4 Things I Learned About Fear From Dirtbagging Through The West Coast

Ethan Murray

Fear is a natural reaction that can propel us to do extraordinary things.

But more frequently, fear is difficult to overcome, and serves as a crippling force that prevents us from truly reaching our destinies.

This past summer, I was constantly exposed to fear.

I dirtbagged my way across the western half of the United States in pursuit of conquering some of the famous climbs and hikes in North America.

The 35 days I spent living out of a car with two of my closest friends have proven to be some of the most challenging and rewarding days of my life.

I will admit some of the most educational moments from the trip were also the closest I came to disaster.

I'm not attempting to prescribe these moments as a necessity for overcoming fear, but I want share some of the things I derived from those crucial moments.

These tools can be utilized in almost any circumstance of fear.

Climbing, to me, has grown well beyond some adrenaline-crazed activity into something I genuinely work at and enjoy for the mental puzzle as much as the physical challenge.

I would be lying if I said I did not face some form of fear each and every time climbed. Heck, I still get the Elvis legs when I am truly pushing myself.

However, the more I expose myself to the sport of climbing, the more comfortable I become in those difficult, fear-inducing situations.

1. Fear successfully pushes you out of your comfort zone.

In Smith Rock, OR, I pushed myself to reach beyond the limits of my ability, and I found myself at the crux of a difficult route, unable to clip.

As I scrambled to figure something out, fear brought on a heavy onslaught of the Elvis legs that left me immobile.

I clutched the rock with everything I had, but eventually my body gave out.

I fell some 25 feet and swung into a sidewall, smacking my back and contorting my spine. My hands were bleeding, and my back was decently messed up.

But I knew I would regret backing down.

I forced myself to climb back up and try again.

At the crux, I started to shake again, but this time, I closed my eyes and took a breath, pausing for a moment to put things into perspective.

I had fallen and been relatively fine. I had no reason to fear. I opened my eyes and made the move.

That ended up being one of the hardest climbs of the summer. I left a piece of myself on that wall, and I'm proud I struggled my way up it.

More importantly, I am proud I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone.

2. Fear teaches you to not back down.

In the Grand Tetons, WY, I cockily decided to climb straight up an ice path, despite having never climbed on ice before, and I ignored an easier path that was in sight.

Although I had an ice axe, I never practiced self-arrest with my 70-pound pack on. To make matters worse, I didn't have crampons, which left me kicking into the melting ice to make footholds.

In a short amount of time, I realized I underestimated both the difficulty and the dangerousness of the climb, but going down was no longer an option.

Was my decision stupid?

Without a doubt, especially since I was 10 miles into the backcountry.

If I would've slipped, I'm still unsure whether or not I would've been able to stop myself from crashing into the jagged rock below.

I learned that sometimes in life, you cannot turn around in the face of fear.

Sometimes, the only way out is to keep plowing forward, one painful step at a time.

3. Your greatest fear is almost never rational.

In Yosemite, CA, I stared blankly at Half Dome, doubting I could ever climb something so incredibly large. I questioned trying. I questioned my ability. I questioned myself.

But even in a fog of self-doubt, I started to climb anyway. I got off the ground. Surprisingly, as I climbed higher, I became more comfortable.

I trusted my feet and hands that had spent an entire summer preparing for this. I trusted my ability, as I had climbed much more difficult things in the past. I relied upon past exposure to overcome the current state of fear.

But often, when we reflect deeply on what we are truly afraid of, these things are not as rational as the fear of heights and the possibility of death.

The fears that are truly the most crippling are almost never rational.

For as long as I can remember, my greatest fear in life has stifled every aspect of my being. In many ways, I allowed my fear to define who I was. My fear was neither easily quantifiable, nor did it even have a set definition.

Therefore, who I was almost as unclear as the fear itself.

I was deathly afraid of becoming my father.

My father will admit he was not involved in my childhood. In his words, he “observed from afar.”

Regardless, during my most important formative years, from my birth to my high school graduation, he was almost completely absent.

And while he was never physically there, his shadow was an ever-present force of darkness that haunted me in each and every decision I made.

Early on in my childhood, I began to build my identity on a guide of what not to be.

It is from this juvenile understanding of how to become a comparatively better person than my father that many of the less-than-rational fears in my life rose.

A fear of commitment grew as he introduced me to girlfriend after girlfriend. A fear of failure grew from never feeling enough for him to care.

A fear of not becoming a man festered, as I watched my friends learning trades from their own fathers.

Most importantly, I had a fear of my father himself.

It was only this past summer that I finally realized the entire time I was focused on not being something, I wasn't actually “being” anything.

In other words, while I was attempting to avoid becoming my father, I was completely preventing myself from ever growing into the person I was actually meant to be.

My irrational fear led to equally irrational behavior.

Recently, my father, who also writes, briefly mentioned he and his wife of a year were considering having a child.

This completely altered how I thought of my fear. Suddenly, someone else, albeit it a hypothetical someone, could face what I went through.

I knew I couldn't stand by in idle and let that happen. I knew had to face my fear.

4. Fear makes you face yourself.

While standing atop the summit of Mt. Whitney, I promised myself I would sit down and share my fear with my father. I am still unsure what led me to this decision.

It may have been the thin air that tests the lungs at 14,000 feet, or maybe it was the inspiring view, as my feet dangled over the edge of what looked like a few thousand feet of a drop.

Maybe it was the result of a summer full of intense self-reflection and introspection.

Regardless, I thought it was the best course of action. I needed to address my fear through the ultimate level of exposure possible: direct exposure.

The next week, I found myself in the car, experiencing what I can only describe as the Elvis legs of the mouth, and I was completely immobilized by fear.

So, I did what I do on the crux of any difficult climb: I took a deep breath and worked up the courage to make the next move.

I began simply by stating, “Dad, for as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of becoming you.”

Whether or not he understood where I was coming from, I may never know. Nevertheless, I had one of the most important and freeing conversations of my life.

For the first time, I experienced what it was like to be without this fear that was previously preventing me from being. In that moment, I summited the most difficult climb of my life.

Ultimately, it was the context of a newfound motivation to overcome my fear for someone else (my hypothetical sibling), and the lessons of exposure I learned from my summer spent channeling my inner “dirtbag” that led me to the summit of my fear.

In the end, I realized at the root of that exposure was a necessary willingness to be vulnerable.

I needed that willingness to say, "Here is who I am, and I want you to accept that."

This moment of vulnerability is the most challenging and powerful climb I have ever gone through.