Facing Fear How to Explore One of the World's Largest Skycaves

Updated: December 16, 2011

John Falchetto

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This is a guest post by John Falchetto of Expat Life Coach.

The first time I learned how to rappel down a 600 feet rope and climb back out was there, the Majlis Al Jinn (the meeting room of the spirits).

My friend Steve had invited me for a weekend of adventure and although I was very fit and skillful at outdoor sports, I had no idea what he had in mind.

I should have been more careful, knowing that Steve is a champion adventure racer who competed in events like the 7 days Eco-Challenge and finished in the top five.

It's not about the gear

I already owned a lot of the rock climbing gear required for this trip.

I had a rock climbing harness, a helmet and carabiners. I use Petzl equipment because when it comes to my life I trust them.

Then to rappel down such a long distance a special piece of equipment called a Stop was showed and briefly explained to me before the descent. It's simple to use, you press on it, you go down, you stop pressing the handle, you stop.

The tough part was going back up.

I use a Jumar handle, which is a one way blocking device allowing me to pull myself up. Then a simple Croll fitted on my chest worked as progress capture device.

As I pulled up with the handle, the rope slid through the Croll and stopped me from sliding back down. Easy!

Standing by the side of his huge gaping hole in the ground, I started to wonder what I was actually getting myself into.

Think slowly, slowly

I leaped over the side and Steve told me these three words "Think slowly, slowly".

The words brought me back to my Yoga practice in order to control my asthma.

Slow, conscious breathing was going to win the game.

You can't train for something like this. The chances of finding a cave that size around your state are next to nil.

Like all firsts, we are all expert enough to deal with what life throws at us.

You can't train to be a parent or a spouse. This is the same thing.

What you can prepare yourself for is the way we react to fear.

How to deal with cold, death-gripping fear.

Setting a goal

I set a goal, a simple one: arrive at the bottom of the cave, safely.

Instead of forcing my mind away from the fear induced adrenaline rush, the goal pulled my mind towards it.

That simple goal brought structure to the chaos to my mind which was busy fantasizing death and gloom scenarios . In one way it kept the ‘lizard brain’ in check.

Mental Rehearsal

Often described as visualization, or running through the activity in your mind.

I kept thinking about the feeling I would have when I finally landed with my two feet on the ground.

This again allowed my mind to steer away from panic and keep going through this high stress situation.


We speak to ourselves at an average rate of 500 words per minute.

If these words are positive, they will help control the fear reaction.

Thoughts are just that, thoughts.

Some will say you should replace negative ones with positive ones. I don’t believe we can replace thoughts.

When you are hanging 400 feet above the ground on a single rope 1/2 inch thick, we all think, what if the rope was to break?

Negative thoughts will come up, often.

I tried very hard not to focus on them.

I let them slip away and focused on my goal.

Breathing control

I was first introduced to deliberate, slow, controlled breathing in my teens to overcome severe asthma induced by running.

Fear strives on shallow breathing. Long exhales relaxes the body and quiets the brain by giving it more oxygen.

What really worked for me was to combine the four techniques together.

Just trying to control your breathing when you are freaking out isn’t going to do much.

A note about Safety

I want to convey that although I was expert enough for this adventure, I wasn't alone. The quality of the team which surrounded me was outstanding and made sure everything went well.

Please keep in mind the following when life pushes you right out of your comfort zone:

  • Kill your ego and admit you are scared, dealing with you fear is the first step towards managing it and achieving your goal. I didn't try to pretend I was fearless. Anyone who says they have no fear of heights worries me.
  • Choose who you surround yourself with. The degree of discomfort might be off the chart but having a great team around you will help. Without Steve and his friends this wouldn't have been possible.
  • Always have fun. Examine why you are doing this, really why? Are you just trying to prove something to someone else, or yourself? Don't forget to have fun, this is what really matters.

Fear is what makes us human, I have learned to love the fear and exhilaration which comes with extreme sports, life and business. I make everyday an adventure, from rock climbing to watching my daughter play with her toys, they both teach me a bit more about myself.

I'm curious, how do you approach life and how do emotions help you discover a bit more about yourself?

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