Adventures in Hiking: Heights

So my sister — along with my mom, my aunt, my uncle, my partner’s mother, and my partner’s father — was in town a few weeks ago for that whole wedding thing. (Random fun fact: 5 days is apparently how long it takes me to get used to wearing a wedding ring, at least to the extent that my finger feels more familiar with it than without.) But as the two of us — my sister and I — are wont to do when we get together, we took a whirlwind tour of All the Active Things that not all other members of our family enjoy so much: two yoga classes, one horseback ride, and two hikes through some cactus forest.

Including one hike in the mountains.

Now, on this blog, I’ve described a couple of other hikes, and in doing so, I may have casually used the phrase “in the mountains.” To be more specific, what I should have said that these were hikes in the foothills bordering on some mountains. The distinction is important because, while the previous hikes did involve some solid and regular elevation changes, the trail base was sufficiently broad — not to mention lacking in steep drop off on the side — as not to pose an issue to someone who has deep-seated, pathological anxiety about heights.

Did I mention that I have a deep-seated, pathological anxiety about heights?

Saguaro National Park East
[Not my photo, and not the mountain in question, but the right half of the right park.]

As all my hiking stories seem to, this one involves pride going before a fall. In this case, fortunately, a metaphorical fall.

Because I’d been on this trail before, for the first half mile or so, to the point where it intersects with a different trail. I take the second trail around and make a nice little three or four mile loop. And this first trail, the actual mountain trail, feels very flat in that first half mile — flatter even than other trails in the area start. Foolishly, I assumed that, even if the ascent wasn’t always so gradual, it would at least stay that way for a reasonable way out.

That, of course, is where I was wrong.

Almost immediately after the first intersection, this trail starts heading upward at a pretty steep clip. This in itself was not a problem, though my sister and I were on our second hike of the day and wouldn’t have exactly minded flatter terrain. The important thing is that, regardless of how quickly up we climbed, the trail and slope to either side of us remained broad. There was no worry about looking down because there really was nowhere down to look.

Then the landscape started changing.

I think I noticed it first. Ahead and to my right, we were suddenly quite close to near vertical mountain rock. (We’d spent the last few minutes looking mostly at our footing, on account of steepness, loose rocks, and the potential for friendly neighborhood rattlers.) On the other side, the wide ridge narrowed, creating a steep — though not too steep — drop off.

“You want to keep going?” my sister asked.

By “not too steep,” I mean it didn’t set my vertigo going; if I pictured myself slipping off the trail, I envisioned myself rolling a few feet and having cactus stickers as my most lasting damage. I could deal with that.

“Sure, why not?”

For reasons unfathomable, the going did not get any easier. The footing changed from dirt with rocks to solid, uneven rock. The trail narrowed. The angle of the left drop off decreased. Though I tried to pay attention to the footing in front of me, I couldn’t help glancing over the edge. Repeatedly.

“I’m still trying to figure out how this trail is open to horses.” There definitely wasn’t enough room for two horses going opposite directions to pass one another. I was also trying to distract myself from the ever increasing long way down.

“Half of them are clearly pegasus horses,” my sister helpfully supplied. “I bet you pick up your wings when you get your backcountry permit.”

Eventually, we came to a place where we could see another couple hiking farther in front of us. The trail, after leveling out, curved around the peak one last time before rising to the top of it, where the other two hikers were. It was getting late. I looked at them.

“Let’s go to there,” I pointed, “and then turn around and come back.”

It seemed like a good goal, a logical goal — get to the top of this peak, then you’re done. And what’s more, an attainable goal. It was so close.

But at the last turn, the drop became even steeper. I’m sure I’m exaggerating it in my mind, but even now as I sit safely on my exercise ball and type, the remembrance triggers that familiar anxious response: tightness in my chest and biceps, ready to jump at any little thing. Getting to the top, I could probably manage, if it was indeed the end goal.

Then I pictured the return trip, looking out over the drop off and needing to move in that direction.

“You know,” I stopped. “On second thought, I’m not sure I could make it back down again. Let’s just turn around now.”

My sister agreed, and we turned around. Almost immediately, though we hadn’t actually descended safely past the realm of falling to our dooms, I felt better — even amid the slight self-shame of needing to turn back for mental health issues. I was having small Issues with the height, I know that, but also with the possibility that it might get worse. It was anxiety about the current, “oh, fuck, this is high,” coupled with the realization that if something — the height, the angle, the trail footing — became more extreme, it would extend past my ability to deal with it. In addition to the fear of falling, there was also the fear of getting stuck — not harmed where I was but unable to go any farther.

Still and all, the view was beautiful. And I’ll go back someday — in fact, I have plans to go partway back this weekend — but now that I know better what to expect, I can do it on my terms.


I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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Posted in non-asana

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