I Wanted to Face My Deepest Fear, So I Suited up and Flew to the Arctic

Photo by Jannicke Mikkelsen
Ed Kressy traveled in March to Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole, on a journey to explore the Arctic and overcome fear.

Fear once dominated my life. As a person addicted to meth for 11 years, my poor choices led to extreme paranoia. Although I quit meth for good in 2007, I remained afraid to travel overseas, scared I would be kidnapped and held captive in a secret prison.

It might sound odd to say it out loud, but trust me, the meth did a number on me and one of the lasting effects of my addiction was some lingering paranoia and fear.

I’d spent 15 years conquering fears – police and public speaking among them. I realized it was time to finally face my fear of international travel after I met Akshay Nanavati, a Marine Corps veteran. We actually met in prison when we were both volunteers at a California maximum-security facility. Volunteering was one way I’d learned to transform my past into something meaningful.

As I got to know Akshay, he told me that he worked to overcome his PTSD because he had an ambitious goal: He wanted to become a world-class polar explorer, skiing to the South and North Poles, and across Iceland and Greenland. For years I’d been drawn to the cold, too, even jumping into icy rivers nearly every day for the past three winters.

Ashkay understood mental toughness and vulnerability, so I made a decision to join him and a small group on a trip to Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. Nine days and eight nights traveling expedition-style: skiing and camping across the snow and ice while each lugging about 100 pounds of gear with us.

Our guides predicted temperatures from 5 to -31 degrees. I later found out that in the weeks leading up to my trip, there were pounding winds and a full-on blizzard. A skier was rescued, and the rescuers themselves almost needed rescue.

I decided that heavy preparation would help ease my angst. In the months leading up to the trip, I immersed myself in hiking, running and sleeping outside in the New England winter where temperatures dropped into the teens, and sometimes lower. Meditating to sharpen my mental focus, in addition to being practical, helped distract me from how scared I was.

I reminded myself of my guiding principle: The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. These words I first heard from Joseph Campbell, combined with my spiritual beliefs, gave me comfort and courage as I boarded my plane last month for the Arctic.

I arrived in Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard, and Akshay met me at our hotel. We spent some time exploring. Longyearbyen’s residents are small in number but very hospitable, offering us delicious meals of seafood chowder, elk burgers, even a reindeer pizza. We visited the North Pole Expedition Museum, and I went for a dip in the Arctic Ocean. Svalbard nights are relatively short in March; for long hours the sun shone on the spectacular surrounding mountains and sea.

One thing I learned while overcoming addiction is that it helps to have a supportive community. Take it from me, this is crucial, and the same applies to overcoming fears. At the warehouse where we assembled our expedition gear, I met our guides and teammates, and soon found such a community.

Eric Philips, our lead guide, had pioneered four new routes to the South Pole and guided numerous expeditions to the North Pole, as well as across Antarctica and Greenland.

At the warehouse, Eric and his daughter, Mardi, our other guide, instructed us on how to load the specially-formulated polyethylene sleds we’d pull as we skied through the Arctic. We assembled our stoves and tents and ran through an equipment checklist: specially outfitted boots, parkas, sleeping bags, down clothing, gloves and mittens. When properly prepared, we can achieve seemingly impossible things, like spending nine days outside of civilization in the Arctic.

It was a good metaphor for overcoming fear.

For many centuries of human existence, fear helped us. We’re afraid of being hunted by polar bears, so we maintain a respectful distance. But fear is like fire: It can keep us warm and heat our food, or it can burn our shelter down.

On the expedition’s inaugural night, the Arctic taught me my first lesson of the trip.

After an afternoon of skiing, during which we visited a stunning frozen waterfall, we prepared our tents. The temperature fell to -35 degrees Celsius. As we settled in for the night and Akshay fired up our butane stove, I began losing feeling in my toes.

Was it frostbite? I’d done hundreds of cold-water plunges, experienced plenty of cold toes. But nothing like this.

My mind started to spiral: What if I was forced to leave the trip? Did my toes need amputation? Once fearful feelings start, stopping them can be like arresting an avalanche. Yet unlike my previous paranoia, I was able to overcome this fear by taking tangible steps to solve an immediate problem in the real world.

Before I’d left for my trip, my sister gave me chemical toe-warmers that I quickly applied. As heat seeped through my socks, Eric poked his head into our tent. He took a look at my toes and pronounced them “one-hundred percent.” His friendly term for no danger, now enjoy your rehydrated Indian Curry dinner, and off to your sleeping bag. Problem solved, no panicking needed.

The following days of 10-toed skiing were beautiful experiences in a stunning part of the world, surrounded by an exceptional team of first-rate individuals.

We explored glacier faces, the ice forming spectacular patterns of swirling blue-green. We skied beside Arctic mountains bathed in pinkish-purple light from the low-hanging sun. Cold, clean air bit into our lungs as our skis chomped the snow. Reindeer scampered past, dog teams yapped with enthusiasm as they pulled sleds, a lone Arctic tern flew toward a mountaintop.

I was not taken prisoner in an international jail as I irrationally feared might happen.

At nights in our tent, Akshay and I discussed this. Akshay had written a book on the subject of fear, “Fearvana.” “Never stop chasing fear, or you will spend your whole life running from it,” is one of his mantras. Thanks to his guidance and inspiration from our team, I came to some conclusions about fear.

Those came after Eric and Mardi led us up a long climb. It always seemed the hill would level off just past the next snow-covered boulder, but it never did. As we ascended, I thought about how conquering fear is like the climb: put one ski in front of the other, knowing that however long, it’s doable with the right preparation and community.

With daily practices – exercise, meditation, strengthening family ties, to name just a few – it’s possible to build and maintain a foundation of faith and strength to overcome fear, or almost anything, really.

As the climb progressed, I used a visualizing technique I learned from one of my meditation teachers, imagining being harnessed to a friendly polar bear (ha!) who pulled me uphill.

We completed the climb and set up a tent as shelter from the wind, got in, and ate a lunch of ramen noodles brewed with hot water from our thermoses.

After the trip ended, I met Eric in a Longyearbyen cafe. I asked him about fear: What did he do when his clients were gripped with, for example, fear of the cold?

“You want to keep moving,” he said. “The more you shut down, the less motivated you become.” He explained that in extreme cold, the temptation is to stay still, try to conserve warmth. But you want to do the opposite: get active, generate warmth.

Keep moving forward. Another good metaphor for facing my demons.

Today, I’m looking forward to my next trip overseas. Am I scared? Sure. But I know the next one will be easier, and a wise man once told me this: It’s better to chase what terrifies you than run from it.

Photo by Jannicke Mikkelsen
Eric and Mardi Philips guide a team of explorers across a snow-filled valley in Svalbard. The group saw glaciers, reindeer and learned cold-weather skills.