Coming down from Sefinenfurgge Pass on the Via Alpina

Mini Walking Stories: Fear of the Highest Heights


Mini Walking Stories is a project I’m doing this month to catalog what has been an AMAZING year of walking. Every day during December, I’m going to choose one photo and invite you to come along with me for a few minutes on one of the walks I took in 2022. Read more stories here.

Coming down from Sefinenfurgge Pass on the Via Alpina

Fear of the Highest Heights (on the Via Alpina)

The scenery is more than magnificent from the top of Sefinenfurgge Pass. At 2594 meters high (8510 feet), you can see for miles.

However, as I sat on the narrow bit of rock that makes up the shoulder of this gorgeous Alpine pass, I was not focused on how beautiful it was.

I snapped a few photos. I celebrated with everyone else that we had made it through the hardest climb of our day. I gulped down some water and ate a snack. I might have even laughed.

But everything I was doing outwardly was serving to (unsuccessfully) distract myself from my laser focus on one thing:

My fear of going down.

I have a long-standing fear of heights. I dug my heels in deep when my dad tried to get me to do a ropes course at summer camp, and then again when peer pressure was strong to jump off a high dive at the pool.

But over the years, I have managed to overcome a lot of the ways my fear of heights could have stopped me from enjoying some of my favorite views. I can climb to the tops of hills and mountains, but when I am near a drop, I sometimes feel like I lose control of my legs. I begin to shake, and if I am already quite tired from hiking, the shaking feels an awful lot like almost falling.

And so I freeze.

The day before, we had come down from a steep pass that I had not been expecting. Navigating an endless number of ladder-like stairs was the only way to get down off the mountain, and on the sides of the ladders, there were sheer rock-faced drops. I could not look down, so I ended up turning around and going down backwards so that I could look up instead. My friend Jermaine, who has known me for more than twenty years, happened to be behind me. And my sister-in-law was right behind her. They took my poles, so I could use my hands and feet to crawl backwards down the mountain. Even after I got off the ladders, we found ourselves on a lot of trails that seemed precariously near the edge of a ravine, so I was a little more wobbly than usual for a good part of the day.

I had been a bit caught off guard by how much the descent had freaked me out, so at our hostel that night, I researched (probably unwisely) how many more of these ladder-lined passes we would be crossing on the Via Alpina. From my bunk in the Alpine hut, I discovered that we had a very similar ascent and descent the very next day.

The great thing about how exhausting it is to hike straight up into the Swiss Alps is that I had to use energy just to step one foot forward in front of the other that I might have otherwise spent in dreading this descent from Sefinenfurgge Pass. But the closer I got to the pass, the more I remembered how I had frozen at the top of the steps the day before.

I might not have stopped on the pass, but I was shaking too much when I reached the top not to sit down for at least a moment. Every second I sat at the top served to enlarge my dread of going back down the other side. The series of steps and ladders that made up the descent were right in my line of sight, and I knew that I wanted to get them behind me sooner than later.

So as soon as I felt that I had caught my breath, I started to make my way down. This time I put my poles away ahead of time and didn’t even try to start out facing forward. I turned around right at the top and began to crawl backwards again. Looking up, I noticed that my precious friend Jermaine had come along right behind me. Conscious of my fear from the previous day, she was ready with her calming presence.

You can see Jermaine in the above photo standing there behind me. You can’t see me in front of her going down backwards, and you can’t see her face, watching me and encouraging me: You have two more steps before the end of this set and then to your left, a new set begins. We have about ten of these left. There is a bend to your right in the next step. The rope you are holding ends in about two feet. You’re doing great. The next rope is right behind you to your right. You can hang on to it for the next four steps. You’re almost there.

Like this, she talked me all the way down.

Truth be told, this descent was not as bad as the one from the previous day.

But it didn’t matter in my head. Once I knew I would be going up and down ladders again, I became very afraid.

And also I was exhausted. We had climbed over 3500 feet to get to Sefinenfurgge Pass, and we would descend that same number again before we stopped that day.

During our time on the Via Alpina, Taido and I noticed that the grueling climbs and descents of each day meant that folks had less resources to hold themselves together to face other things, like hunger or thirst, or relationship dynamics, or a little fear of heights. When you push folks to their edge, you perhaps shouldn’t be surprised at what comes out.

But in the end, my moments on, what are for me, the highest of heights turned out to be a confirmation that I am going to be ok, and that I walk the scary ridges and descents the same way I have walked so many paths before me, one step at a time, and with a little help from my friends.

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