Coping with Fear in the Outdoors by Tiffany Tharpe

The outdoors offers a slew of activities one can partake in. Each involves a different kind of challenge, and many can and do involve danger. It’s natural for hikers, climbers, and other adventurers to have some kind of fear when partaking in these natural activities, since you can be risking your life at times.
For black people, we have some not very fond memories of the outdoors. That fear of being deep in forests is still ingrained in us from the time of slavery and segregation. Our ancestors suffered, and this fear has kept many of us away from the trails. But we’ve made huge progress towards diversifying the outdoors and getting ourselves, our children, and friends/family outside. Go us!
I’ve had my fair share of confronting fear, both natural and racial, in the outdoors. Each experience was met with a different response and it has shaped me in some way. I continue to grow and learn from my experiences and my encounters with fear. There are three experiences that I still reflect on from time to time. These are times where I was confronted with fear and handled it differently: letting fear win, dealing with fear, overcoming and conquering fear.


Everyone who knows me knows just how much I love Yosemite National Park. That magical place is full of some of my best memories (it’s where I got engaged after all), but also some of my biggest challenges and regrets. This was a place where I have confronted fear– and fear won. There were two instances:
Upper Yosemite Falls trail, paused to take a quick picture.

The first was when me and my best friend went in early spring just after a snowstorm. We tackled the Upper Yosemite Falls trail and made it past the Middle Cascades. Fear started to set in for my friend at that point, but still we persisted. I don’t remember at what point it was, but my friend got overwhelmed with how high we were and said she wanted to turn around. This was still when I was relatively new to hiking and lacked safety training, so I allowed her to leave and continued on my own. I made my way towards the top, but then was met with snow on the trail as I got closer and closer. I didn’t have the right hiking shoes at the time and became suddenly super aware of both how alone I was on the trail and how high I was. I wanted to continue onward, but found myself scared that something would happen to me and my friend wouldn’t know (until it was too late) or vice versa. I decided to turn around, which I now know was the right call given the situation.

The second was another time I went with a group to Yosemite. We had tackled the Mist Trail before, and had decided to do it again since we had a couple of new faces in our group. It was a high water year and that trail was super misty, and super slippery. It was a big difference from when I had done it a couple years prior. There’s a point on that trail where you climb a bunch of stairs to the top of Vernal Falls and there’s very little, or no, railing.

Mist Trail 2017, very misty and very slippery trail that year

This is where the group faltered. Many of my friends are not avid hikers, and are also afraid of heights. I was fine until I saw many of the hikers disappearing into the mist and my friends freaking out about having to continue forward.. so we turned around. And let me tell you, going down slippery stairs is a lot more nerve-wracking than going up. I had my first outdoor-related panic attack and was afraid one of us was going to slip and fall right off of those rocks. I lost all composure and starting sobbing right on one of those rocks, and would have probably not moved if my now-fiance hadn’t encouraged us to keep going until we were off those stairs.

You can’t tell cause I’m soaking wet, but I’m crying. :'(

Those experiences still stick with me because I feel like I could of handled them better and I also have regrets. I still have yet to go back to Yosemite and tackle Upper Yosemite Falls. And though I have completed the Mist Trail after that incident, I feel like I let my friends down and put them in danger.

It can be hard, dealing with fear and allowing that fear to overcome you, to not think about what would have happened if you just kept pushing forward. But sometimes we freeze, and it’s okay to freeze. We learn from both our positive and negative experiences of fear.

Death Valley

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

An instance where I dealt with fear, but still felt like I could have handled it better was when my fiance and I went on our first road trip together. We went to the Seven Magic Mountains installation, Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon state park, and finally Death Valley National Park. Everything was fine up until the last day. It was a Monday in January and we were driving through a conservative area, a VERY conservative area of Nevada. I felt ill at ease because we were the only two on the road the majority of the time and I was just waiting for a cop car to pull out of nowhere and pull us over because I was DWB: ‘driving while black’. At one point, we saw two identical black trucks turn onto the highway we were on. Probably because I was feeling slightly paranoid, I thought they were following us and inwardly panicked until we made the turn towards the park and they continued straight. I disliked the whole drive into the park, and was grateful when we finally did get to the visitor center.

When we did get there, we dealt with the many stares. I won’t say they were hostile ( I mean, some of them could have been), but it made me uncomfortable to the point where I felt I couldn’t be lovey with my fiance (and on our anniversary, nonetheless). We stayed the entire time and had an overall good adventure, I just had this fear nagging at the back of my head the whole time. While I didn’t necessarily “overcome” my fear, in a way I did. I stayed, enjoyed the park, and ignored my flight responses telling me to go home.

Honolulu, Hawaii

As far as fears go, I have an intense fear of heights. Dealing with me on a plane is exhausting. For me, it’s an issue with control. I’m fine hiking up to and summitting a mountain, but activities that require me to, quite literally sometimes, ‘let go’ really send me into a panic. I’m not sure I could ever skydive or bungee-jump, but I did go parasailing at 1000 feet when we went to Hawaii a couple years ago.

The takeoff!!

Talk about exhilarating!

When we were watching the informational video they require everyone to watch and getting ready, I remember freaking the heck out. There were three different heights to choose from: 600ft, 800ft, and 1000ft. I figured I would be fine with just the lower of the three, but my sister encouraged me to ‘go big or go home’ as she so lovingly put it.
I was concerned and freaking out when we were on the boat and getting ready to go, but once we were in the air– I totally forgot about all of that fear! The views of the ocean and the island were so amazing and it felt like I was flying. We saw tiny specks of sea turtles from the air and the snorkelers that were swimming with them. I didn’t think of what might happen. Instead, I was just living in the moment. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. Fear had almost stopped me from doing it, but I was able to let go and overcome that fear!

Confronting my childhood fear of birds!

As a black adventurer, it is important to not let fear overcome me. When I think of myself and my people, we have come so far in the face of fear and adversity and made tremendous progress towards our very equal rights. We still have more battles ahead, but we have always and will always prove resilient. That resilience keeps pushing me forward in dealing with and eventually overcoming my own personal fears.

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