An important step in managing anxiety involves facing feared situations, places or objects. It is normal to want to avoid the things we fear. However, avoidance prevents you from learning that the things you fear may not be as dangerous as you think.

The process of facing fears is called exposure. Exposure involves gradually and repeatedly going into feared situations until you feel less anxious. Exposure is not dangerous and will not make the fear worse. And after a while, your anxiety will naturally lessen.

Adam tests the new Ultimate Direction SCRAM (spring 2019) Photo: Laura Kos

Starting with situations that are less scary, you work your way up to facing things that cause you a great deal of anxiety. Over time, you build up confidence in those situations and may even come to enjoy them. This process often happens naturally. A person who is afraid of the water takes swimming lessons every week and practices putting their feet and legs in the water, then the whole body and, finally, diving underwater. People with a fear of water can learn to love swimming. The same process occurs when people learn to ride a bike, skate or drive a car. In my case, the fear has been getting back to climbing and scrambling in 5th class terrain.

On August 31st, 2016 I had a near death accident while trying to climb the Sulzer Tower, as part of a larger traverse in Rogers Pass, British Columbia. The climb was blocky 4th/5th class terrain but has tremendous exposure. While following my partners Nick Elson and Dakota Jones up the buttress, a rock pulled out on me, sending me tumbling backwards several hundred feet. Luckily, I survived the fall, but I did end up fracturing my T8 to T11 vertebrae, I sheared off the top of my hip bone, I had several lacerations down to the bone across my hip and cuts from the sharp rock across my entire body and I broke my ankle in multiple places. My helmet was shattered and with it, my confidence about my approach to moving in the mountains.

Adam tests the new Ultimate Direction SCRAM (spring 2019) Photo: Laura Kos

As I started to regain my physical strength, I found myself struggling with my desire to get back into the mountains. The passion and draw to get back up there is sometimes called and viewed as an addiction by some and maybe they’re right, but the rawness and beauty of those high and wild spaces is incredibly compelling to some of us. But I was conflicted, on one hand I really want to get back, but on the other I found myself intimidated by them. The thought of their unpredictably and danger would bring cold sweats to my mind and I often found myself getting startled awake with flashbacks of the rock pulling out and me tumbling backwards. I felt victimized by the rock. Fortunately, my friend, Will Gadd, is one of the most accomplished ice climbers and adventurers in the world and has a deep understanding of risk, he is also an incredibly compassionate person. He bought me bone broth from an elk he had killed to help with my physical healing and he got me talking about accident to help me psychologically. We analyzed the things I did that contributed to it happening. A few conclusions were that: We were moving in big alpine terrain, so we had accepted a certain element of risk already. We were moving fast. I was moving a bit more slowly than my partners and because of that, my ego was getting in the way and I began rushing. I was not present with my actions testing my holds properly. I did not have secure feet, not did I have at least three solid points of contact. I was pulling back on a block, which is what you do while climbing, but is something you want to avoid for risk of pulling out a rock, when moving in all but the most secure alpine terrain. Due to my fitness I had progressed maybe too quickly into big and fast alpine objectives without progressing my skills properly in more safe environments.

Adam tests the new Ultimate Direction SCRAM (spring 2019) Photo: Laura Kos

Through this analysis, I stopped seeing myself as a victim, instead I came to appreciate that I was more of a master of my own outcome. While you can never control for all the variables and risk in the alpine, you can take some actions to mitigate and minimize those risks. So as my strength returned, I found myself venturing back into more technical terrain. My first time back scrambling with my wife Laura, I had a complete mental breakdown and she had to talk me through what previously would have been rather benign terrain. So I began to take every safety course I could. Rope rescue courses, advanced avalanche courses, I went out with much better climbers on very easy terrain and asked them how to read routes, weather and conditions. I also thought a lot about my movement. I did a lot more climbing with a rope on than I would have previously and as my physical and technical competence increased, so did my confidence. However I still had some deep scars.

During one memorable outing last summer, almost a year to the day after my accident, on a somewhat obscure route called Candle in the Wind, a 15-pitch 5.10c trad route with a very alpine feel, I was climbing with Jon Walsh and Phil Widmer. Jon is considered a true Rockies “hard man”, widely recognized as one of the boldest and most accomplished Canadian climbers and Phil is an aspirant mountain guide and Olympic x-country skier and one of my more frequent mountain partners. After doing the technical climbing, that pushed me mentally and physically, the route finishes with several hundred meters of 4th class and 5th class terrain to the summit. Owing to fatigue and several hours of climbing that tested me, once we took the rope off to cover the final scrambling section, I once again had a melt-down. I found myself crying in front of one of my climbing idols. Jon and Phil put their arm around me, gave me a hug and brought the rope back out and we protected the somewhat easy (but high consequence) terrain to the summit without question or judgment, even though moving more slowly pushed us into descending in the dark. These are the partners you want to be with, which is another important element in dealing with exposure. Being there with supportive and highly competent people allowed me to face my fear in a secure and safe way..

Adam tests the new Ultimate Direction SCRAM (spring 2019) Photo: Laura Kos

I had surgery that fall to have the rods that were supporting my spine removed. With the rods out, I felt a newfound sense of freedom in my movement. I had not appreciated how restricted I had been with them in there – the human body is remarkably adaptable. With the rods removed and a new level of physical competence, I started to ski slightly more technical terrain again and I continued my mountain education. I also found my awareness and presence on all my mountain outings much more heightened. I was much more willing to listen to my intuition and if I was not motivated, or did not feel confident in my choice, then I was much more willing to back away from an objective than I would have been previously. My ego was not nearly as wrapped up in the outcome, or I was able to reframe my objectives as simply being out there to push myself, but mostly to have fun and experience the amazing terrain that I considered myself fortunate to simply be back moving in.

Throughout this summer I began alpine climbing again, leading moderate alpine routes and climbing more than I have in years. Laura has been an amazing partner throughout this journey and she became my most frequent mountain partner. She is a climber and skier herself, so she has been incredibly supportive and understanding of my need and pull to get back into the mountains. We have talked a lot about what level of risk is acceptable to us and what we want from our mountain experiences. Those time out together are a truly special bond that we consider lucky to have shared together. So after a summer of climbing, I proposed that I wanted to go back to the area where I had my accident. I felt physically and emotionally ready to get back there. Not to conquer the route, but more to experience an amazing area and to see what emotions it might bring up in me. So in early September, nearly two years to the day after my accident, we set off from the trail head and made our way up the first peak that made up the start of the traverse I was on when I fell.

The new Ultimate Direction SCRAM (spring 2019) Photo: Laura Kos

As the alpenglow hit the peaks, we could see that conditions were not ideal. The south side of the peaks were snow free, but the northern aspects were plastered in snow and ice. But conditions can change quickly in the alpine, so we went up to go and have a look, not wed to any particular outcome. I will admit that I was especially cautious on the approach, making sure that everything was secure and trying to be very in tune with my movement. As we summitted the first peak, called Avalanche Mountain, I could see Sulzer tower off in the distance. I was instantly struck by flashbacks, thinking about all the incredible people who had supported me, touched me and helped get me back up on top of one of the peaks that I was on prior to my accident. I was a very powerful moment and I was filled with gratitude. We continued along the knife edge ridge, but found ourselves walking in shin deep snow and the lichen on the rocks was slippery. We discussed pushing on momentarily, but we quickly realized that pushing on would be simply a matter of ego and would require a level of risk that neither of us thought necessary. I had come as far as I need to on that day. The mountains and the route will still be here next year and for years to come, so what’s the rush? By next year, or the year after, we’ll only be a year stronger, wiser and more appreciative of being there and that’s ultimately what it’s all about.

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