Terror Unlimited

You have nothing to fear except falling, suffocating, heart failure, personal extinction—and, of course, fear itself

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

I can't remember the host's name—only that the show was one of a series being taped for a proposed talk show on ABC. It was to be called Stories. I was a guest on the program. During each and every commercial break I got up and vomited in a wastebasket set discreetly off camera for this purpose.

Worst case of stage fright in television history, probably.

The format was rather formal: four guys sitting around a coffee table, complete with little cups of coffee, all of us wearing coats and ties.

I have never worn a tie since. It's been over ten years now. The show was filmed at seven in the morning, but we were supposed to look as if we'd just finished dinner and were having a spontaneous discussion. My impression was that some network exec had attended a dinner party in which the conversation had been about something other than television and had thought, "Hey, wow—good television."

The host said that one of the best episodes they'd filmed so far had to do with people who had seen or had contact with flying saucers. Those folks told good stories.

There were two other guests at the coffee table. One was Hugh Downs, the distinguished ABC broadcaster, a gentleman adventurer who once dove in a cage while great white sharks cruised by outside. The other interviewee was Dick Bass, the businessman-turned-mountaineer who, at the time, was the oldest man to have climbed Mount Everest. We were to tell hair-raising stories of manly courage, or so I gathered. My job was to blather on about various adventures I'd written about in the past—in other words, about my life before a sudden and vividly loathsome awareness of personal extinction had confined me to my own house for two months with a condition subsequently diagnosed as panic disorder.

Now, the concept of a fearless adventurer suffering panic for no reason at all is High Comedy on the face of it. I knew that. There was a part of me, just observing, that thought, This is actually the funniest story of Stories, happening right here on camera: big adventure guy paralyzed by fear, for no apparent reason.

Sometime after the second commercial break, when it became achingly obvious that I was suffering through a bout of intense emotional torment, Hugh Downs, a nice guy who is as calm and reassuring in person as he has always been on the small screen, sought to hearten and comfort me. "You know," he said, "the great Ethel Merman once said, 'Stage fright's a waste of time. What can they do, kill me?' "

I thought, Thank you, Hugh, you blithering simpleton. Ethel Merman is dead. Does that tell you something, anything at all?

A stagehand counted down from ten and the filming started again. The host asked, "What would you say your closest call was? Tim? Dick?" He meant, Tell me a tale about how you came face to face with death and spat in its vile face. I could taste the bile rising in the back of my throat. Steel bands tightened around my chest, and I was possessed by a sense of vertigo so intense I could barely catch my breath. I was going to die, perhaps right then and there—but if not then, sometime, sooner or later. The perception wasn't simply academic. It was visceral. Death was nigh, and despite Samuel Johnson's smug prediction, it did not concentrate my mind wonderfully.

Panic disorder strikes at least 1.6 percent of the population. It is characterized by feelings of intense terror, impending death, a pounding heart, and a shadowy sense of unreality. My own version featured several daily attacks of ten to 30 minutes in which I felt smothered and unable to catch my breath. There were chest pains, flushes and chills, along with a looming sense of imminent insanity. The attacks struck randomly, like lightning out of a clear blue sky. The idea that people might see me in this state of helpless terror was unacceptable. I stayed home, cowering in solitude, unable to read or concentrate or write or even watch television. My overwhelming conviction was that I was going batshit. So when a producer called from ABC and asked me if I wanted to tell hairy-chested stories of virile derring-do, I told her, "You bet." I thought, This terror thing has gone on long enough. I'm going to stroll right over to the abyss and stare directly into it. And I'm going to do it on national TV. Face the fear, boyo.

The producer had seen a picture of me climbing El Capitan, in Yosemite, on a single rope. It looked pretty scary. Could I talk about that? No problem.

El Cap, I explained, is shaped rather like the prow of a ship, and my companions had anchored a mile-long rope in half a dozen places up top and tossed it over the precipice so that it fell free for 2,600 feet. A half-mile drop.

The rope-walking and rappelling techniques we had used are most commonly employed by cavers. Caves generally follow the course of underground rivers, and sometimes these rivers form waterfalls. Over millennia, the rivers sink deeper into the earth, and the bottoms of the waterfalls become mostly dry pits, sometimes hundreds of feet deep. Many cavers like to "yo-yo the pits," which is to say, drop a rope, rappel down, and climb back up solely for the sport of it, never mind the exploration aspect.

That's what we were doing at Yosemite: We were going to yo-yo El Cap. Because cavers are Calvinists, we were going to reverse the usual process: We'd climb first in order to "earn" the rappel. I recall standing on the talus slope at the bottom of the vertical granite wall with my climbing companion, photographer Nick Nichols. We calculated that the climb would take us five to six hours. Aside from the cruel weight of cameras that Nick carried, our backpacks contained some bits of spare climbing gear, a few sandwiches, and only two quarts of water. We intended to hydrate big-time before we started, and each of us choked down a gallon of water as we contemplated the cliff face.

Nick wanted me to follow him on the rope, for photographic reasons. His professional sense of the situation told him that the better picture was shooting down, at my terrified face, with the world dropping out forever below. The alternative was six hours of my butt against the sky. And so we strapped on our gear—seat harnesses, Gibbs ascenders on our feet, a chest roller that held us tight to the rope, a top jumar for safety—and proceeded to climb the rope. There was a goodly crowd of people watching us from the road. Some of them had binoculars.

About an hour into the climb, Nick called down that he had some bad news. The water we had drunk earlier had gone directly to his bladder. I contemplated the physics of the situation and shouted up, "Can't you hold it?"

"Four more hours?" he whined. "No way."

"Why didn't you think of this before we started?" I yelled. I sounded like my father discussing the same subject with me as a child on a long road trip.

In time, we devised a solution that might keep me dry. I climbed up to Nick, unclipped my top jumar, popped the rope out of my chest roller, and climbed above the ascenders he wore on his feet before clipping back into the rope. In that position—with me directly behind Nick, my chest against his back and my arms wrapped tightly around him—he unzipped and did what he had to do. It took an inordinately long time to void a gallon of water. The rope was spinning ever so slowly, so that, in the fullness of time, we were facing the road, and the crowd, and the people with binoculars. I feared an eventual arrest for public lewdness.

The television producer listened to the story and suggested the spinning yellow fountain aspect of the El Cap climb wasn't precisely what a family audience might want to hear. She wondered if there was any time during the ascent in which the choice was life or death.

Well, yes, in fact, a certain lack of foresight on my part presented me with a number of unsatisfactory choices. I explained that, as Nick and I climbed, the wind came up and blew us back in forth in exciting 70-foot pendulum swings. This went on for some hours.

Had we simply dropped the rope off the prow of El Cap, the sharp granite rock would have sawed it in half, snap bang splat, like that. Instead, the rope was draped over a long solid rubber tube about as big around as a basketball. Brackets at each end were bolted to the rock so that the tube was placed within an inch of the cliff wall. The final obstacle on the climb was to muscle up over the tube. This was tricky. I was affixed to the rope. The rope itself weighed several hundred pounds and was impossible to drag up over the tube. Instead, there was another rope, a short one, anchored above and dangled over the tube. It was necessary to unclip from the long rope and clip into the short one in order to make the summit—a maneuver I had neglected to consider when I clipped into the long rope on the talus slope five hours earlier. I had been contemplating the climb, not the summit, and had also been preoccupied with a different danger peculiar to this type of climbing: If, for some reason, a climber lost his top jumar and his chest roller, he'd fall backward and end up hanging from the ascenders on his feet. There is almost no way to recover from this calamity. You simply hang there, upside down, until you freeze to death. Popsicle on a rope.

With this in mind, I'd run the long rope through the carabiner that held my seat harness together, reasoning that in a bad upside-down emergency I might still be able to pull myself upright. What this rig meant at the summit, however, was that I was going to have to unclip my seat harness to get off the long rope and onto the short one.

But...a seat harness, as every climber knows, is the essential contrivance that marries one to the rope. Unclipping wasn't certain death, but the probabilities weren't good. I assessed my chances for over an hour. It was getting cold and late. Nick had switched ropes and summited with no problems at all. I, on the other hand, was in deep trouble.

The half-mile drop yawning below was sinking into darkness as the sky above burst into flame. This sunset, I understood, might well be my last, and I followed its progress as I would that of a ripening bruise on my thigh: At first the sky seemed very vividly wounded, all bright bloody reds that eventually began an ugly healing process involving pastel oranges and pinks that eventually purpled down into blue-black night. The temperature dropped. My sweat-soaked shirt was beginning to freeze to my body. I would have to do something.

Stories never made it on the air. Not the adventure segment nor even the one about flying saucers, which proves that sometimes the most fervent of our prayers are actually answered. Hugh Downs has announced his imminent retirement from ABC, and Dick Bass is no longer the oldest man to have climbed Mount Everest.

And me? I haven't had a panic attack in ten years, knock wood. My doctor recognized the symptoms straightaway and prescribed certain medications that had an almost immediate ameliorative effect. He suggested therapy as well, but a pamphlet he gave me about panic disorder was pretty much all I needed. There were others, I learned, who have had to deal with uncontrolled anxiety. They included scientists such as Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton; actors Laurence Olivier and Kim Basinger; writers Isaac Asimov and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Barbra Streisand and Sigmund Freud (natch) were on the list, along with the Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch, whose signature painting, The Scream, seems to me to be the perfect depiction of a panic attack.

The idea that I wasn't suffering alone—that the malady had a name—was strangely reassuring. Panic disorder feels like standing on the gallows, the rough rope on your neck, waiting, waiting, waiting for the floor to fall away into the never-ending night. But there is no rope, and no immediate threat. None at all.

Personal extinction is surely something to contemplate, but contemplating personal extinction doesn't get the grocery shopping done. In my experience, fear of collapsing into a puddle of terror at the Mini Mart—agoraphobia—feels precisely the same as real physical fear in the face of an actual threat. The difference is this: There is almost always something you can do when confronted with an authentic life-or-death situation.

At the summit of El Cap, for instance, my companions rigged up a pair of loops made of webbing, anchored them off, and dropped them over the rubber tube. I placed my feet in the loops and laboriously muscled the heavy long rope up over the roller: a triumph of brute strength over clear thinking. There was no thinking at all, really, not in the ordinary sense of brooding contemplation. Risk sets its own rules, and one reacts to them instinctively, with an empty mind, in a state that some psychologists believe is akin to meditation. And, like those enlightened ones who sit cross-legged in empty rooms, uttering weenie aphorisms, risk-takers sometimes feel they've caught a glimpse into eternity, into the wisdom of the Universe, and into the curve of blinding light itself. Just a glimpse.

We didn't talk about that on Stories. Sitting there sweating, waiting to vomit during the commercials, I was incapable of saying what I felt: that the stories we tell are the way we organize our experiences in order to understand our lives. I didn't say that risk is always a story about mortality, and that mortality is the naked and essential human condition. We put these stories together—in poems and essays and novels and after-dinner conversations—in an effort to crowbar some meaning out of the pure terror of our existence.

The stories are prisms through which we perceive the world. They are like the lenses we look through in the optometrist's office: Put them together incorrectly, and it's all a blur. But drop in the correct stories, turn them this way and that, and—all at once—there is a sudden clarity. Call it enlightenment and admit that none of us ever get all the way there. We only see glimpses of it in a flashbulb moment when certain selected stories fall together just right. That's all. In my own case, I know that fear always feels the same, that it is about perceived mortality, and that while courage continually escapes me, appearing on one silly un-aired television show remains the purest and the bravest thing I've ever done.

© 1999, Outside magazine

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