MARLO THOMAS
10/24/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

She Rappelled Into Darkness To Confront Her Greatest Fears

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about one woman who went to great lengths to face her fears, and in the end she came out with a whole new perspective on life. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

When Janice Booth was just 17, she discovered a secret world. It was hidden inside the pages of a nature magazine and its beauty was so compelling, that she promised herself that one day she’d see it in person -- even if it meant rappeling 400 feet into darkness. And actually it did, because the special place that Janice discovered was inside a slot canyon.

“I remember the first time I saw the pictures,” Janice explained. “They stopped me in my tracks. Imagine the Grand Canyon and squish that together so it’s three feet wide. They’re often the remains of an ancient river or stream that’s carved its way into the earth. I knew at that moment that someday I’d get inside one.”

At the time, Janice was living in British Columbia and the closest canyons were a thousand miles away. But 22 years later, those images that she’d tucked away, came flooding back when she found out she was on her way to a conference in Utah.

“I called some of my more adventurous colleagues,” Janice recalled, “to see if they wanted to go a few days early and give it a try. I thought I’d have people lined up to go with me. But I couldn’t get one person to sign on. My friends didn’t just say no, they said ‘Hell no!’ And then they tried to talk me out of it.”

But there was no stopping Janice. She was the CEO of the Girl Scouts Pioneer Council, after all -- an organization that inspires girls to have courage. So she booked an early flight, rented a car and simply started driving, until she rounded a canyon and the images she saw as a teen-age girl began to come to life.

“I kept stopping my car as the landscape would change. Each one took my breath away -- and then I found myself standing on the edge of Pine Creek Canyon -- watching people with helmets and harnesses and ropes, dropping from the light of day into the darkness.

“At that point I knew my calculations were way off. I was all alone. I didn’t have a harness and rope. I just stood on the edge and looked down and tried to figure out whether there was a way to walk in from the bottom of the canyon.”

And Janice found one -- a place where you could walk in twenty feet before the canyon dropped off.

As she peered down, she promised herself she’d come back -- more prepared and ready to repel into what seemed to be a magical place.

“I did go back. I went back twice a year,” she said. “I’d take a hike out and see if I could get closer to the edge and I would just shut down. I’d hike the trails, each time attempting one that was steeper and more terrifying . I was trying to work my courage up. But by the fifth or sixth time, I was beginning to feel really sad and asking myself what was wrong with me. I didn’t know why this was taking me so long to do and it was costing me a lot of money to keep failing.”

But in the midst of her journey, Janice found herself on a path that was even more frightening -- one that brought her close to death. It was nowhere near the slot canyons that felt so threatening. It was on an operating table, where during surgery to remove several benign tumors, she almost lost her life.

“I remember thinking, 'You almost died. There are no more excuses.' Fear was no longer going to be making my decisions for me.”

So Janice continued to go back. She went back thirteen times, until finally she took the first step towards confronting her fear.

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PHOTO GALLERY
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BEFORE YOU GO
It Ain't Over: Janice Booth
PHOTO GALLERY
It Ain't Over: Janice Booth

“I signed up for canyoneering school, and put down money that was not refundable. And I knew once we hiked into the canyon, other people would be relying on me and I couldn’t back out.”

Janice had no idea just how soon she’d be taking that hike. The first day of class, when she thought she’d just be learning the basics and maybe, at the very most, rappeling off the side of a building, the group guide said, “Okay, let’s get in the truck”.

“I think at that point I was swearing in my head,” she laughed.

The guide explained to the group that they’d learn more if ground school -- the first day when students learn to put on their gear, tie knots and the importance of safety back-up systems -- took place in a canyon.

So there Janice was -- on day one -- climbing up to the top of a canyon, all geared up to rappel into the secret world that had fascinated her as a young girl, yet haunted years of her adult life.

“My heart was beating like a bongo festival,” she remembered. “The scariest part was going against what my brain was telling me. All I could think was run, run far and run fast. But as I leaned back and I heard the rope click into place, I knew I had to do it. And as I rappeled down the side of the canyon, inside the dark part of the cliff, down the pink sandstone rock formations, I kept asking myself, 'Am I going to live?'”

But the scariest moment was yet to come. The moment when Janice would stare into the face of fear and then step right past it.

“On the second day,” Janice explained, “we had spent the morning rappeling over fallen trees and I was feeling pretty good about it. And then we came to a drop off in the canyon. It was too steep to get close to, to see how far the next rappel would be. So we had to just throw the rope and listen for it to land. But it didn’t hit the ground -- which meant the rope was too short. We were going to have to drop to the ground and we didn’t know how far it was.

“That’s when I fell to my knees and felt myself unraveling. I was the only one in the group who hadn’t gone first and it was my turn. I knew the only way I was going to get over that cliff was to trust -- to trust that our guide wouldn’t put us there if he didn’t think we could do it, that the others wouldn’t let me tie a bad knot and if I died, it would be in the most beautiful place in the world, doing what I’ve dreamed of my whole life. So I leaned back on the rope and stepped off the cliff.”

And at the rope’s end, Janice discovered two things. The drop she’d built up in her imagination to be deadly, was actually only three feet away. And that she’d come very close to letting fear get in the way of her lifelong dream.

“I learned a lot about fear in that moment,” she said. “You can feed fear in a way where it seems all controlling. But it just takes that one step to render it powerless. That was the moment when I learned how to embrace ambiguity. There will always be the unknown. You just have to step into it."

While many people might have walked away -- feeling as if they’d conquered their fear, Janice has returned to that canyon nine more times, each time taking on a new challenge.

“People ask why I keep doing this. They say I must be an adrenaline junkie. In fact, I’m not. I hate that feeling of standing on the edge of things and being sick with fear. But the fact that I still feel it means I have to keep pushing myself. I want to know that I can be brave when I need to be. Courage is a muscle. To keep fear at bay, we have to keep testing ourselves.”

And challenging her fears, has allowed Janice to take another leap that she never thought she could. She left the safety net of her secure job, risking a regular pay check, benefits and a 401K, to travel the world, speaking about the life lessons she learned during those three days in the canyon.

“Everyone is struggling with some sort of fear, in some aspect of their life. I couldn’t have left that comfortable job had I not done the rappeling. Once I did one thing I never thought I could do, it helped me do the next thing. Facing your fears builds resilience.

“You don’t have to repel down a canyon. You just have to step out of your comfort zone. The longer you sit on the couch, the longer it’ll take you to get where you want to go.”

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