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 my family’s drive down to Myrtle Beach for vacation. He had to lay down in the backseat of our Aerostar minivan while my mom drove through some Appalachian mountains. Eyes clenched shut, full blown panicking, he demanded (pleaded) NO ONE LOOK OUT THE WINDOW. Naturally my mom, siblings and I ridiculed him mercilessly. Very much our style.

This was around the same 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 coasters loomed large. I feared riding them just as must as having to invent lame excuses to tell people 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, heading down a set of steps overlooking the Rocky River. It’s a popular spot near a nature center, gaining a hundred feet or so. Nothing major.

I’d been there several times, but for whatever reason on that sunny 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.

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 bodily autonomy. 

On the Appalachian Trail, my friend Tall Boy tried his best to (lovingly) pressure me up some fire towers before I was ready. But you can’t convince away nausea or persuade quaking muscles to sit still. Panic sweats don’t respond to reason. Phobias are irrational by 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. To get to the top you either ascend a series of steep steps 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 1/3 way up each tower I felt distressing wobbly and vomitous, and correctly turned back. Tall Boy would say I’d get it next time, I’d tell him even trying was a big enough step. And no I certainly didn’t want to try again in 5 minutes, please stop asking.

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

The acrophobia never went fully 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 scrabbling up loose rocks, my friend Rachel and I reached the end of the established mountain top trail. From there you can either head back down or continue along an unmaintained ridge line trail essentially as far as you’d like.

The path was maybe a yard wide with severe, nauseating drop-offs on both sides. Rachel wanted to continue on for a couple more miles. She loves stuff like that. For most of my life, I would have come up with some 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 really unpleasant for me and I was ready to head back. We snapped some pictures, hugged, and went our separate ways, each getting exactly the outdoor experience we wanted. 

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, some primal lizard part of my brain will always scream High Places = Potential Doom. Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it needs to be fun for me.

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:

Fun?

But I’m happy I did it. Mostly because I’ll never had 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.

One thought 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

    Like

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