Ravine Cyrique, Dominica, 2008
Halfway down the rope ladder, I paused to collect myself. “Are you sure about this?” I asked. But there was no one there to respond. Paul, my boyfriend, had scampered down the ladder without a flinch and was now well out of view. As I clutched the weathered rails, staring at tree roots clinging to the near-vertical slope, I took stock: Was I being a chicken and overthinking this, or was this hike down to Ravine Cyrique a really bad idea?
The rope ladder was slippery and wet, even growing moss in places. The thick vegetation on this eastern coast of Dominica was dripping with moisture. I glanced downwards. A fall here could be deadly. Far below I could hear the ocean, perhaps even the famous waterfall we were there to see.
I was not enjoying myself, but I was curious. Standing on the ladder, midway to the bottom, I faced a decision: How far would my adventurous spirit take me? Would I ditch this plan and go back up or join Paul on the black sand beach below?
I grew up in the suburbs. My childhood adventures mostly took place in a protected greenbelt that lay just beyond my home, a forested oasis on the outskirts of Ottawa. It wasn’t until high school that I first dabbled in hiking and paddling, or took a plane to a foreign country. It would be two decades before my relationship with risk was truly tested.
When it came to microadventures — say, jumping into a lake rather than dipping your toes in first — I leaned mostly to the cautious side. Occasionally, I’d be more spontaneous, though let’s be clear: I may have look stoked on the outside, but the whole time running down the dock toward the water I’d be questioning, Do I really want to do this?
You’ve likely guessed I’m prone to overthinking. I tend to analyze in order to understand as much as possible before I dive into something. It’s as though uttering my worries (even if just internally) will take power out of the unknown. For these reasons, a Type 1 adventure to many people may turn into a Type 2 for me. It’s often more fun after it happens, especially when I’m lassoed into something on short notice.
So when I moved to the Canadian Rockies in 2005, I encountered a life that brought me face to face with adventures that tested my reluctant response to the unfamiliar.
It also brought me to Paul, the most adventurous spirit I know.
For a few years after my move to the mountains, I had the perfect antidote to my apprehension about adventure: love — the kind that blinds you to most other things. Paul and I first met at a lodge in Banff National Park when I moved for a summer job. It took only a few months for us to slide from hiking buddies to lovers, not quite locked at the hip but something close to it.
Paul’s natural pace in the mountain landscape is relentlessly fast. Spurred on by my newfound discovery of activities like scrambling and backcountry hiking, and my attraction to this mountain man, I followed his lead, usually anywhere from 10 to 100 meters behind him. I was never able to keep up but always keen to go where he wanted. Together we reached dozens of summits, crossed glaciers, and covered more backcountry miles than I could count.
What I didn’t see during that early honeymoon period was just how Paul’s unquenchable thirst for adventure would later rub up against my natural sense of apprehension. I was halfway down that rope ladder on Dominica during a backpacking trip in 2008 when the rose-tinted glasses fell off.
What had been quite endearing at first had begun to exhaust me, mainly because I was trying to keep up. It didn’t help that I was living in a mountain community of go-getters and elite athletes. The bar was high. But Paul’s particular brand of exploration — go, go go and never stop — was hardwired into him, and would eventually be key components in his success as a photographer. If we were going to stay together, we’d have to navigate our different approaches to adventure.
And adventure we would. There are many occasions I have encouraged Paul to pursue his adventures alone. But together Paul and I have ski toured in the Arctic, climbed in the Rockies, and hiked in the Himalayas. In the past decade, we have taken our young children camping in the backcountry and traveling all over the world, from Rapa Nui to Ireland, Belize to the Balkans.
Through it all, I had to learn when to throw my caution to the wind and when to pay heed to the red flags. On some trips, I’m sure my apprehension is what kept me safe, with all my digits, perhaps even alive. I’ve turned back on mountains when I wasn’t feeling sharp. As a parent, caution has been essential when travelling with children in remote countries with limited access to emergency care.
There’s an art to navigating potentially life or death situations, particularly when apprehension kicks into high gear. I’ve felt the same way climbing along an exposed ridge as I have climbing aboard a sailboat in Mexico when I’m prone to seasickness. One could be life-threatening, the other just downright uncomfortable, but my knee-jerk reaction is: Do I want to do this?
It’s important to let the voice of caution speak up. But what we choose to do with those thoughts makes the greatest difference. Sometimes it means asking to be tied into a rope. Sometimes it means backing off completely. Sometimes it’s recognizing that the consequences are negligible and just going for it. And sometimes it makes for an unpleasant experience, never to be repeated.
My quiet apprehension has followed me through nearly four decades of my life. But I notice things are changing.
With numerous adventures under my belt, it’s now the voice of experience, not apprehension, I hear the loudest. I spend less time assessing. I check in with the gut feelings that have been honed through countless days spent on the trail, in the mountains, and in uncertain situations around the world.
I did get down to the beach that day at Ravine Cyrique. What I didn’t know when I stopped on that ladder was that there was another one below it where I would again stop and weigh my options. But from there I could hear Paul whooping and hollering like a kid on the beach. His excitement was contagious. I eventually set my feet on the black volcanic sand of the beach and, body trembling, looked out at the lapping water of the North Atlantic. Glancing left, I saw what I’d been hearing — the marvel that is a waterfall shooting straight out of the cliff face and 100 feet down into the ocean below.
I still can’t answer whether it was worth it, or how my life would be different if I hadn’t ventured down there. But what I do know is that life is too short not to push ourselves, even if it’s uncomfortable. Rung by rung, experience by experience, I have redefined my relationship with adventure. I still might dip my toes in first but now I’m more likely to jump in anyway, even if I know it’s going to be cold.
Words by Meghan J. Ward. Meghan is a mountain writer based in Banff, Canada, and the author of Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure and Parenting. Top photo: Paul Zizka