Monday, November 7, 2011

Fear, Frozen Fear.

Don: he may be laughing on the outside, but....

The sixth Bootsnall prompt:

Just as travel can be fun and exciting, it can also have its challenging, or even downright scary, moments. Being in a new place pushes us out of our comfort zone and makes us face our fears. Tell about a time you had to face your fear when traveling, and what was the result.

Didn’t have to think too long for this one. When a middle aged, unfit, inexperienced lady takes up trekking in the throes of some kind of mid-life crisis, there are certain to be MANY fearful moments - guaranteed. Here’s one of my early ones:

Continent: Antarctica. Setting: the side of a steep-ish snowy slope. Dramatis personae: me, several fellow expeditioners, Alexei the Russian sailor, and one chinstrap penguin.

In Antarctica, I had pushed quite a few personal comfort zones, in traveling there on my own, coping with the wretched seasickness (which from past experience I was quite well aware would happen), and then getting involved with the excursions. I was feeling good, and proud of myself.

Then . . . (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) there was a shore excursion where I got just a little too confident and pushed a little too far outside the comfort zone. We had gone ashore to visit a Gentoo penguin colony, and I’d done the wobbly ship’s walkway, and the leaping into the sea to wade ashore, and I was feeling cocky. The colony we were to visit was up a snowy incline — been there, done that, I said to myself, with way too little forethought, and up I started. Have I mentioned that I’m not very good with snow?  This particular slope was much steeper than the previous hike. It zigzagged up the hill, where others had blazed the trail, and I had walked up two or three zigs and zags before I looked back down — and froze. I immediately decided that I was going no further, I would sit on a convenient rock and regroup, and then descend. The sitting on the rock part went OK, but I just could not contemplate the descent without horror. I was quite convinced that if I stood up and faced downhill, I would tumble down. The fear was quite paralyzing. So much for the brave adventurer.

One annoying chipstrap penguin.

They may look cute...
(This is a Gentoo)

Now, there were plenty of people about. Indeed, as I sat glued to my rock, others were cheerfully trudging uphill, waving hello as they confidently and competently ascended.  So not only did I feel scared rigid, I also felt stupid. But then that feeling was mitigated somewhat by the fact that others began to join me. Before long, there were three or four of we frightened souls sitting at the junction of a zig and a zag, perched on the rock or plopped in the snow, wondering how the hell we were ever going to get down, and — almost as mortifying — how to pretend to the others that we weren’t really such incompetent cowards. One lady sitting with us was blessed with a husband who had no trouble at all with the slope. When he came by, I thought he would gallantly rescue her.  But all he did was urge her to get up and keep going because “what was the problem?” She was practically crying with fear. He went on up and left her, presumably planning to fetch her on the way back.

One member of our little troupe of people way outside their comfort zone was a big guy named Don,who was a squid fisherman from Newport Beach, US. He had been the life and soul of the ship’s dining table. Now he was cracking jokes as he sat, dressed from head to toe in vivid yellow waterproofs, stuck on the side of a steep snowy slope in Antarctica, with several basket case women. You have to hand it to him. While we were sitting, we watched a Chinstrap penguin (who really shouldn’t have been there, because this was a Gentoo colony) work its way laboriously up the slope, making its own ‘penguin highway’ to the top. This distracted us for a time. When the penguin reached the people highway that our group had made when zigzagging up, it found a nice cosy indentation, and decided to sit there. So now we had a large yellow fisherman, several ladies with no head for heights, and a sleeping penguin.

Chipstrap penguins...laughing at us?

About this time, our eccentric group was noticed by Dutch, our fearless expedition leader, who walked up from the foreshore to investigate. As he ascended, he noticed the penguin, and stopped, because the rules are that you don’t approach the wildlife too closely. He enquired about our problem, and we told him we couldn’t get down. This seemed to puzzle him, as of course he could keep his balance on the steep slope, and found it hard to believe that we couldn’t. His solution to the situation was to tramp out a new route through the snow, skirting the penguin widely, say to us “there you are!”, and then head on up to the rest of the group. Since the new trail was no less steep than the old trail — in fact, possibly more so — we were no better off.

Bergy bits on the Antarctic shore.

Now, I don’t know about the others. They may have told this story to their friends when they got home and it may have seemed quite different to them. But I was so far out of my comfort zone that I was close to hysteria. Because of the people around, I really didn’t get into the mode of trying to figure things out for myself. Apart from an attempt to slide down the trail on my bottom — thwarted by the penguin — I didn’t really try to use my own brain to solve the situation. I just waited for someone to rescue me, and grew increasingly distraught that they didn’t seem to be doing that. Then Don began to be funny, and I dissolved into hysterical giggling. The amusement arose from Don’s efforts to get the penguin to move, without breaking the rules about annoying the wildlife (or at least not letting anyone see him doing so). He began by surreptitiously throwing bits of snow at it; and this was followed by cat imitations. Would penguins be afraid of cats? Probably this has never been tested. I can report that this penguin was unmoved by either tactic. Don’s stream of wise-cracks was probably intended to keep up everyone’s spirits, which it sort of did, but being extremely amused and extremely scared simultaneously was very weird.

The end of this sorry tale is that our plight was noticed by the staff on the shore, and they came to rescue us. People came back down from their trek to the top and assisted us. I was escorted down the hill by Alexei, a Russian sailor, on whom I leaned quite mortifyingly. I just could not keep my balance on that slope. But bless Alexei, or I’d still be there.


When I reached the shore, I sat apart for a while on a rock, and watched two penguins strutting and diving, put my head my hands, and tried to keep a sense of perspective. Sorry to say, I was not successful. When I made it back to the ship, a motherly American lady asked me how it had gone, and I dissolved into tears. I spent the next two hours hiding in a wing chair in the ship’s library, trying to stop crying, and speaking sternly to myself, to try to regain my composure. I had certainly pushed outside my comfort zone, and had not coped. Moreover, plenty of people found the situation that had scared me to be perfectly easy and do-able, adding severe inadequacy to the mix of emotions. The incident provided me with plenty to reflect upon.

[Excerpt from Chapter 35 of Tea In The Library, by your blogger]

Antarctica: beautiful and fearsome.

1 comment:

  1. yep, been there.

    Part of my training for fixed wing glider was to put the aircraft into a spin. Couldn't do it as I could visualise as I went through the process that we would crash. My automatic reaction was to recover before it got to a spin. When I persevered I ended up doing a loop the loop (almost). Scared the crap out of the instructor and me.

    Needless to say I didn't get my solo licence.