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Friday, June 15, 2012

facing fear on the loveland pass

(watch this video. this is what this post is about. loveland pass in colorado)

Imagine that you are paralyzingly terrified of heights. Now imagine, if you will, that you are standing on the outdoor observation deck of the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. Now get to the very edge and look down. Imagine now that the railing is gone and you are looking straight down you walk as close as possible to the ledge from one end to the other for the next 40 minutes. Oh, and did I mention that there are people running by you just inches from you?

 I did that. Yesterday. 

But it wasn't a building, it was a stretch of highway called Loveland Pass in Colorado, named one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the United States. 

I have a severe case of Acrophobia (fear of heights.) It is blinding, terrifying, paralyzing, panic inducing. I don't like ferris wheels, ski lifts or observation decks. I avoid heights at all cost. So, yesterday, I thought the worst was over when I flew from Seattle to Denver.  I had no idea that I was about to face that fear head on, coming very close to driving right off a cliff from a highway in the sky that can terrify even the most jaded trucker. 

All I was doing was driving from Denver to Keystone, Colorado. I had lucked out with a rented convertible. It was a sunny day. I had a Starbucks Passion Iced Tea and Sirus 70's music. It was all good. The GPS said I would be there in an hour and a half. Good. All good. 

I called L. (my husband) while I was driving in Denver after getting the car. I told him that Colorado seemed like a prairie. It was flat. That changed though and I started climbing and climbing, passing tractor trailers making it up hills at maybe 40 mph. There were several points where the highway cut through the valleys with tall rocky mountains on either side.  The AVALANCHE, FALLING ROCK AND RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP sign became more frequent as the highway started to climb towards the snow capped mountains. I followed the GPS and turned from Highway 70 onto Highway 6. 

That is when it all went to hell. 

I remember looking up at a tractor trailer way way way up on the top of the mountain near the snow thinking  "Thank God, I don't have to be on that road. That is CRAZY." Yes, that is the road I was on. The highway became two lanes, one up, one down. Hairpin turns, switchbacks, no guardrails. I climbed. I turned the radio off. I held my hands on the steering wheel  at 10 and 2 and thought "Wow, I am SO HAPPY that the cliff is to my left and the other drivers are on that side." It didn't stay that way for long.  As I drove on the hairpin turns I looked down and realized that it was a sheer cliff, SHEER, just straight down for several thousand feet. There was no guardrail, no breakdown lane. Just two small lanes and the pavement ends to the open sky. 

Because hazardous material trucks are forbidden from using the alternate route (the Eisenhower Tunnel), you share the road with large tractor  trailers traveling barely feet from you. As I drove I started to have my very first panic attack and my nose started bleeding. I felt every beat of my heart as I started to sweat. My hands were slippery against the steering away as my tires gripped the pavement. I wanted to stop the car because I didn't TRUST THAT I WOULDN'T ACCIDENTALLY DRIVE THE CAR OFF THE CLIFF. I started to breathe shallow because I felt if I breathed regularly I wouldn't be able to focus on the car, on the drive. Then I felt light-headed. I wanted to pull the car over but there was no where to stop. I wanted to just stop in the middle of the road but because of the hairpin turns someone coming around the corner wouldn't see me and would crash into me, sending us both over the cliff at an elevation of 11,990 feet.

This panic attack, the feeling of absolute fear for my life was something I had never experienced before. In my travels, I've been in places I shouldn't but I never experienced an actual panic attack before. I said the Hail Mary over and over to focus myself on the words. I rationalized that millions of people have driven this road and most did it safely. I tried to imagine L. sitting next to me telling me I could do this. It was absolute quiet except for the sound of my heartbeat.  At one point I was at the very top and could literally reach out and touch the top of the snow-capped mountain and I realized I  at least I was headed down. I was more than halfway through. 

Then in the quiet, with just the rustle of wind in my ears I reached the bottom of the mountain. The hotel was not far from this point so I pulled into the driveway. When the valet greeted me and opened the car door I realized I couldn't let go of the steering wheel. My hands were gripped so tightly around it. My legs were jelly. My nosebleed had stopped but I realized with the bloody Starbucks napkins I must have looked like I'd had one heck of a drive. "Hi. I think I need a minute," I said. "I drove over THAT" and pointed at Loveland Pass. "Oh, wow!" he said. "Wow, you know when you leave you can just take the Eisenhower Tunnel, right?" 'No,"  I said. "No, I did not know that. Why thank you, GPS, for making me face my fear when I didn't have to."

When I go to to my room I got online and looked up Loveland Pass.

Here is what says about Loveland Pass: 

Loveland Pass, elevation 11,990 ft. (3,655 m) above sea level, is a high mountain pass in the Rocky Mountains of north-central Colorado, U.S.A and the highest mountain pass in the world that regularly stays open during a snowy winter season. Is located on the Continental Divide in the Front Range west of Denver. U.S. Route 6 traverses the pass; the twisty road is considered to be especially treacherous during the winter months. A steep, steady 6.7% grade, along with numerous hairpin turns on either side, make it difficult to snowplow the road regularly. Loveland is the highest mountain pass in the world that regularly stays open during a snowy winter season. When the Eisenhower Tunnel opened in March 1973, it allowed motorists on Interstate 70 to avoid crossing the pass directly. Driving up over Loveland Pass is quite the experience. It is a fairly steep climb with hairpin turns and amazing views down into the valley of I-70 below. It can be a little scary though, since most of the views are not blocked by a guard rail and it is easy to imagine yourself careening down the mountain. Loveland Pass in the winter can be downright terrifying at times.

(another loveland pass video from two brave guys)

If you don't have a fear of heights, I would imagine Loveland Pass is an incredible experience. I didn't have that experience. For someone with such a fear of even CONTROLLED heights like a carnival ferris wheel, the fact that I had to keep in control when I was light headed from holding my breath and panicked at the thought that I was in control and could at any point lose control and die, this was a big deal. Last night looking up at that mountain I wondered if THAT was an experience I was supposed to have. Maybe I was supposed to conquer that fear yesterday. I've heard of immersion therapy. Where you sit in a room of cats if you have Ailurophobia (fear of cats) or you interact with clowns if you have Coulrophobia. For me, the immersion therapy of "SURPRISE! TODAY WE ARE CONQUERING YOUR PARALYZING FEAR OF HEIGHTS!" didn't work. I am still terrified of heights and will avoid them, even now. However, I am proud of myself for doing it. I did it. I drove Loveland Pass without crashing my car into a fiery ball below. 

Maybe that's what this whole adventure thing is about. You do things, you go about your daily life and if you're lucky at the end of the day you can feel proud of yourself. I am. Today, I am.

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