Conquering fear one peak at a time
Oct 12, 2020 12:04PM
By Linnea Lundgren
Teacher Daisy DeMarco, who reached her goal of climbing 24 of the Wasatch’s 11,000-foot peaks in two months, makes a sign for every peak she climbs. (Photo courtesy Daisy DeMarco)
By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]
What does it take to overcome a fear of heights? For Daisy DeMarco, it took a mindset flip, 24 Wasatch peaks and a whole lot of PB&J sandwiches.
When the 36-year-old school teacher moved here from New Jersey six years ago, she was immediately taken with the magnificence of the Wasatch mountains. But when she attempted to climb the steeper hikes, she’d reach a point and be paralyzed by fear. She would have to crawl down.
“It was so debilitating,” said DeMarco, who lives in South Jordan and teaches third grade at Herriman’s Silver Crest Elementary. Her hiking opportunities were suddenly limited to trails with minimal altitude. “It became a mindset, one that started to define me.”
But this summer, something clicked. The pandemic shut down school, so she was able to spend time in the mountains, but fear held her back from hiking the big peaks. Her mindset needed changing, so drawing from lessons learned in her yoga training, she slowly started working on facing her fear.
“I realized I had the ability to change that mindset [of fear] with effort and work,” she said. “I was creating [a] story that I had a fear of heights. I had the ability to change that.” She started to become aware when fear-filled, negative thoughts crept into her mind before or during a hike, and she would intentionally replace them with positive, helpful thoughts. Tuning into her body and breath helped when trails became steep.
Throughout the process, DeMarco found it important to be kind to herself. When frustration arose as others passed her up, she’d just stay with that feeling and notice how it rises and falls away. “I’ll meet myself where I am at,” she said explaining the importance of staying in the moment.
On July 18, she put her new mindset to the test and conquered the strenuous 11,330-feet Broads Fork Twin Peaks, with the help of fellow climbers in the Wasatch Mountain Club. The members cheered her climb up the vast scree field and patiently coached her on proper foot and handholds on the boulder-covered ridgeline.
Feeling confident by this accomplishment, she was determined to continue climbing more peaks.
Referencing the classic book “Wasatch Eleveners” by Randy Winters, and with support from her club climbing buddies, she developed a plan: climb 24 of the 11,000 foot-plus peaks along the Wasatch. Someone said it would take a year to accomplish, so, she said, “I allowed the comment to limit me. I just went with it.” Soon, though, DeMarco realized that needing a year to accomplish these hikes didn’t seem right. “I thought, ‘Wait, I could do this in one summer.’ That felt right,” she said.
During August and September, she bagged several peaks each week, saving Mt. Nebo at 11,928 feet—the tallest peak—for her final ascent. On each summit, she photographed herself holding a sign with the peak’s name and height. Then she sat down and treated herself to a Gatorade and PB&J.
The mountains, she learned, are transformative. “These types of challenging summits hold a special place in my heart,” she said. “I learn so much from the mountains and the climb, from the struggles and the accomplishment, from the fear and the joy. How to overcome and let go. I am grateful for this connection to nature and for all the beautiful people I get to share it with.”
As she has become well-versed in hiking the Wasatch, she has developed some opinions on the peaks. The most difficult hike was the one she did before officially starting her 24-peak quest, Broads Fork Twin Peaks via Robinson’s Variation, a demanding, exposed 12 ½-hour hike. “It was mental exhaustion,” she said.
The easiest hike was the two-peak hike of Sugarloaf (11,051 feet) and Baldy (11,068 feet). “Walks in the park,” DeMarco joked, referencing the description from “Wasatch Eleveners.”
Pfeifferhorn (11,326 feet), which required maneuvering around boulders, was the scariest hike. “I did a lot of concentrating on my breath on that one,” she said.
DeMarco found Lone Peak (11,253 feet) to be also one of the most difficult, but also the most breathtaking. “I could sit up there forever,” she said. “The amount of granite is dizzying.”
Lessons learned from climbing peaks translated well to her elementary school class, a group of terrified third graders who were not scared of heights but of learning multiplication. Adults forget how scary memorizing times tables can be for children, she noted.
“I tell my kids we can work on flipping that fear of math and make it something that excites us,” she said. She will show them pictures of her Lone Peak hike and tell how scary it was. But, she told them, “It ended up being really exciting because I did it and overcame my fear.” And, she tells them it is OK to stop, regroup and try again. In fact, when she first hiked Lone Peak two years ago, she turned around before reaching the summit.
“The mountain isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “I can always go back, summit, conquer and work toward my goal.”
DeMarco complements her stories by reading the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and encourages students to write about or draw their dreams. “It helps them embrace the idea that we can do things that may seem out of our reach or really far away,” she said. Displayed in her classroom is a poster that reads, “You Can Do Hard Things.” Every other week she introduces an inspirational poster and talks about the theme and how kids can apply it to school and everyday life.
From the classroom window, she points up to the Wasatch and shows students her goal for next summer—hiking the WURL or Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup—ridge-to-ridge hiking along 22 peaks with some 18,000 feet of elevation gain and approximately 32 miles total distance.
“People say, ‘Daisy, you can’t do that,’” she said. “But tell me that, because then I can. I am already practicing the routes and hiking sections one at a time because, you know, they aren’t easy.”