How I managed my fear by becoming a better risk assessor while kite skiing across Greenland.
You know those badass, fearless types who seem to take on any physical and mental challenge with grace and style? I know them too. I’m not one of them.
I am afraid of snakes – like, a lot. I sleep with a can of bear spray next to my bed, just in case. Grace and style? Those words just don’t exist in my world of tackling Mazlow’s basic needs of safety and comfort.
But a few months ago, I did that thing– I kite skied across Greenland. As a novice kiteskier on a committed polar expedition, I was forced to question my relationship to risk, and how it intertwines with fear.
It was a demanding expedition, and there were several moments where I battled with my fears. But I did it, with fear as my sidekick, through leg cramps and muscle spasms, with our polar bear deterrents close by.
To qualify this a bit, Celine and I are two polar-savvy ladies who decided to test our skills on this 550km crossing. We met on an expedition in Alaska a couple years back and knew that our combined skillsets were capable of this. Well, Celine could have done it alone.
Celine is a larger than life arctic renaissance woman. She lives in Nunavut – Canada’s Arctic – and works as a remote EMT and wilderness instructor. She skies first descent couloirs with her brother on Baffin Island, and recently became the first woman to run 100km through Baffin’s Aksayuk pass, and the first person to do it alone. Her skill acquisition came with its own process, but these days she embraces her boundaries and thrives at the edge of her comfort zone.
Five years ago I left my office job to work in Antarctica and Greenland, spending my offseasons tackling skills to grow my outdoor competence. I learned to ski and drive boats, took courses in wilderness first response and avalanche safety, all the while wondering at what point I’d be ready for an expedition of this caliber. Throughout those years my comfort zone grew as my knowledge expanded.
After many years of skill development, this expedition became my swan song to polar expedition guiding – a celebration of what I’ve learned and how far I’ve come, before making the switch back to a more stable life at home.
I’ve loved these years of accelerated learning, but will admit that my learning is moderated. It’s often punctuated with a lot of scouting, questions, and overpreparing my skills. I’m a class 3 kayaker with minimal ambitions of getting into class 4 water. I ski – a solid blue square skier with minimal ambitions of “shredding the gnar.” I’m not a huck and run type of gal.
So what do you do when you find yourself with a kite in the air, hundreds of miles from the coastline, on the planet’s largest island and second largest ice sheet, embracing the badassery but unable to shake the pit of fear in your stomach, or throat, or seizing fingers?
Celine and I are both thorough in our risk analysis and planning. We met up a year before departure and broke down all the risks we would encounter. We gave each risk a probability ranking and a consequence ranking. For example:
· Polar bear attack. Probability: Low. Consequence: High
· Cold temperatures: Probability: High. Consequence: Moderate (requires constant mitigation).
For each of these risks, we analyzed what skillset we as a team needed in order to be comfortable with our relationship to that risk, and made sure that at least one of us had that “covered”. If it was something both of us needed to have (for example: competent kite ski ability to mitigate risk of musculoskeletal injury), it was something we both trained.
Ultimately, the expedition itself was more of a headline than an article. Just like a ride on an airplane, I was content with the anticlimactic.
Yes of course it was hard. We hauled ass for 7 straight days, waking up at 5am to check the weather, and kiting for over 100km a couple days. These were long days of kite skiing over bumpy ice, often with minimal visibility and changing wind speeds and direction, each of us pulling 150 pounds divided into two sleds. We gimped around at the end of each day, suddenly acutely aware of how our knees will feel in a few decades.
One day, the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see where the land ended and the sky began. Apparently this is called the ping pong ball effect – imagine what it must look like inside a ping pong ball.
Another day, Celine yelled “Katie, we are so badass!” as she rocked her kite a few meters from my side. For a moment I stepped away from my internal fear and discomfort, and saw us from somewhere else – two capable ladies, realizing a multi-year mission in the middle of endless ice, reliant on our resources but more so on our resourcefulness.
While it took us 7 days to cover 530 km, it took us 3 lengthy days to walk the final 16km. These were the hardest days, and the longest, but also some of my favorites. When the bare glacier became too rugged, and the frozen landscape was speckled with melted surface ponds that eagerly swallowed our skis and sleds, we were forced to slow down.
Imagine a winter wonderland. Land so close on paper, distanced by rolling hills of ice 10-20 feet high. Our sleds were still quite heavy.
On the final day, 4 km became 12 as we hauled one sled each half a km toward land, marked a way point, walked back to the other sled, and hauled that to the new start point. It was 24 hours from when we awoke to when we went to bed.
To make a long story short, we kite skied across Greenland. In 11 days, through varying weather conditions and endless learning opportunities.
Celine did it fearlessly - with style, grace and humor.
I wish I could say I did this fearlessly – as if I matched on the inside what the wonder woman on the outside looked like.
But that wasn’t the case. And frankly, how often does that really happen? We all battle fear – in expeditions, in relationships, in business – it is an emotion similar to love; it overwhelms us, it freezes us, it catches us with a lump in our throat. Fear laughs in the face of logic. It leaves us breathless, confused.
I’d like to think that fear can be cured by thorough risk analysis. Identify the risks, do what you can to mitigate them, and determine whether you’re comfortable with your proximity to that risk. Decide: jump or don’t jump.
Despite our best efforts, and our type A minds letting us think we’re in control, often the fear doesn’t leave when we need it to. It overstays its welcome. It’s there when we launch a new business that may or may not fail - and thus, may or may not succeed. It’s there when our hearts leap into new love, knowing they might come back with new callouses and bruises. And it’s there when the helicopter drops us onto the ice, when we may or may not get to the other side.
But we know deep down when we are ready. Even if the fear is still around.
So we trust our analytical mind, and we begin.
We’ve run the risk analysis.
We’ve trained our strengths to super strengths. We’ve brought our weaknesses up to manageable.
We’ve prepped, we’ve packed, we got on the plane, we got off the plane, we waited for the weather to clear, we got on the heli, we got off the heli, and now the only thing left to do is begin.
The fear tells us we can’t. We shouldn’t. We’re not ready. We recognize our emotion in the moment and trust our past logic.