I’ve been pretty lucky. Most of my close friends are really adventurous “yes” people. They’ll almost always take me up on plans to go hiking, kayaking, climbing etc., if they’re not already making those plans themselves. As a result, I’ve never really done the solo adventure thing. My first full day back in Fort Collins, Colorado I decided I was going to do my first solo hike. It sounded like a great way to kick off my upcoming year in this rad state, celebrate recently becoming an Adventure Enthusiasts ambassador, and get a good workout in to start my day.
I wanted to pick a hike I had already done before and near where I live, so I chose to do the notoriously crowded Horsetooth Mountain hike. I woke up around 8:15 am, packed my bag with the usuals (ENO hammock, whatever book I’m reading, and my camera) and headed for the trailhead. When I got to the parking lot, I was happy to see it wasn’t too crowded. As I went to pay the entry fee, I noticed a warning sign on the window of the pay station that said “Rattlesnakes Live Here” and what to do in case you are bit.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a walking oxymoron. I absolutely love a good outdoor adventure but have a debilitating fear of snakes. I can’t exactly pinpoint why, when, or how this self-diagnosed phobia started, but seeing this sign before taking off on this hike was a rough way to start the experience.
Usually when I go on a hike with friends, they’re aware of the situation and (hopefully) know not to tell me if they see a snake. I operate much better with an “out of sight out of mind” approach to this problem and if I don’t see it, I usually won’t freak out. This was true until I started my first solo hike, when the fear that I would cross paths with a snake lingered with every step.
For someone who considers themselves pretty adventurous, I really struggled on this hike. I flinched at every noise I heard and movement I saw, trying to just keep moving forward. Before I started the hike, I figured I’d be walking near people the entire time since this hike is generally pretty crowded. Nope! Of course, the one day I choose to do this hike, taking each step with crippling fear, the trail feels completely empty.
I was walking at a swift pace, trying hard to keep my eyes on the trail and not let my gaze wander into the tall grass where there was a higher likelihood of me seeing something that would put me over the edge. More often than not, I debated turning back. I thought to myself, “no one would know I didn’t do it,” and “I already got this far, and I know what it looks like at the top.” I kept moving through these thoughts, worrying that if I stopped the silence would reveal hissing or rattling.
As I got further towards the top, I passed several groups on their descent. When I approached other hikers, I always debated whether or not to ask them if they had seen a snake, terrified that the answer would be yes. I continued on, greeting passerbys and hoping to get to the top fast.
Although I didn’t rest much because I was too scared to stop for too long, I realized quickly that this fear was draining my energy. I trust the physical condition I’m in, and knew this experience was feeling much harder than it should have. I tried my best to focus on enjoying the experience, but it was tough. I struggled with the thought that if I had been with other people, this fear would have floated to the back of my mind. I felt defeated because there were some incredible trees to put up my hammock and enjoy the view, but I could not muster up the courage to walk through the tall grass off the trail to set it up.
As I kept moving, the views became more and more beautiful. The trail was full of wildflowers that I hadn’t seen the last time I had done this hike, and I stayed distracted by enjoying these views.
I started to think about what I was enjoying most about this experience. It was nice to stop whenever I wanted. Sometimes when you’re hiking in a group with varying abilities, it’s hard to ask to stop if you’re tired or to not move at a faster pace if you’re feeling good while others aren’t. I was only in charge of keeping my pace and listening to my body without having to worry about disrupting others. While I was trying to stay distracted from thinking about snakes, I noticed smaller details that made the trail so beautiful. A good view after a certain turn, the wildflowers in several different colors, and much more. These are all things I could have easily overlooked had I been walking and talking with a partner.
When I got to the top, I felt like a ginormous weight was lifted off my shoulders. To the West, I could see Rocky Mountain National Park, to the North, Wyoming. There was a 360 degree view with an interesting thing to look at from every angle. I was one of two people at the top, the other who was also a woman solo-hiking. We acknowledged each other’s presence and each enjoyed our little victory.
I’m grateful to have gone on some incredible hikes all over the country, but I felt a sense of accomplishment on this one that I hadn’t felt before. I had combatted this debilitating fear all the way to the top, and was now being rewarded with incredible views on a beautiful day. I spent a while at the top, enjoying the experience and being humbled by the view ;).
On the way down, I passed two really nice guys and ended up making the hike down with them after disclosing how terrified I had been on the way up. They shared their fears, one of which was also snakes. I made it to the bottom feeling successful for both finishing the hike and not seeing any snakes.
I wanted to write about this experience to share that while someone might be adventurous, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re all humans battling our own fears in our own spaces, and it’s what you do with that fear that will make all the difference.
If this resonated with you, or you know someone who would benefit from a story like this, please feel free to pass it along.