I Climbed Telluride’s Via Ferrata — And It Completely Changed My Perspective on Fear

Saying “yes” to new adventures this summer proved I was capable of things I never thought were possible.

By Locke Hughes

“I’m going to die.”

That phrase played repeatedly in my head as I stared at the steep rock face of the mountain.

I was affixed to the stone by two carabiners that were attached to my climbing harness. I was wearing a helmet, hiking boots, and fear blatantly across my sweaty face.

I unclipped one carabiner from the metal cable strung along the rock wall that looked like it had been there for 25 years. I made yet another unsteady step on the narrow trail, carefully clipping the carabiner into the next section.

Then I turned my head to peek behind me. Bad decision. My eyes took in the 500-foot drop to the valley floor below me, the town of Telluride in the distance, and Bridal Veil Falls cascading down a mountain in the other direction.

I turned back toward the rock, and took a deep, shaky breath.

“How the f&*k did I get here?” I thought to myself, as I hung onto the side of mountain for dear life.

Photo by Charles Gage

***  

That’s a great question.

A few months earlier, I received an email asking if I’d like to explore the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, testing gear — Vasque boots, Smartwool clothing, and Osprey backpacks, and Otterbox cases — in the type of rugged environment where it’s meant to be used.

The trip would include climbing Telluride’s Via Ferrata. Translated as “iron road” in Italian, a “via ferrata” is a narrow trail along the exposed side of a mountain with cables and iron rungs to help climbers along the way. (Via Ferratas originated in Europe as a way to move troops during WWI, but today they’re catching on as recreational activities across the U.S..)

“Sure,” I replied to the email, not giving it too much thought.

This was my “summer of yes,” after all.

***

Back in June (which feels like a lifetime ago), I was living in Atlanta, GA, working as a content marketer and freelance writer. I had lived there a year and a half, and due to personal circumstances, felt desperately ready for a change.

After spending a few days in Park City, UT — a part of the country I’d never experienced before — I realized exactly what that change should be. When I returned to Atlanta, I packed up my entire apartment and put everything I owned — except two suitcases’ worth of clothes — in storage, and headed out west.

I didn’t know exactly what was waiting for me there, except a handful of acquaintances, freelance work, an inexpensive studio apartment, and hopefully, all the adventure and excitement I’d been craving.

When I arrived in Park City, I said “yes” to everything. I learned how to mountain bike, barreling down rocky trails. I hiked miles and miles to reach alpine lakes surrounded by pine trees and towering mountains. I went whitewater paddle boarding on the Colorado River. I met amazing new friends from all over the country. I was happier than I’d been in a long time.

All in all, this summer had taught me that if you’re craving something different in life, just say “yes”  — and life will surprise you, in the best way.

Locke embracing her “summer of yes”

***

Still, as I boarded my flight to Telluride in August, I had no idea what I was getting into. Sure, I had Googled photos of a “Via Ferrata,” which basically looked like a ladder on the side of a mountain.

“That’s doable,” I thought, shrugging my shoulders. I figured I’d tackle this adventure just like I’d tackled my other adventures this summer: not being the best at doing it, but doing it nonetheless.

The next day, on a bright, bluebird morning, I found myself peering up at a jagged, steep mountainside overlooking a box canyon outside Telluride. Apparently, my fellow writers and I were about to hike up and traverse that sheer cliff. I’m slightly — but not terribly — afraid of heights, and I started to feel a little nervous.

“I can’t do that,” I thought to myself, as I tightened my helmet chin strap, my hand shaking.

When we reached the beginning, our guide helped us gear up with a harness, carabiners, a Via Ferrata-specific lanyard, and a helmet. He also filled us in on what to expect: a trail no wider than a couple of feet, with a rock face on one side and a steep drop-off on the other.

That’s when it really hit me.

“I can’t do that,” I thought to myself, as I tightened my helmet chin strap, my hand shaking.

I sidled up to the guide, my harness hanging awkwardly around my legs. Shaking my head, I muttered, “I don’t think I can do that,” breathless already.

“Yes, you can,” he replied, and started up the trail.

And that was that.

We split up into groups of four, each of which had a guide. Let’s just say our group was… special. We had not only my very hesitant self, but also another person who was possibly even more hesitant than me. For some reason, we went first — no turning back now.

Photo by Charles Gage

As soon as we got on the trail, my heart began racing, even though we weren’t doing any intense cardio. We were just walking — well, walking on a path where one misstep or mistake could mean sudden death.

Even though I don’t like to swear, I started letting out a flurry of curse words that didn’t let up until the end of the two-mile trail.

“F&*k, I hate this.”

“What the actual hell is this?”

“Holy sh*t. I want this to be over—now.”

Weirdly, I also couldn’t stop laughing. It wasn’t the I’m-having-so-much-fun-I-can-hardly-stand-it type of laughter, though.

It was more like, “Hahahaha, I’m going to die. Right before I turn 30 and right as my life is starting to fall into place, I’m going to die. Hahaha, this is hilarious.”

Photo by Charles Gage

But I kept going.

I kept going, putting one faltering foot in front of the other.

I kept going, my hand constantly touching the rock wall to my left, my only semblance of safety.

I kept going, the words of advice a fellow climber gave me — “three points of contact” — ringing through my mind.

When we reached the cable section, the carabiners dangling from my waist finally came in handy. Always having one clipped in — keeping me safely attached to the cable — I moved down the wall, section by section, shaky step by shaky step, deep breath after deep breath.

But I kept going. I kept going, putting one faltering foot in front of the other.

Thankfully, I was behind an excellent and experienced climber. I literally followed in her footsteps, grasping the exact same iron rungs with my own hands and feet. Having her ahead of me probably saved my life.

The other thing that saved my life? My fellow climbers who encouraged me along every step of the way.

“You got this!” they’d say, when I was so scared I could barely move.

“You can do it,” they’d say, when I’d shake my head, refusing to go on.

“Imagine how good you’ll feel when it’s over!” they’d say, in response to my cursing.

At the time, I didn’t care what they said. They may have believed in me, but I didn’t believe in myself (let alone the carabiners affixing me to the mountain.)

“The Main Event” – Photo by Charles Gage

After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably only a mile and a half or so), we reached “The Main Event.” The Main Event consists of a very exposed rock face, where we had to clip into cables and rely on iron rungs to get across. The only thing below us? A 500-foot vertical drop to the ground.

We had to wait for another group to cross it, and as we waited, I considered what my mother and father would do if I died. Morbid? Maybe. Far-fetched? Didn’t feel like it.

After all, I’m a worrier by nature. I like to worry — about my grades in school, what my boss thinks of me, whether “he” will text me, if I’m making the right decision about anything, from my next job to my next breakfast.  

Yet as we waited to do the Main Event, I realized I had to stop worrying. There was nothing that worrying could help at this point. I had to — paraphrasing Nike — just f*cking do it.

Then another thought flashed through my mind: Maybe my colleagues were right. Maybe I do have this under control. I’ve gotten this far, after all. Maybe I’ll get through this — just like I’ve gotten through all the other somewhat crazy feats I’ve taken on this summer.

So I went. I crossed that terrifying rock wall, saving myself from sudden death with a selection of metal clips, cables, and rungs.

And you know what? It was actually kind of… fun.

I sat down on a rock bench upon reaching the end of the Via Ferrata, and celebrated with my colleagues. This time, my laughter was genuine. We joked about Type II fun, a.k.a. the kind of fun that’s utterly miserable while it’s happening, but completely exhilarating and awesome in retrospect. I realized I could trust the iron rungs and the carabiners to carry me to safety. Most of all, I realized I could trust myself.

“Holy sh*t,” I said to myself, as looked back at the two-mile Iron Road we’d conquered, smiling for real. “I did it.”

***

Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author, writes in A Return to Love, “Fear is an illusion. Our craziness, paranoia, anxiety, and trauma are literally all imagined.”

In some ways, I agree with her. This summer taught me that a lot of things we’re typically scared of aren’t actually scary at all — moving to a new city, starting a new job, turning strangers into friends. They’re much easier — and more fun — than we allow ourselves to believe.

We just have to say yes, take the next step, and move forward. We just have to do it — no matter what people will say, what people will think, or what might happen.

About fear: It’s okay to have it. It’s okay to acknowledge it… But it’s even better when you face that fear head on, and move through it.

However, I don’t agree 100% with Williamson. I think certain fears can be real — like the fear you feel when you’re hanging off the side of a mountain and look down to the ground and all you see is a sheer cliff face.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about fear: It’s okay to have it. It’s okay to acknowledge it. If we didn’t have fears, we’d be running around like crazy people with reckless abandon.

But it’s even better when you face that fear head on, and move through it.  

Climbing the Via Ferrata — which seemed utterly impossible when I looked up at it — helped me realize I can get through any fear I may have, whether it’s justified or made up. I can look that fear in the face, take a deep breath, and maybe even laugh at it.

Photo by Charles Gage

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Locke Hughes is a health & wellness writer who contributes to Shape, Women’s Health, Huffington Post, Greatist, & Thrive, among others. She’s also a certified health coach. After living on the East Coast her entire life, including a six-year stint in New York City, she relocated to Park City, Utah this summer to explore the west. Follow her adventures at @lockeitdown on Instagram and visit lockehughes.com for more about her.