-hardly-stand-it type of laughter, though.

It was more like, “Hahahaha, I’m going to die. Right before I turn 30 and right as my life is starting to fall into place, I’m going to die. Hahaha, this is hilarious.”

But I kept going.

I kept going, putting one faltering foot in front of the other.

I kept going, my hand constantly touching the rock wall to my left, my only semblance of safety.

I kept going, the words of advice a fellow climber gave me — “three points of contact” — ringing through my mind.

When we reached the cable section, the carabiners dangling from my waist finally came in handy. Always having one clipped in — keeping me safely attached to the cable — I moved down the wall, section by section, shaky step by shaky step, deep breath after deep breath.

Continue reading on She Explores.