Rethinking Fear While Climbing Flattop Mountain

February 24, 2016
Rethinking Fear While Climbing Flattop Mountain

Seven years ago, when faced with our empty nest, my husband David and I sold everything and hit the road. We discovered that we love the vagabond lifestyle and decided to keep on going. Along the way we rediscovered the couple who fell in love years ago. Our son, The Boy, had recently moved to Anchorage, Alaska, and because our birthdays are ten days apart, he decided we should do something momentous to celebrate my first Alaskan visit.

We were going to hike up a mountain on my 52nd birthday, The Boy said. Not climb, hike. Or maybe that’s what I chose to hear. Certainly, The Boy is aware of my age and the limitations thereof. He wouldn’t be trying to kill me on my birthday, would he?

I was excited to spend an idyllic day in nature with my husband and son: walking, talking and reconnecting after a few months of mommy withdrawals. And that’s exactly how it started out. Between huffs and puffs, we laughed and caught up on the stories we hadn’t relayed over long-distance phone calls. Every now and then, we paused as The Boy pointed out his favorite views.

About halfway up, I noticed that some of the older folks, along with parents with very young in tow, found good reasons to turn back. 

He had made it to the summit of Flattop Mountain once before with friends (all his age), and was going on and on about how great the view was from the top. It was already getting pretty darned good. As we gained altitude, Anchorage and the mudflats of Cook Inlet spread out before us, and we could see the majestic peaks of the Alaska Range and Denali off in the distance.

About halfway up, I noticed that some of the older folks, along with parents with very young in tow, found good reasons to turn back. For many, a scenic platform marked a reasonable stopping point, others found that a stretch of trail was too steep, and some lacked the competitiveness that doesn’t take into consideration one’s limitations. The platforms and steep trail stretches could have given me an easy way out as well. I was already taking too many breathers-disguised-as-photo-stops – and I wasn’t fooling anyone.

Hanging onto the side of a sheer wall in a very unnatural position — harkening a vertical, pigeon-toed murder-scene-chalk-outline drawing — I squeaked out a feeble call for help.

My husband, David, and I are highly competitive. Not in a let’s-do-something-incredibly-lofty kind of way, like winning a gold medal for our country. Nor are we particularly competitive with other people (unless trivia games count). It’s just with each other, in an I-dare-you-to-eat-something-gross or do-something-scary way. It’s like we’re perpetually stuck in fifth grade. One of us is going to get our tongue frozen to a playground flagpole one day, just watch. All it would take is a triple-dog dare.

So the steepness wasn’t going to stop me, because there was no way I was going to listen to David nana nana boo boo me when he made it to the top and I didn’t. My first real challenge came when the gravel started making an appearance. Gravel, steep incline, and an of-a-certain-age novice climber is not a good combo. I kept losing my footing, and my bravado was quick to follow.

I kept losing my footing while climbing Flattop Mountain, and my bravado was quick to follow.

David was unfazed; he used to climb mountains when he lived in Colorado as a teen, and he seemed right at home. It also didn’t faze him when the terrain turned into a rock climbing wall. I, who had never climbed a rock wall — real or at a kid’s birthday party — was shocked as hell. Surely the boy knew that this was coming, and that I was going to freak out. Or maybe he found it so easy for his 25-year-old self to scramble up that the thought didn’t cross his mind that it would be a daunting challenge for someone (gulp) over twice his age.

I stood, knees knocking, at the base of a straight-up, one-hundred-foot wall and resigned.

“I can’t do this.”

“Sure you can, Mom. We’re almost to the top and it’s so great up there. C’mon, I’ll show you exactly where to put your feet.”

There wasn’t a clear path or trail and climbers were back-tracking areas they had already attempted, asking each other for advice about the best way up. David chose a route and headed up, The Boy holding back to give me guidance.

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I made it three quarters of the way before I kicked a piece of loose rock and heard it clatter down the mountain. It clattered and clattered and clattered. For a long, long time.

It occurred to me that I could die.  And I found out later that people have died, and that getting rescued off Flattop Mountain is a fairly regular occurrence. What I did next made that possibility greater.

I froze.

Hanging onto the side of a sheer wall in a very unnatural position — harkening a vertical, pigeon-toed murder-scene-chalk-outline drawing. I squeaked out a feeble call for help. There was nothing The Boy nor David could do to move me. I hung there with my hair whipping around my head and my eyes shut tight until my heart stopped racing.

Rethinking Fear While Climbing Flattop Mountain.

David pointed out a semi-circle of ledge just wide enough for my butt, and I made getting there my life’s work. Please God, just let me sit for a while and figure this out.

Reaching the ledge, I sat down and commenced shaking. I sent the guys on, telling them I’d scoot down on my rear end when I felt safe enough to do so. After much hemming and hawing, they went on. I sat stock still until I found myself enjoying the incredible view again. Then I upside-down crab-walked to the last place I felt safe. The guys were already there.

“Mom, you were twenty feet from the top . We found an easier way up for you.”

We came down to get you, we want you to see it.

“Honey, c’mon. It’s fantastic up there. We came down to get you, we want you to see it.”

They hadn’t been reveling in their own achievements as they deserved; they were looking for a way for me to join them.

How do I say no? Did I want to say no? No. I wanted to do this.

I followed The Boy up, put my feet where he put his feet. He lovingly coached me to the top. Through my panicked tears, I felt a mother/son bond I’d never felt before. My son, The Man, was taking care of me.


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Have you traveled to Alaska? Email us at [email protected] to share your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you. Photo credit by Unsplash. 

About Veronica James

Upon sending her youngest out into the big, wide world, Veronica and her husband, David, set out to break the empty nest rules by selling everything and hitting the road. Along the way they began writing posts for their popular website,, and rediscovered the couple who fell in love years ago. They’ve been full-time travelers since 2008. Their debut memoir Going Gypsy: One Couple’s Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All is available wherever books are sold.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Fear While Climbing Flattop Mountain

  1. February 24, 2016

    I’m so glad you found a way to finish the climb. This story is such a lovely metaphor for all the times you’ve surely reached out to your son when he was just ’20 feet from the top’ and encouraged him to believe in himself.

    • Veronica James
      February 24, 2016

      Awwww… Tamara thanks so much. And (yes!) it was wonderful to have our roles reversed in that way.

  2. February 24, 2016

    You’re much braver than I would be. I started shaking like crazy on a zip line. What a wonderful opportunity, though. Alaska is amazingly beautiful.

    • Veronica James
      February 24, 2016

      There were plenty of moments that I didn’t feel brave – at all! Have to say zip lining is (almost) as scary – good for you Rebecca!

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