Conquering My Fear Of Heights At Portland Creek Canyon, Colorado

“Nine out of 10 of the people who canyon here make it safely to the bottom,” assures Bill, our guide from San Juan Mountain Guides.

I gulp, peeking over the 50-foot, precarious ledge. My foot accidentally kicks a small rock, sending it crashing incessantly against the side of the mountain. That could be me.

Of course, Bill is joking. The ropes that will be holding me are strong enough to hold a truck. That still doesn’t change the fact my stomach is churning like spoiled butter, and my heart is threatening to break through my chest.

“This is just the practice cliff,” says Bill, noticing my visible discomfort. I’m breathing like I just finished a triathlon, sweating profusely and chugging water like I ingested too much Ecstasy. My eyes are so hyper-aware of my precarious surroundings, it’s actually hard to see.

“You need to look down,” instructs Bill, gesturing toward the steep ledge. “Be aware of your surroundings. You’re going to have to go over the lip soon.”

I wince as if I’ve just been punched. “Have you ever had anyone vomit?”

Bill ponders for a moment. “Vomit? No. Totally freak out? Absolutely.”

I pray that I will not be one of these people. I’ve been skydiving, bungee jumping and have ridden some of the world’s scariest roller coasters without a problem. For some reason, however, when an adventure activity involves any kind of thinking on my part, I completely freak. I’m not one to not finish a challenge, though, and I know by the end of the day I will have gone over not only this cliff, but even higher ones.

Bill sets up my belay system and ties the appropriate knots. He reassures me that there are two backup systems in case something happens and, even if I pass out while canyoning, I’ll be okay. He checks the carabiners to make sure they’re locked. They click, making the “happy noise” of a ready system.

“You’re all set,” he says with a smile. “Keep your legs straight and start pitching your body.”

Remember in gym class when you were a kid and during team building the teacher would have you do trust falls? That’s what pitching entails, only there’s nobody behind you to catch you, and you’re falling backwards over a steep cliff face. I stiffen my body and begin to let myself fall backwards more and more, until…

“Wait!” I scream, hurling myself forward into a standing position. “I’m not ready.”

He laughs while shaking his head. “You can do this. Don’t let your fear control you. Even if you slip, the rope will catch you.”

To help calm my nerves, Bill ties an extra knot in the system. It’s completely unnecessary, but somehow makes me feel safer.

We resume our position at the edge of the cliff, and again I’m consumed by paralyzingly fear. However, I remind myself that I’m perfectly capable of doing this, and that I’ve done adventurous excursions before.

“Don’t let your fear consume you,” Bill reminds me as I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

Inching my way towards the edge, I ignore my body’s instinct to want to not kill itself and go until I’m at the lip of the cliff. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, I walk until I’m standing perpendicular to the mountain, sticking out from it like an arm. The thought of trying to run back up crosses my mind, but I quickly scold myself for wanting to give up so easily.

As I continue my descent to the ground, the 50 feet feeling like 500, a switch flicks inside me. Why am I trying so hard to rush through this excursion that I was so excited about? Shouldn’t I be savoring it?

I decide to turn my butterflies of worry into butterflies of excitement. In my mind, I recall the demonstration Bill had done on canyoning and try to mimic it. In that moment, I decide I’m going to let go of fear and have fun.

I surprise the group when we get to Portland Creek and must repel off an 80-foot waterfall.

“Can I go first?” I ask with confidence.

Bill looks like he’s choking on a chicken bone as he blinks at rapid pace. “Really? Of course.”

For some reason, looking over the edge isn’t so scary, despite being higher and more difficult than the last one. And as the freezing water pelts my body and I slip and slide down the rocks, I laugh instead of cry. Yes, I’m freezing, wet and falling down a mountain, but I’ve never felt so alive in my life. It’s that amazing feeling of conquering your fears, and turning them into excitement.

This post was made possible by San Juan Mountain Guides. Photos taken by Mike Richard of Vagabondish.

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