Somewhere between loathing and joy: Tackling my fear of heights

The Royal Gorge Bridge. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Fear is a funny thing. It can be healthy. A good dose of fear can guide us into making healthy decisions about our lives, our future, and our immediate physical well-being.

It can also be debilitating. Fears can rule us, unkind masters beating us down, following us wherever we go, never letting us forget that they are our overlords.

Fears are our live-savers and our soul-crushers. It’s a strange dualism that is both necessary and vexing.

I can’t speak too much on the more abstract fears that I have. I haven’t mastered those yet. But those more base fears that are simultaneously instinctual and irrational, yeah, I can speak a little on those. Specifically one.

I have a real fear of heights.

It was on a bridge in central Colorado I had to stare this insidious beast down.

****

I live in envy of my friend Johnny Hunter, a long-time hiking and climbing buddy who has absolutely no detectable fear of heights. From what I have seen, there is no exposed ledge, no sheer cliff and no climbing pitch that bugs him in the slightest.

There’s a small granite peak in Oklahoma called Crab Eyes in which a ridge to the top is pretty much two side-by-side slabs leading up to a tiny summit on which two massive boulders are perched. Seen from afar, the formation looks like the head of a hermit crab.

Ascending, I crab-walked the slabs to the top. Johnny just tight-rope walked one of them, unfazed by the 80-foot sheer drop to his left.

That ain’t me.

No, I’m a different beast. I think I’m more in touch with my primordial survival instincts than Johnny, perhaps making me a more highly evolved specimen of the human species. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. More accurately, it’s just an egg-head response to the fact that when it comes to heights, I’m a bigger wuss than is my friend.

Fortunately, Johnny is one of those guys who knows how to push people toward their limitations without seeming to push them at all. On that same climb up Crab Eyes, I spied this rugged looking peak to the southwest called Mount Mitchell. It looked like a fun future climb, and it was one of those experiences that forced me to face my demon head-on.

Again.

***

About eight years ago, I was on a family vacation in Colorado when the group of us decided to pay a visit to the Royal Gorge.

The gorge is a chasm carved into granite by the Arkansas River. It’s deep – some 950 feet down from the rim to the river, and the cliffs are almost sheer. The bridge across it is one of the most famous in the country — not for its aesthetics, but for spanning such a dramatic and precipitous gulf.

Walking on that bridge, you realize that its construction is steel girders, steel cables and wooden planks.

Wood. Planks. With small gaps between them, through which you can see the tiny ribbon of water (the Arkansas) nearly a thousand feet down.

That wigged me out. No way I’m getting on that rickety thing. And it sways slightly in the wind, too. Forget that!

The trouble was we had to get to the other side, and I was driving one of the cars. I actually tried to figure out how I could drive around to the other side without actually going across the bridge. It would be something like 30 miles.

Irrational fear. This bridge held up many cars that crossed it. For years. It could hold loaded semis end-to-end across its length with no problem.

Heck, little kids were playfully walking around on the bridge like it was their school playground.

The silliness of my predicament outweighed the fear, so I got behind the wheel of my car and slowly drove across the bridge, having to pause for pedestrian traffic the whole way. Needless to say, nothing bad happened. Having parked on the other side without incident, I knew that right then was a good opportunity to push my own ridiculous boundaries a bit further.

***

Looking down a gully on Mount Mitchell’s steep north face.

It was about a year after that Crab Eyes climb that we finally got a chance to take a look at Mount Mitchell. Like a lot of the worn granite peaks of the Wichita Mountains, Mount Mitchell is a complicated formation which doesn’t give up its summit to the casual hiker.

Its northeast face is fairly vertical, with the routes getting easier as you go west. The route we chose was somewhere around the middle. Any way you look at it, you have to climb it, meaning there will be places where you will be clinging to the rock with hands and feet, suspended in the air above places where a fall could be dangerous, if not deadly.

The scrambles up Mitchell’s slopes, those exposed moves between granite slabs and up steep chimneys would later lead to other things. Tougher routes on nearby peaks, climbing walls and a desire for bigger challenges.

Eventually it got me to Colorado’s Matterhorn Peak, a 13,590-foot mountain where I was practically driven to find tougher ways to get to the top. What I discovered is my tolerance for heights in this environment had radically changed.

Stuck in a gully filled with questionable holds and a pretty good bit of air beneath me I discovered that something that would have freaked me out years ago was not nearly as scary now.

But the reality is not many people who hike and climb in Colorado get worked up about the routes up Matterhorn. Other mountains and routes tend to get more hype for their airiness and risk. Veteran climbers call these places “exciting.” Folks more like me call them “spooky” and “sketchy.”

The physical side of heights is one thing, but more  importantly, it’s the mental part that stops people cold and turns them around – or prompts mistakes.

What would it be like for me at a place like that? Would it be liberating? Or more akin to being a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding truck?

***

On the other side of the Royal Gorge bridge, I looked at it and decided to tackle my inner nonsense head-on. I was here, and now was the time.

I stepped out on the bridge’s wooden planks. I looked down between the gaps between them, then just kept walking. Upon crossing, I turned around and walked to the middle. Stepped to the edge and peered down into the canyon below.

There is a sign posted there that mentions a bungee jump from that very spot. Not really my thing, but just to put a nail in the coffin of this particular fear, I jumped up and down a few times, and I’m glad to report the bridge stayed intact. I did not fall though the deck to my death, and the bridge didn’t crumble to pieces beneath me, sending all of us into the abyss below.

Satisfied, I walked back to where I first crossed and called it good. It was the first step in a longer, ongoing journey.

***

Not too long ago, I’m not sure I would have been down for Kelso Ridge. But that was then.

One thing I don’t want to do is lionize the things I’ve done or make them bigger than they really are. I know a lot of climbers, hikers and skiers who have done some truly remarkable things in the mountains, far beyond anything I’ve ever attempted. And still others who I don’t know have done things that are, quite literally, the stuff of books and movies.

Bravery, cowardice, courage and fear are words with serious personal and societal connotations, but in the case of fear it goes well beyond what we’re taught. As creatures we’re hard-wired to protect our lives and avoid things that threaten us. Overcoming that is harder for some than others.

That may be what made a recent hike and climb up Torreys Peak so special for me. The peak’s Kelso Ridge is one of those places where people talk about its scary spots, dizzying exposure and risk of falling. It’s just the kind of route I’d longed to try but avoided because of its reputation. Real or exaggerated, if you have a fear of heights then reading about the route is usually enough to make you say, “thanks, but no.”

What I discovered was something else. The steep walls and narrow ledges proved to be fun, not scary. Its notorious Knife Edge wasn’t the show-stopper I thought it might be. Its exposure is rated a 4 of 6 on 14ers.com, with a 4 being defined as “more serious exposure that could result in serious injury or death if you fell.”

Being on it, I believe it. Having done it, I can tell you it’s a fun way to spend a day in the mountains. Those climbing sections, which often end at the airy crest of the ridge, are simple and fun. The ledges aren’t forbidding as long as you take your time. The Knife Edge is visually and photographically appealing, but I found it to be far less intimidating than I initially feared.

I’ve heard that people freak out up there. I can understand that. I’ve been there. But over time, I’ve become more accustomed to heights that would have given me pause only a few short years ago. This is no big deal to some people, and objectively speaking, it isn’t that big of a deal compared to other feats of climbing and mountaineering.

But when your particular weakness is so acute as mine is to heights, it is a milestone of sorts. All of the sudden, a whole new world is opened. Other mountains with similar or more difficult paths are suddenly within reach whereas just a few years ago they were just fantasy. The thought of joyously traversing Capitol Peak’s gnarly northeast ridge or ticking off a bucket list mountain like Rainier seems so much more possible now.

What I don’t want to do is draw some metaphorical parallel to the rest of life and the fears we face. God knows, I have plenty of other little horned devils that spook me into inaction. But finding victory where there had only been defeat is a wonderful thing.

It’s like the obese guy who decides to take on the challenge of a 5K when they’ve never run before in their lives. He knows people will look at him funny as he lumbers down the running trail, judging him as he goes. He’s validated – and made stronger – when he crosses the finish line at his first-ever race. Suddenly he’s dreaming of marathons.

Or the ultramarathoner I know who has harbored a fear of flying, and decided to take a day traveling from city to city by plane to confront this thing head-on. The flights ended without incident, and the money she spent on those plane tickets was great investment.

Neither of them solved the world’s ills, or even their own problems. But they beat the demons back, even for just that moment. In battles marked by a lot of flight and very little fight, things got turned around when that dude laced ‘em up on that first morning run, and when that woman walked the jetway and took her seat. Kind of like taking that first step on a bridge that was a whole lot sturdier than the voices in my head said it was.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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8 thoughts on “Somewhere between loathing and joy: Tackling my fear of heights

  1. Great story and all of us can pull something from this that can be applied to our lives. A favorite quote of mine by Donna A. Favors is “There are four ways you can handle fear. You can go over it, under it, or around it. But if you are ever to put fear behind you, you must walk straight through it. Once you put fear behind you, leave it there.”

    • Good stuff. I think it will be an ongoing process for me. I mentioned Capitol Peak in the piece, and it’s a much more difficult — and more serious — undertaking. Who knows? Maybe I see that ridge and say, “no chance, Jack.”

      But the principle applies: Once you get past that first mental hurdle, the world gets just a little bit bigger. And I think that’s the point of facing your fears — not to be boxed in by them, but liberated from them, while at the same time respecting the origins from which they came.

      • I know you’ll have no problems. I would love to attempt some of the climbs you show but I know I would be battling a few fears of my own in the process. :) Best of luck on Capitol Peak and I can’t wait to see pictures of you on it’s summit.

      • First things first — I’ll probably work up to it with a couple other peaks first. But I’d like to think it’s in my future, as well as several others.

        Now as for skiing Capitol? Yeah, that ain’t happening.

  2. Congrats on overcoming your fear of heights! I remember the day I realized I was slightly afraid of heights – it was halfway up a climbing wall. My boyfriend saw my panic, and very sternly insisted that I make it up to the top despite the fact that I was totally crying a little bit. Glad I did, and I bet you’re glad you did too. :)

    • Wouldn’t say the battle is won yet. It’s not like I’m jonesing to tackle the Diamond on Longs Peak (though wouldn’t that be cool?!?). But I’m not nearly as wigged out as I used to be. The big dropoffs on Kelso Ridge and the exposed climbs closer to home in the Wichita Mountains do not bother me in the slightest.

      I’ll tell you what was interesting, though: Straining up a steep chimney on Kelso, getting to the crest of the ridge with nothing but air around me in every direction, and then getting light-headed from the altitude and exertion! That’s an interesting feeling…

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