Terrified on a mountain top? Breathe

    I didn’t expect my ski season to start with death, but it did.  On day two of a three day ski camp in December I watched as my ski instructor fell and then died and the tone was set for the rest of winter.

    I won’t go into the finer details of the event right now nor the longer term impact of such a trauma, suffice to say that fear and sadness immediately settled deep inside my heart and sat there unsupported on a bed of shock where it has lingered all season, rearing it’s head at the most unexpected times – not great when your job is to, well, ski.

    Now, I have trained myself to be an aggressive-ish skier, or at least a solid confident one, but in that moment and the weeks and months after I found my skiing level had taken a serious psychological set back. To the point that I have, on occasion, froze on runs that I would have, pre trauma, skied down while eating breakfast and juggling Rubik’s cubes.

    This week just gone I stood half way down a tree run while heli skiing in the wilds of Canada and panicked. I had heard the word cliff from another skier’s mouth and just like that I went hot then cold and stood stock still. I could see the way down, there was no cliff, just a mere three turns then a run out away, but I could not do it. Fear had it’s grip, my acute stress flight or fight mode sat up from that bed and said uh, uh, no way are you going down that way.

    Physically I knew I could ski it, but mentally I was fleeing and we all know what happens when that happens. If the head doesn’t buy into what the body can do then the body ain’t going anywhere. There was no danger ahead but then there wasn’t any danger when my ski instructor fell and died on a blue groomed run either.

    I was lucky, I had the equivalent of a toddler’s blanket with me, a fully qualified heli tail guide. He knew my history and remained calm, kind and patient and talked me down out of both the tree inside my head and the turns on the slope below me. He didn’t laugh when I got on my arse, skis still on, to get into the run out. As a qualified ski instructor and heli tail guide, he has seen far worse I am sure.

    But here’s the thing, what if you don’t have a compassionate tail guide with you to validate your experience? What do you do to soothe the talking monkey in your ear?

    Fear can be your friend and help you survive if harnessed correctly but it is not always rational and if left unchecked can lead to bad choices and injury. Fear is also relative, what looks easy for one person may be akin to climbing Everest to another.

    So, here’s a tip. Breathe. Be kind to yourself in the face of fear. Stop, be patient, the mountain isn’t going anywhere, take oxygen and breathe.

    For those with any type of post trauma, breathe and breathing consciously is know to interupt the triggered nervous system. When you find yourself frozen in fear, breathing becomes shallow or we may hold our breathe. You can’t think in that physical state and you are shut down to anything new.

    Simply breathing will help. Breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four. Repeat.

    Then picture the first few turns, don’t look at the bottom of the slope where you are heading just look at the first few turns at a time. Break it down into achievable steps and breathe while you’re doing it.

    I find it easier to speak out loud. On some turns in the past week in less than ideal snow I literally chanted out loud “I own this mountain, I own this mountain, I own this mountain” with every aggressive turn I had to make. It helped.

    When I first learned to ski I used to sing U2’s “Beautiful Day” as I skied down the mountain. The slower beat of the lyrics made for giant slalom turns, the quicker beat of chorus lyrics made for shorter turns and the act of singing meant I was also breathing. Though the melodic sound of my dulcet tones no doubt scared the life out of skiers to my left and right but I was so focused and in the zone I didn’t notice.

    For those locked in fear, for whatever reason, maybe you’re scared of heights, maybe you’re an intermediate skier and finding it hard to break through to advanced, there are also ski camps that focus specifically on fear.

    Kristen Ulmer is Utah based and runs mindset only camps that help you become free from fear and anxiety while skiing and open up your life through skiing. Mermer Blakeslee also runs fear workshops for female skiers only, on the east coast of the USA.

    Most people experience fear on the mountain at some stage. Have you tried to negotiate a green run filled with beginners? Terrifying. But when it impacts and continually takes over the joy of skiing, then it may be time to seek out a compassionate ski instructor for some one on one tuition, or find yourself a heli ski tail guide…

    What do you do to allay your fears while skiing?


    Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017, a former columnist for Mountainwatch and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.


    1. Just make the next turn; 1,2,3.
      Your early season instructor was a friend of 40 years. I’m sorry you still carry scars of that day.
      Just breath and make the next turn.

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