Fear comes from uncertainty. William Congreve.
One of our first longer sea kayak trips in Queensland was along the spectacular east coast of Hinchinbrook Island. This was also one of our first experiences paddling in the full brunt of the southeasterly trade winds in single, rather tippy kayaks. We had done some big sea kayaking trips before, including a six week trip around the Solomon Islands and four weeks around the Palau Islands, but those trips were done in our super stable unsinkable Feathercraft double expedition kayak. Half way through our Hinchinbrook trip we found ourselves alone on the exposed east coast of the island in unrelenting 30 knot winds.
Landing in small surf on Ramsay Beach
About three weeks later, we paddled from Flying Fish Point to Cairns camping along the way at some widely separated off-shore islands. We had calm winds on this trip and the long crossings were stress free. But, as we moved further up the coast, and our last weather forecast got more and more out of date, the first seeds of uncertainty started digging into the fertile soil of my mind. I recall being somewhat relieved when we pulled into Turtle Bay on the mainland after crossing from Fitzroy Island as our last open water crossing was behind us, and, if we chose, we could paddle the remainder of the distance to Cairns along the shore-line.
Before our Hinchinbrook Island trip I had forgotten about the fear that uncertainty can invoke. After our later Flying Fish Point to Cairns trip, I recognized in myself the long forgotten trepidation that uncertainty evokes. Looking back, I can remember that apprehension weighing on my mind on my early multi-day mountaineering trips, long ski traverses, and even long multi-pitch routes. Our fear is not necessarily of what may come, but is instead about whether we have the ability and skill to deal with the difficulty of the route ahead. As our skill level increases, we begin to have confidence in our ability to route-find, make hard moves, find gear placements, down-climb steep snow slopes, navigate avalanche terrain, and just generally deal with whatever the weather, terrain, and even our companions can throw at us. At a certain point, we can live comfortably with the uncertainty of the route ahead – whether it is a mountaineering route or a sea kayak route. When the day is over, we can make camp, relax our minds, and leave the next day's challenges in the future without worrying over them in the present.
Cold camp on the McBride Traverse
However, we can never reach this level of comfort by practicing single skills, or even groups of skills in isolation. As I have said many times before, we are what we do. If we want to learn to be comfortable in challenging and dynamic conditions, we have to get out in those conditions and meet the challenges. Being able to boulder V3 will never guarantee that you won't be scared and fearful scrambling exposed class four terrain in the mountains after a long approach hike. Linking some parallel turns on an easy day trip to the local hill does not equate to completing long ski mountaineering traverses with serious exposure to avalanches, crevasse falls, cornice falls, or icy traverses where losing an edge could kill you. Being able to eskimo roll a kayak does not equate to paddling a long distance far from shore in strong winds and big seas.
Muir Pass camp
Whatever it is you wish to accomplish in the outdoors, there are no short-cuts. You must get out there in as many different conditions as you can with as many different partners as you can for as long as you can. Bouldering, ski hills, paddling on protected waters, and the like are all useful for training specific skill sets in more controlled environments, but, they are no substitute for exposure to uncertainty.