Last week, I went with my husband to South Dakota for a family gathering. While there, one of my sisters-in-law wanted to hike to the top of Harney Peak. I thought, sure. I love to hike. It will be fun! So several of us set out walking, and we hiked at varying paces for about 2 hours or so to reach the top of Harney Peak. At some point, about 15 minutes from the top, I told my husband to go on ahead because I just wanted to take my time (actually, I had been keeping quite a fast pace and suddenly realized I was not able to keep that pace much longer!). I knew the view would be worth it, so I tried to avoid thinking about the climb as a race and tried to focus on the surroundings instead.
According to harneypeakinfo.com, “at 7,242 feet, Harney Peak stands prominently as the highest point in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Standing sentinel over the Black Hills, Harney Peak is topped by stone fire tower providing a magnificent view. Nestled in a wilderness area, and accessible by hiking a 3.5 mile trail starting from Custer State Park, the granite summit is the highest point in South Dakota.”
As we hiked toward the summit, it never occurred to me that we were hiking to this little stone structure at the tippy top of Harney Peak. What I mean is that I figured there would be a big flat spot, lots of tress, and there would be an overlook where we’d stand and take photos while feeling totally safe yet proud of ourselves for hiking such a renowned track.
But when I got to the bridge shown below, I nearly turned back.
The “back story”: Somewhere along the way over the last few years, I’ve become “afraid of heights.” Actually, I know exactly how that happened. The short version is that I’ve been dealing with an inner ear problem for a few years, and while most of the time it’s not a problem, certain conditions make me feel unstable…like being near the edge of a cliff. Or walking or riding over a bridge that is high above a ravine, and I can see through the bottom or sides of the bridge into the abyss below. You get the idea.
So, here I was climbing this mountain, and I came to the bridge, and I started feeling panicky. A few people I didn’t know passed me, and that was just fine with me. I took a deep breath, stepped onto the bridge, and I instantly felt unstable because I could see the steep drop below me. I looked ahead, held onto the hand rails, and put one foot in front of the other. Somehow, I made it across that bridge but it was not easy. Then there was the next hurdle. I had to walk up two stairways to the peak. They were constructed of the same materials as the bridge above so that I could see through the bottom as well out each side. On one side of each stairway was a handrail…and I could see as far as…well, as far into the distance as you can imagine. The picture below gives you an idea of how high up in the sky I’m talking about.
Just when I thought I’d had enough, I approached another set of stairs. At least these were made of stone. See the stairs? (mid-right of the photo).
I knew I had to get a grip both literally and figuratively. Turning back would mean walking down those open stairs that I’d just tackled, and it would also mean that my husband would have to come looking for me. So I decided to get a mental grip on things by allowing myself to feel safe for a few minutes. I did this by stepping to the side at the foot of the stairs so people could pass me if needed, by placing my back against the wall behind me, and by trying not to look at the wide-open view I was now facing. I pretended to fidget with my iPhone’s camera settings…anything to avoid looking out into the abyss!
Within 3 or 4 minutes, one of my brothers-in-law came by. He asked if I had already been to the top. I said no and that I was just about to go up (wee little lie), and I stepped into place behind him as he navigated the steps I had been avoiding. I focused my gaze on his shoes as to avoid total awareness that to my right was more than 7,000 foot drop. My brother-in-law was tired–he stumbled slightly at least twice as he went up the steps, which should have freaked me out, but he was so unconcerned that it actually made me feel like I was being a big weeny.
When I got to the top, several others from our party where there already, along with few strangers taking selfies. I enjoyed the breathtaking views (South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado!), then I sat down in a corner and my husband came over with his backpack, and we got out some snacks and rested. People asked if we were going to climb the observation tower. I said no! I was happy to remain on the platform about twenty feet below the observation tower. I did take a few pictures before we headed back down, but I tried not to dwell too much on how high up we were. I walked behind my husband, held onto his belt loops, and focused my gaze on the backs of his legs as we navigated our way back down the “scary” parts. Before I knew it, we were on the wider track again with lots of land between us and the edge of the mountain. I felt a sense of pride that I had gone to the top rather than turned back when I was feeling anxious. Facing my fears–even if not completely on my own–made me feel pretty good about things.
Since that day, I’ve reflected on the feelings of fear and panic I had as I traversed the bridges, stairs, and rocks to climb to the summit. I might not have gone on the hike had I seen photos beforehand or if someone had described what those last few hundred feet up would be like.
I can’t help but point out an obvious connection for me, which is that that journey feels very similar to my current circumstances in a PhD program. I don’t think I would have undertaken a doctoral degree had I known about all the long hours, the frustrations, the physical and mental challenges, and let’s face it–the instances of bruised ego.
I’ve certainly wanted to turn back many, many times. But the thing that keeps me from turning back is that I know finishing will feel so much better than quitting. I know that I’m learning, and I still have much to learn, and there’s a lot to gain from having help along the way. As I teeter on the brink of data analysis and articulating my findings, I know that my peers and my family will help me through the tough times ahead. Being independent and doing things “on my own” has its perks, but why not ask for support when it is needed?
Have you ever experienced a literal or metaphorical challenge that you navigated with someone’s help? I’d love to hear from you.