Summer Gondola Ride at Kicking Horse Resort

Riding the gondola to the top of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Photo and words: Lisa Kowieski

10:00 a.m. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, Golden, British Columbia: Rain is coming down hard and the fog and heavy rain clouds have hidden the mountain range in a thick blanket of gray.

Four of us are raised into a clearing in the middle of it; the 360-degree view is both heavenly and eerie.

We’re ascending in a gondola to Eagles Nest, a lodge at the top of one of the resort’s summits, to try our hand at a via ferrata course. Preparing for a day in the elements, we put on more layers and get into our harnesses and helmets.

Our guide, Nick, begins to give us the safety run down.

Our via ferrata guide gives us a safety run down.

I wear fear all over my face as I try to focus on what Nick, our guide, is saying. I’m not sure I heard a word. Photo: The Outbound Life

Trip of a lifetime

Today is the first day of an adrenaline-packed two-week trip. Over the next 14 days, I’ll be traveling through British Columbia, Alberta, Montana, Idaho, and Washington on assignment for a couple of different creative projects.

The first of the projects involves all three of us. We are working on a film for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies to capture the summertime activities available at Kicking Horse Mountain and Fernie Resort.

After the Canadian leg of the trip, we will head down to the States to visit a couple of national parks. I’ve been working with Parks Project, a merchandiser for the U.S. National Park Service, to illustrate and design a coloring book as well as a series of women’s clothing. Visiting the parks would provide me the needed inspiration for these final two projects.

Over the next two weeks, Kody, Kyler and I will attempt a via ferrata course, take a helicopter tour over Alberta’s Kananaskis country, hike through Banff National Park, camp in Yoho National Park, mountain bike and river raft in Fernie, explore Montana’s Glacier National Park, camp on the coast in Washington’s Olympic National Park, and repel at Rattlesnake Ledge in North Bend, Washington.

Face to face

On the via ferrata route

Though the technique predates World War I, via ferratas were widely used by Italian forces as a way to scale cliffs as troops moved through the Dolomite Mountains. The technique uses anchors and cables for safety and largely travels horizontally, rather than vertically, through mountainsides. Here, I learn how to make a pass through an anchor. Photo: The Outbound Life

But today is day one, and climbing the via ferrata is on the agenda. As I hike over to the course with the crew, I can’t help but feel my heart flutter with anxiety.

I’m scared of heights.

It’s a fear I want to conquer.

I’m from Chicago where the land is flatter than a ruler and the only tall things on the horizon are skyscrapers, not mountains. I’ve climbed in a couple gyms around the Chicago area and took a top roping course outdoors at Devil’s Lake in northern Wisconsin. These routes hovered around 70 feet off the ground.

Today, I’ll be multiplying that. The via ferrata route we’re taking on climbs several hundreds of feet above ground and lasts a couple of hours rather than a couple of minutes.

This is a new kind of climbing for me, and I don’t quite know what to expect.

Connecting my carabiner to the cable, I see a bridge just a few yards ahead. Wooden foot planks — with wide gaps between each — are suspended by a network of cables. The bridge spans a void between two mountains and hovers over a valley sitting hundreds of feet below.

“Holy crap,” I think. “I can’t do this. There’s no way I’m doing this. I need to turn back.”

Thoughts rush through my head — doubts, fear of letting others down, internal battles with my anxiety — as I realize I have to walk across this suspension bridge and there’s no turning back. I feel my greatest fear rushing to meet me face to face.

The resolve

Traversing the via ferrata suspension bridge

My first steps onto the suspension bridge. Photo: The Outbound Life

It’s then that I hear softly spoken words from Kody and Matt. They’re behind me, encouraging me to take it “one step at a time.”

I breathe deeply and reach my hand out to grab the cable and take the first step.

The air is wet with mist, making the wooden planks slippery. I look between each, seeing the valley below. The lake and trees look so small from up here.

I try not to let myself think about what would happen if I slip and fall.

“One step at a time,” I tell myself, focusing my breathing as I move across the planks floating hundreds of feet in the air.

And then I realize: I’m actually doing this.

Reaching the other side, I’m astonished. Just a few minutes back, I was convinced I needed to turn around. I was ready to give into my fears, overwhelmed by anxiety.

Instead, I literally walked across my fear.

Straight to the top

Scaling the cliffside on the via ferrata

Hugging the corner of the mountain and sliding across a ledge on the via ferrata course. Photo: The Outbound Life

The “Ascension Route” comes next. True to its name, we would be climbing directly up the face of the mountain to obtain the summit.

I take hold of the metal rungs and make passes through the anchors. Coming to a spot on the edge of a cliff, I tiptoe around a ledge with the valley hundreds of feet below and tune into deep breathing techniques.

I walk across the ledge with far more confidence than when I approached the suspension bridge earlier. Anxious thoughts are quiet; I’m just happy to be outside and enjoy the adventure with friends.

Grabbing the last rung and hoisting myself onto the summit, I smile.

A quiet confidence

Taking photos of the Kananaskis from a helicopter

Capturing the Kananaskis landscape from the helicopter. Photo: The Outbound Life

That suspension bridge broke a part of me: the fear I had of heights. In its place, confidence stepped in, carrying me through any high-elevation activities during the remainder of the two-week trip.

I felt at ease while filming high above Kananaskis country from a helicopter window. While mountain biking for the first time, instead of backing away from difficult features and terrain, I said “yes” to each.

And somehow, the experience of taking that suspension bridge “one step at a time” helped me be present in the moment and slow down. I found myself more connected to nature, using my sketchbook instead of a camera to capture the landscapes in front of me.

Overcoming my fear of heights on the via ferrata course affected me in ways I didn’t expect. I found I was capable of pushing myself further than I thought I could go and loosened my grip on the anxiety that often stole my joy. I became more present and less fearful; prepared to take on new challenges ahead.

Enjoying the view from the tent at La Push Beach

The view from our tent at La Push “Second” Beach on the coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park. Photo: The Outbound Life

Sketching at Moraine Lake

Taking time to sketch at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Photo: The Outbound Life

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