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Overcoming Fear on Yosemite's Matthes Crest

Finding Peace in the Vertical Abyss.

By: Timothy Behuniak + Save to a List

“Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Finally, I am a figure of those Ansel Adams’ Yosemite pictures that I obsessed over as a kid. Finally, I’m on a Yosemite peak...

...But the sides of the mountain drop hundreds of feet on either side. Normally my mind would race to thoughts of the wind effortlessly tossing me off my feet into a vertical abyss. But today, for some reason, is different. Today my mind is blank. I am focused only on the calming inhale and exhale of my breath and the precarious placement of my steps.

Nothing is below me and nothing fills my head. It is the most peace I have ever felt in my life.

Anxiety used to control me. I was tirelessly nervous about who would accept this young, weird-looking boy with a mouth twitch and bloody, scratched-open bug bites on his body.

Maybe I itched them as a remedy for my anxiety.

Was I nervous because I couldn’t run fast like other kids? (Because my stomach enjoyed ice cream much more than a fast metabolism). Or because I often spent my weekends with family in the Adirondacks rather than playing video games at a friend’s house?

Teasing me, of course, was in good humor. “Friends” badgering “friends” is a childhood tradition, after all. Lord of the Flies was one of our 8th grade English studies…it was my 8th grade nightmare. My resemblance to Piggy - the overweight child with poor eyesight - was uncanny. In class, I became the real-life character. I laughed along with my “friends” as I gained a new nickname. But at night I’d lay awake in bed, scratching my mosquito bites and crying myself to sleep. Each day in school I mastered hiding my sensitivity while I wished my “friends” would just end my misery. Like Piggy’s enemies in Lord of the Flies, I wished my classmates would just roll a boulder onto me, too. At least it’d knock me off my mountain of anxiety.

None of that mattered while in the woods. It didn’t matter who the last person was who made fun of me that day, or what they made fun of me about. The forest was my island, except, thankfully, no one else was around.

My eyesight was better than Piggy’s while hiking. I still needed glasses, but I was more confident in the woods. I was confident where I placed my steps. I was confident where I was going and confident with my intentions.

The only time I questioned my ability outside was on New York’s tallest mountain, Mt. Marcy, when I was twelve. I froze and clung to the rock with just a few hundred feet remaining. I was completely paralyzed by my fear of heights and convinced myself I would go no further just before my brother pulled me to the top.

But on Marcy’s summit I marveled at the land below. I was physically taller than anything in eyesight. Mentally, I was on top of the world. Fear, I realized, is only found in my head.

After the near-failure, anxiety left me alone in the woods. I wasn’t going to get lost. I wasn’t going to fall. I was going to summit.

My mind went blank and I finally reached a flow state of mind.

I found peace.

After the Marcy charade, Adirondack alpine zones became my yoga mat. I felt powerful on mountaintops - my mind and abilities expanded with the never-ending and uninterrupted Adirondack landscape. I wanted to share this beauty and power with anyone else who felt trapped on an island of fear and anxiety - to show there was an escape besides falling boulders. The camera became a tool to spread beauty and the message of overcoming fear.

When feeling trapped at school and unable to physically be in the woods, I found mental escape in reading John Muir’s profound writing and in poring over Ansel Adams’ photographs of dream-like Yosemite landscapes and Tuolumne mountains. I imagined Mt. Marcy dwarfed by El Cap’s shadow. I dreamed of standing on the massive, granite mountains in Ansel’s pictures with the world below my feet.

I found peace in the idea that maybe Ansel, too, was an anxious boy who found relief in the woods. I wanted badly to one day visit and photograph the landscape in which he found solace.

Accomplishment never truly hit when I finished hiking the 295 total miles of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. After six years venturing into the tallest mountains of New York with my family, I had finally hiked every one. But I was hungry for more.

Until that point, hiking had been mostly a physical challenge. I grew up chunky and soft like the Cookies-and-Cream ice cream I couldn’t resist. I could barely do two pull-ups. I wasn’t the kid with defined abs by the age of eight. Heck, I still don’t have defined abs.

So mountains presented physical struggles: I was usually in the back of the pack. But through the high peaks challenge, I shed some baby fat and my hiking shape improved. After the 46, I explored being in the woods mentally.

For many, the challenge is simply a test of grit with an emphasis on peak-bagging. For me, hiking was about finding peace. Finishing each mountain by a certain day was never the true goal. School and society brought uneasiness and restlessness. Walking between the pines brought beauty and serenity. I loved the way light, broken by maple leaves above, speckled the trail. Balsam firs’ Christmas-tree-scent intoxicated me as I sang along with the Adirondack Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dees. I wanted to summit not for the view, but to feel the soft, alpine breeze kiss my face and cool the sweat on my skin.

I used to be afraid of the dark and thought monsters hid in the woods (I’m still not entirely convinced otherwise). I challenged myself through solo sunset hikes up Goodnow Mountain and took my family’s kayak to Rich Lake for a sunset paddle, alone. Eventually, I found peace in the setting sun. Darkness became my close friend. Laughing loons and herds of deer respected my presence in their world. They didn’t call me names.

Slowly the darkness became comfortable, like sitting beside a warm fire on a brisk winter night. My mind grew stronger as I found a new flow state in clicking my camera’s shutter alone in the dark - capturing the beauty of an Adirondack sunset and the infinite milky way above the High Peaks.

I pursued rock climbing as a new avenue for testing my fear of heights. Climbing for the first time while top roping Jugs of Beer in the Adirondacks, I was again scared in the outdoors. Hanging in the air by a thin rope was much more nerve-wracking than having my feet securely on the ground. My mind somersaulted and I became hesitant to be lowered after touching the anchor: I was dangling by nothing more than a rope tied to a tree.

Is this really secure? What if my friend drops me? What if the rope snaps? What if, what if, what if...

Nothing is what I had between my feet and the ground, and I was terrified. A peaceful state of mind was higher on a wall than I could ever climb.

When my feet finally hit the dirt, I realized that placing anxiety in the back of my mind and trusting my partner was the only way to be successful. Much like paddling and hiking alone at night, rock climbing allowed me to fight my fear head-on.

I watched my friend lead a more difficult climb and grew anxious for him as he placed gear in the rock’s thin cracks. Watching him successfully send excited me to want to do the same. I knew he was scared, but watching him disregard fear was inspiring.

Eventually, ticking off lead climbs became a weekend hobby. The idea of nothing below my feet became more and more comfortable. Accepting this strengthened my mind as I found a new flow state in climbing.

I found myself visiting college friends in Yosemite Valley two summers later. Having spent the season working in the valley, my friends had a solid grasp on Yosemite adventures.

The day I arrived, Rob - a humble, experienced outdoorsman with a wide smile and chiseled face - told me he’d play hooky from work at the end of the week to tick off the Matthes Crest together.

I was oblivious to what he was referring to. My only understanding was a brief description on Mountain Project and images of climbers on a thin ridge with nothing below their feet.

Online I learned that the Matthes Crest is by no means a difficult climb or day in the mountains - unless attempted by someone wary of heights. Starting at the southern end, three 5.7 pitches lead into a mile-long moderate walk on (max width) sidewalk-sized rock, hundreds of feet above the ground.

Anxiety crept into my head leading to the day. My mind flashed to images I saw online and Mt. Marcy memories flooded my thoughts. My palms perspired just thinking about the climb.

I had grown mentally since Marcy, but the Matthes Crest was much taller. Much more exposed. If I froze, would that put Rob’s life in danger? Should I even go?

As nervousness and second-thoughts crept into my head throughout the week, I learned of Jack and Rob’s admirable adventures climbing El Cap, Half Dome and other Yosemite classics. While floating in the Merced’s refreshing current, I looked up at El Cap’s towering face, trying to imagine myself on the wall. My palms perspired even in the water.

Friday approached and I concluded it’d be better to challenge myself rather than let fear win. How could I grow if I refused to push my limits and allow negative thinking to dictate my life? I’d decided it’d be just as mentally challenging as my solo sunset hikes and paddles. Rob is an experienced climber that I trusted. I reminded myself that fear is materialized in my mind.

The five mile approach was long enough to build panic in my head, and for a thin layer of anxiety-fueled sweat to build on my hands. Each step closer to the start of the climb brought more beauty, more nervousness. But I found peace in John Muir’s words ringing through the mountains, and in picturing Ansel Adams’ setting up his tripod as we passed Cathedral Peak basking in morning alpenglow with a full moon above.  

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

Rounding the corner around Echo Peaks, the land dropped below us and left us standing as if on the edge of a bowl. Intimidating, massive and jagged mountains surrounded us and the clear, blue Matthes Lake appeared ahead in the distance. The Matthes Crest shot out of the ground to our left. Photographs made my palms sweaty, but seeing in person the long, massive granite wall towering above made my stomach drop.

That’s where we’re going?!

Anxiety filled every limb as we hiked parallel to the Crest and toward the base of the climb. My teeth chattered and cold shivers made my body twitch, but I wouldn’t let it win. I wasn’t going to be the twelve year-old who was paralyzed with fear on New York’s tallest mountain, or the beginner climber frozen at the anchor. I focused on my steps and breathing while pushing nervousness out of my brain. My insides were a mix of extreme stoke and downright fear by the time we tied in. The climb didn’t look so bad, but I knew what waited above: a knife-ridge with hundreds of feet of nothing below. My teeth chattered and my mind raced watching Rob dance gracefully up the rock. 

Rob just started so there’s no turning back ... Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

Immediately before I started, a pair of experienced climbers gave me thoughtful advice they pass on to everyone:

“Remember how fortunate you are to be here.”

I found quick comfort climbing the cold granite. The 5.7 pitches were a breeze, with beautiful knobs providing solid feet and hands. Slowly, climbing’s familiar flow state drifted back into my head. My mind went blank as nothing joined, too.

After topping out, the land dropped hundreds of feet on either side with 360-degree views of Tuolumne Meadows: no towns, no cars, no civilization. A calming similarity of views from Adirondack peaks washed over me: just trees, rock, snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes dotting the landscape, stretching to the horizon.

After gawking at the scenery, I lifted my camera to my eye. I couldn’t help but focus on the flow-state photography offered. Nothing filled my mind while beauty flooded my eyes.  I clicked away as if the sight would slip from memory forever if I didn’t. The fairy-tale land I dreamt of as a kid was now my reality and pictures I dreamt of taking now appeared in my viewfinder.

Holy shit! I’m here! I’m on the Crest!

Rob and I simul-climbed the ridge, only pitching out a few small sections that made us both uneasy. This was Rob’s first time leading simul and our first time climbing together. Following simul emphasizes the idea of not falling. It wouldn’t be the best situation if Rob fell, but he would be better protected than if I took a spill. We played it safe and fully trusted each other.  

Nothing filled my mind as I focused on removing the few pieces of gear between us while simultaneously gaping at the view.

I may look like Piggy but I am not going to fall down this mountain.

The sunset hike out was a dream. Pure bliss blanketed us. Finally, I was in the Ansel Adams’ photographs in which I found solace obsessing over as an anxiety-ridden, mouth twitching boy. This time all that twitched was my finger on the shutter. I summoned my inner Ansel Adams every few feet to capture the fleeting, golden-hour light that blanketed each plant, alpine lake and mountain around us. Rob and I joked that a unicorn roamed the land when noone was around.

Craving a warm meal and cold King Cobras, our pace morphed into a jog as darkness fell. Giddiness energized me as I realized I was free from a clouded brain. Excitement and awe filled my body more than fear, discomfort and anxiety. Hiking brought its familiar flow state as I pushed out the drowsiness that comes with a long day in the mountains.

Nothing filled my head and it was the most peace I’ve ever felt in my life.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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