Cognitive behavioral therapists call it “mind reading.” You show up at a new group ride, ski tour with recent friends, or [insert your favorite pursuit here, but with strangers], convinced that your soon-to-be mates are judging you harshly. “I mean, look at the way he’s putting his avalanche transceiver over his midweight. What a worthless tool of a person. In the event of a burial, let’s all agree not to dig him out.”
This type of anxiety is common. Unless you’re blissfully un-self-aware thanks to an unpresidented [sic] case of presidential narcissistic personality disorder, you too might find yourself suffering from Anxious Recreation Syndrome (ARSe). Perhaps you’re familiar with symptoms such as dropphobia (fear of getting shelled), nerdphobia (fear of not knowing how to set up your mountain bike suspension), or the debilitating poseurphobia (fear of forgetting how to tie an improved fisherman’s knot during an active hatch). Whoops, I just pissed my waders. An indiscriminate neurosis, ARSe affects skiers, hikers, bikers, anglers, climbers, and backpackers in equal numbers. Newbies agonize over it until their bowels blow; so too with veteran outdoor athletes, despite their coiffed smugness.
Take it from a longtime ARSe sufferer like me. A chronic self-flagellator, the best example of me beating myself up quite literally involves me beating myself up.
This was 15 winters ago, in the Utah backcountry. While reporting a story, I toured with a famed local backcountry skier and avalanche observer named Bob Athey. Bob has husky eyes and a Gandalf beard, and he was and is one of the strongest ski tourers in the Wasatch. Naturally, I brought my heavy alpine boots and skis equipped with (stupid heavy) alpine-style touring bindings. One stale granola bar would sustain me for the 6,000-vertical-foot day of climbing.
Unprepared for the nearly vertical skin tracks of the Wasatch, I struggled to hang as Bob giant-stepped his way up cornices and ridges so steep that I was self-arresting with each tenuous step. I was cold, calorie starved, and gassed to the point of shaking, but somehow I managed to keep Bob from seeing me wallow.
On our final summit, my frozen gloved hand slipped from my climbing skin in mid-tug…and I punched myself hard in the nose. For ten seconds, blood fire hosed from both nostrils down my Gore-Tex shell, where it froze upon contact in the single-digit temps. Gripped by ARSe, I quickly turned my back to Bob and, grabbing the shell at the hem, snapped the hemoglobin slushie into the atmosphere.
In hindsight, my ability to make it sleet blood would have made for a nice moment of ridgeline levity. But ARSe makes you a bore. When you spend too much time inside your own head, you’re brushing with a metaphysical theory known as solipsism. A lighter, less-filling form of nihilism, solipsists deny the existence of other beings. Both are asshole belief systems, but solipsists are quieter about it. What’s the point in talking when only you exist?
I still flirt with ARSe-induced solipsism today when cycling in big groups. A half-dozen times a year, I roll up to a scary biweekly ride called the Bustop. Nobody organizes this unsanctioned street race, which starts and finishes at a strip club of the same name. And typically, nobody I know is there. It doesn’t help my confidence that I’m undersized compared with the powerful sprinters and rouleurs who show up to max their wattage on the flatter circuits.
In the tense moments before we depart, the mind reading sets in: Oh great, here comes the former Irish National Champion who is at least ten years older than I am but showing no signs of slowing down. He’s probably bummed to see a hack like me here. Is that an entire team rolling in? They’re going to break me to pieces. Are those strippers? I must look like a total dork. What am I doing here? Fading to black in the throws of ARSe, I solipsist up and go mute.
What a worthless tool of a person I can be. All that anxiety is for naught. I learned to Nordic skate ski in my late 30s surrounded by statuesque European athletes from the university. One of the coaches once skied up behind me when I was clearly struggling. Mind reading again, I thought he was going to scream, “Track!” demanding that I pull over, but instead he courteously offered some helpful pointers. On that Wasatch tour, Bob Athey taught me how to clear ice from the frozen glue of my climbing skins and execute a safe ski cut in an avalanche-starting zone. When I see him at trade shows, he always invites me out to ski again. And the Irish National Champion? He broke through my cone of silence, too.
Two summers back, the Bustop peloton was strung out, battling a stout headwind up a false flat. With an echelon running diagonally across the full width of the road, I was the odd man out, dangling and exposed on the windward side of a line of riders. Too weak to chase down the small pack ahead and a minute away from getting jettisoned off the back, I was clearly floundering. That’s when the Irishman looked askance at me and, in a perfect brogue, said, “You’re a wee fellah like me, but you’re doin’ all the work.” He then slotted out of his position in line and invited me in before effortlessly closing the gap on the leeward side of the echelon. Last summer, he taught me what he calls the “suicide move” to stay connected to the pack in crosswinds and attacks. Next summer, I’ll catch his name.
Like most anxiety, recreational anxiety is self-inflicted. If we could actually read minds, we’d realize everyone is happy to share the world with us.
Unless you’re talking resort skiing, that is. All the nihilists on the chairlift are ridiculing you. That’s a given. Don’t be a dumb ARSe.
Marc Peruzzi is a contributing editor to Outside and the editorial director of Mountain magazine.