Heights, and The Art of Turning Back

Acrophobia: A fear of high places. I’ve dealt with it my whole life.

It could be a nature or nurture thing. I have early childhood memories of my dad freaking out on our family trip down to Myrtle Beach for vacation. He had to lay down in the backseat of our Aerostar minivan while mom drove through the Appalachian mountains. Eyes clenched shut, full blown panicking, he demanded (pleaded) NO ONE LOOK OUT THE WINDOW. DON’T LOOK. My mom, siblings and I ridiculed him mercilessly. Very much our style.

This was around the age I started having recurring nightmares about being forced to ride too-tall rollercoasters. I grew up near Cedar Point, the best amusement park on the planet, so the inevitability of rollercoasters loomed large. I feared riding them just as must as inventing lame excuses when I was too scared to participate.

I nearly lost control of my body during a date with my junior high girlfriend. We were on a nature walk in the Cleveland Metroparks, walking down a set of wooden steps overlooking Rocky River. It’s a popular spot near a nature center, gaining maybe 100 feet in elevation. Nothing major.

I’d walked on those steps before, but for whatever reason, on that afternoon my body said ABSOLUTELY NOT. Ground level suddenly seemed a thousand miles away, a couple dozen steps multiplied to eternity. My knees locked in place, vomit bubbled in my stomach, and I had to death-grip the railing to keep from toppling forward. I tried my best to hide it, smiling at an elderly couple walking past. I probably looked like a lunatic to my very understanding date.

Fear of embarrassment–and nothing else–forced my joints into motion. For a minute there I totally lost control of muscles whose responsiveness I took for granted. That’s the worst part of the phobia. The loss of autonomy. 

On the Appalachian Trail, my friend Tall Boy (lovingly) pressured me climb several fire towers before I was ready. But you can’t convince nausea to go away or persuade quaking muscles to sit still. Panic sweats don’t respond to reason. Phobias are irrational by their nature. 

Fire towers offer outrageous views, or so I heard. I didn’t want to finish the AT without sincerely trying to reach the top of at least one tower. To get to the top you either ascend a series of steep stairs with thin railings and increasingly narrow platforms, or climb straight up a nightmare ladder. Both options suck.

I made four unsuccessful attempts on stable-looking towers (none of that swaying in the wind bullshit). About one-third of the way up each tower I felt distressingly wobbly and vomitous, and correctly turned back. Tall Boy would say that I’d get it next time, and I’d tell him that even trying was a big enough step. And no I certainly didn’t want to try again in five minutes, so please stop asking.

The AT worked wonders on my ability to deal with acrophobic anxiety*. There’s something primal about having to move north, no matter how high or precarious the trail. I was committed to hiking every step between Georgia and Maine, so there wasn’t an Option B. 

The acrophobia never fully went away. I just learned to acknowledge it, steady myself with deep breaths, and focus on confident footfalls instead of plummeting to my death. (Click here to read about my “final exam” on the AT, summiting Mt. Katahdin.)

I reached the top of the final two fire towers on the AT. I swore under my breath the entire climb, a pure reflection of my father** (DON’T LOOK OUT THE WINDOWS). Drenched in fear-sweat, shaking like a leaf, I made it. The views were indeed spectacular.

Smarts Mountain Fire Tower, New Hampshire. My first success.
Old Speck Fire Tower, Maine. Worth the ladder ordeal.

* * * *

My previous post mentioned a summer hike on Mount Sugar Loaf overlooking Denali National Park. There’s more to that story.

After about an hour of scrambling up loose rocks, my friend Rachel and I reached the end of the established summit trail. From there you can either head back down or continue along an unmaintained ridge line trail for essentially as far as you’d like.

The path was maybe a yard wide with severe drop-offs on both sides. Rachel wanted to continue on for a couple more miles. She loves heights. For most of my life, I would have come up with some transparent excuse to turn around, or worse, struggled through with gritted teeth, hating myself for not speaking up.

I chose neither. I told Rachel that knife’s edge trails are deeply unpleasant for me and I was ready to head back down. We took some pictures, hugged, and went our separate ways, each getting exactly the outdoor experience we desired. 

The spot where Rachel and I parted ways on Mount Sugar Loaf. She continued along the spine of the mountain onto the ridge line behind us.

I’ve hiked higher, scarier trails and I know I could do it again if needed. But there’s a big difference between confronting a challenge and making yourself miserable just for the hell of it. Even with countless mountain peaks in my rearview, the primal, lizard part of my brain will always scream High Places = Doom. Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it needs to be fun for me.

So I hiked down Mount Sugar Loaf alone, without shame or regret, in full control of my body. 

* * * *

I recently visited Seattle on a work trip and went up the Space Needle with my friend Kelsey. I sat on a glass bench tilting against a glass wall and even butt-scooted my way onto the glass floor. 

Space Needle.
Note the man in the background laughing at me.

Aside from the company and awesome views of Seattle, I can’t say I enjoyed myself in any traditional sense. My body was tense the entire time. Evidence:


I’m happy I did it. Mostly because I’ll never have to do it again.  

*There is a much larger conversation about all the ways the AT helped my daily anxiety, enough to fill an entire book chapter!

**The big Seven Zero approaches. Happy birthday, dad.

2 thoughts on “Heights, and The Art of Turning Back

  1. I really wanted to stop and enjoy those scenic views!! Traveling through the mountains with your dad was an adventure on its own !
    ❤️ Mom


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