The cliff face loomed above my head, pegs sticking straight out from the rock. I clipped into the steel cable with both carabiners, took a deep breath, and grabbed the first peg of the Klettersteig Via Ferrata in Kandersteg, Switzerland.
Then I felt the first stirrings of stark terror.
It made no sense; the fear felt completely irrational. I had rock climbed in high school and college when I lived out West. I climbed at a few gyms over the years in the Washington, D.C. area. I was not an expert by any means, but there was no logical reason I should have a sudden onset of fear of heights.
Except, maybe because of my experience in Libya. Yes, that Libya. The post-traumatic stress still haunted me at times and in unexpected ways. The thing about post-traumatic stress is that it’s called post for a reason. It happens after the traumatic event. In the moment, you’re so focused on the event you don’t have time to be scared.
That comes later, like during a climb on a Via Ferrata.
Via Ferrata, unlike traditional rock climbing, is a protected climbing route with a steel cable that runs the length of the entire route and is periodically fixed to the rock, usually every ten to thirty feet.
Additional climbing aids along the route include rungs or pegs, carved steps, ladders, various kinds of bridges, wood beams, and occasionally a Tyrolean traverse. The steel cable itself and the rock are also used in the climb.
While there are widely varying opinions among rock climbers about the authenticity of a Via Ferrata, one major bonus is that you can climb a route solo in Europe, no training or climbing partners required. It is just you and the rock.
Gear for a Via Ferrata, which means “Iron Road” in Italian, is also fairly basic compared to traditional rock climbing. You will need a harness, helmet, and Via Ferrata set that consists of an energy absorbing y-shaped lanyard and carabiners. That’s it.
A Climbing Traffic Jam
In Kandersteg, my best friend Jesse and I rented the gear from a little shop in the village. The price seemed reasonable for Switzerland, but there was no other option anyway.
The gentleman behind the counter asked, “You know how to climb?”
“Yes,” we replied. Jesse, an avid rock climber, had many years of experience; far more than I.
“It’s simple, very simple. Have fun,” he said.
End of instruction. No waivers required.
We headed to the beginning of the route, which looked vertical, or more than vertical, most of the way. Our research told us there would be several bridges and a Tyrolean traverse. The route began next to a beautiful waterfall, the Alps behind our backs, the afternoon sun shining overhead.
Silence surrounded us. All we could hear was the clack-clack, clack-clack as climbers clipped into and out of sections of the steel cable on their way up. Occasionally, we could hear a voice, carried towards us on the wind. Perfect conditions.
But the fear would not leave. Once I grabbed that first peg and the fear set in, no amount of reasoning or logic would assuage it. I went so slowly I caused a climbing traffic jam. In Switzerland. I climbed several hundred feet, finally told Jesse to go on without me, and down-climbed.
I kept picturing a bad fall and slamming my face or body into one of the pegs. I completely psyched myself out. I pictured the headlines that would follow: “American woman survives war in Libya, dies climbing in Switzerland.”
Caught in the Libyan Civil War
The fear undoubtedly came from my posting to the U.S. Mission in Tripoli, Libya, the year prior. I arrived in Libya several months after the attacks in Benghazi that killed four U.S. citizens, including our Ambassador, and I served there until the evacuation, which followed several weeks of being trapped in the country as civil war erupted between two major alliances.
The Libyan civil war was really more of a continuation of hostilities that began during the Revolution, but reached a breaking point that summer. One side began bombing the other side. The other side returned fire.
The first volley of rockets hit the airport, destroying it, and trapping us in Tripoli for weeks.
The opposing forces used rockets, mortars, rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft artillery, tanks, suicide bombers, and later missiles. Basically any weapons they had at their disposal, they used. Every day, all day.
The fundamental problem for the U.S. was that our Embassy and Annex compounds were in the line of fire. I was in the line of fire.
For anyone who has not had that experience, let me state the obvious: it was terrifying.
The post-traumatic stress had reared its ugly head before the Via Ferrata, mostly related to fireworks (hate them, because of the bombs) and crowds (claustrophobia, from being trapped). I determined it would not beat me that time though, not in nature, not on my outdoor adventures. I would take back control of my fear using the Via Ferrata, one route at a time.
Jesse helped me research Via Ferrata all over Switzerland and France. He chose several routes of varying levels of difficulty for me to try on our vacation.
Sweating Out the Terror
Next up was the Via Ferrata in Plateau D’Assy, near Chamonix, France. I felt determined to push through my fear, no matter what: I would not chicken out. This Via Ferrata had several extreme exposure points and precarious crossings.
“You got this,” Jesse assured me. “I got this,” I repeated to myself over and over.
One crossing required walking across a “bridge” consisting of a single steel cable, with two others to hold. A several hundred foot sheer drop extended below the bridge. That was my low point.
I think everyone experiences fear differently. As I crossed that bridge, fight or flight kicked into high gear. My fear caused my heart rate and blood pressure to elevate significantly. I am a runner, so have a pretty low resting heart rate, and normally it takes a significant amount of activity to increase it–but not that day. I shook with small tremors in my limbs; my palms became clammy and sweaty.
Well, really, everything became sweaty. I dripped, like my body was trying to leak out the terror. All of that served to make me more nervous about the bridge, since my clammy palms and shaky legs did not lend confidence on the dodgy sections. But I inched across. I would not let the fear beat me.
“Keep it together, Carlson,” I whispered under my breath.
It took about four hours to complete. I went slowly, one obstacle at a time. Jesse was extremely patient and must have said at least fifty times that it was exactly like climbing a ladder. In my mind, I countered that it might be ladder, but one with massive drop-offs. My life was in the hands of some webbing. But I stayed focused and kept moving. Jesse remained supportive and encouraging.
I did ultimately finish the route, but I was terrified the entire time. I dripped with sweat and smelled like pure terror, which has a distinct pungent smell. Gross, but true.
Not good enough, I needed to do another. Jesse lined up our next route.
The Fear of Kidnapping and Torture
Unfortunately, being trapped in a heavy bombing campaign during a civil war was not the only fear in Libya. There was also the threat of kidnapping, which I thought was worse in many ways. If a rocket hits you, you’re dead, done. If a terrorist kidnaps you, you’re facing days, weeks, months or more of assault and torture, then death.
That year, assailants kidnapped over half a dozen foreign diplomats, including the prominent Jordanian Ambassador to Libya. Other non-diplomatic foreigners were kidnapped, attacked, or assassinated.
The assailants released some hostages after a few days and some after a few months. They also assassinated some hostages and foreigners, possibly because they were not American or could not get any ransom. We never knew for sure why. And although their intent was never clear, we believed the kidnappers most wanted American diplomats. So the threat was a real and ever present danger for us – and I had a surplus of fear to overcome.
Fear, not Terror, Equals Progress
My third attempt at the Via Ferrata was at Fort l’Ecluse outside Geneva, Switzerland, in France. The route looked fairly short from the ground. As I stared up at it, I determined again to push through my fear. I would make it.
But more than that, I determined I would try to enjoy it too. I could not waste the moment; I was with my best friend, surrounded by the Jura Mountains, the Rhone River at my feet, scaling the cliffs around a historic French fort. I would have fun, darn it.
The route had several overhangs that required some upper body strength, which I found challenging, but successfully accomplished. Climbing those sections worked better for me on a Via Ferrata than a traditional climb. The overhangs used foot pegs and hand rungs, so I could literally loop my entire arm into the rung as I paused to re-clip or find my next hold.
Jesse waited above my head through those overhanging sections. He cheered me on again and suggested foot and hand holds. He stood ready to dive to the rescue if needed–but I would never ask for help, and he knew it.
The sun warmed the steel cable so much that it burned our hands as we touched it. We decided gloves would be a good idea to carry with us on future routes. Regardless, we powered through and ended up with a minimal number of blisters.
The route also contained one sketchy crossing with a single cable for our feet and a single cable to hold and clip into. That crossing brought out my fear once again, but it was fear, not terror. Progress.
After I finished crossing that bridge, Jesse ran back out the cable to the middle, lifted and looped his legs around the upper cable and hung upside down while waving for a picture. I tried not to be jealous of his comfort on the route as I held on for dear life and took a photograph.
Once we reached the top nearly two hours later we explored the old fort. Someone had converted the top into a ropes course at one point, although we could not determine if it was still in use.
Our view from the top looked incredible and we were blissfully alone. Not another soul in sight, just the two of us, the Via Ferrata, and a stunning panorama.
Save Yourselves, Drive to Tunisia
At the end of July 2014 – the summer before I found myself in Switzerland – the evacuation from Libya took place.
After bombing shut down the airport, all U.S. personnel were trapped in Tripoli while we waited for the U.S. Administration to decide whether we should stay and wait out the war, or whether we should try to evacuate.
We waited several weeks while the fighting moved closer and closer to the compounds, and then the President approved an evacuation. Our orders were to drive ourselves out.
I worked closely with other exceptional officers posted to Libya to help organize and lead the evacuation out. We drove overland to Tunisia using armored vehicles already located at the Embassy and Annex compounds.
The most foreboding part about driving out was that we were pretty well surrounded by then. Explosions and gunfire were the norm, and I thought there was a high likelihood we would be ambushed, attacked, or bombed as we departed Tripoli.
The evacuation lasted hours. F-16s and Osprey flew overhead. Ultimately, we made it to Tunisia with no casualties and minimal issues. We lost Libya, but successfully completed the mission. But at the end all I felt was the fear and loss.
The Final Push to Conquer Fear
Our final route to help deal with that sense of loss and fear was the Grand Bornand Via Ferrata near Clusaz, France. It was by far the longest route and took nearly six hours to complete. It was also my favorite.
To reach the route, we hiked for a half hour or so through idyllic farmland, passing close to several large cows with the traditional cowbells hanging from their necks. The route started at the base of the mountain, and the first hour included rungs, pegs, and a great deal of rock scrambling.
I tend to associate scrambling with hiking, or randonnée in French, rather than climbing. In fact, the Via Ferrata is sometimes referred to as a sport course or adventure hike in French rather than climbing. I love hiking, so it made the route a little more enjoyable for me.
We stayed clipped into the steel cable and continued our scrambling climb up the mountainside. Jesse and I passed a small group of climbers who had difficulty with an overhanging section. I felt so proud I was doing well enough to pass other climbers.
Then we arrived at the bridge. It looked sturdy and connected the mountain to the rock wall. Rungs lined the wall and rotated up the vertical, or more than vertical, face.
I crossed the bridge without any issues. Jesse cheered me on once again and we paused for pictures. Strong new boards made up the base, but below that was a sheer drop – about 100’ or so, much less than the drop on the Plateau D’Assy route.
The vertical face was another matter. It rose at least another 100’ above our heads and I couldn’t see the top. I tried not to overthink it, grabbed the first rung, and just started climbing. “Like a ladder,” I mumbled to myself. Jesse stayed above me and helped point out good foot holds and places to pause to give my arms a moment to rest.
After reaching the top of the wall we took a short break on a flat section and let a German father and son pass us. The kid moved fast and we chatted with them for a moment in English. They had already completed over a dozen Via Ferrata in the area that summer alone.
The rest of the route roughly followed along the ridgeline and included several more obstacles and took several more hours. The hike down took almost as long as the climb up the mountain. We wandered down the hillside, taking in the phenomenal view of the Alps, and I felt jubilant. I felt like I had accomplished something great: I had enjoyed it, I had enjoyed the Via Ferrata. But more importantly to me, I had taken back control, and not let fear control me.
The consideration of the other climbers also amazed me. No one judged me, suggested it was not “real” climbing, or implied I could not do it. Maybe they could see I was working through my personal demons, but the people on the routes were supportive, kind, and adventurous.
On to the Next Adventure
There will undoubtedly be more wars, more terrorists and kidnappings, and more evacuations in the world. I feel extremely fortunate that I could escape mine and that I could find a constructive way to deal with my fear. Others are not so lucky. Next time I see a climber struggling, I know I will withhold judgment, and simply whisper “you got this.”
In the end, I do not think I completely conquered my fear; it’s still there, lurking in the background. But I made some small measure of progress – this round, I win.
As Jesse and I prepared to depart Switzerland, I decided that maybe we never really “get over” traumatic events. We learn to deal with them, one day – or in my case one Via Ferrata – at a time.
Sometimes in our lives we go through traumatic or other major events, and it fundamentally changes our lives. We will never be the same again. And I do not think we should expect or even want to be the same.
Because now it is time to move on and find the next adventure.