Looking Down is the Best Part: How I Conquered my Fear of Heights

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A desire to climb compelled me to conquer my fear of heights. This is how I did it.

I remember the first time.  It happened, of all places, at the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles.  The Wilshire Boulevard site doesn’t sit on any particularly steep relief.  But one of the buildings, set on a very small hill, is ringed with a cement sidewalk wide enough that, from my low perspective as a child, seemed to drop off into the air.  With no railing to protect passers-by, from my “safe” location next to the building’s full-length glass walls I warned my father not to get too close to the edge.  My dad, with his usual sense of humor, walked carefully up to the edge and “fell” off into the abyss.  I remember feeling extremely distressed, but soon my mom’s laughter hinted that I had missed something.  With her coaxing, I tentatively worked my way up to the edge, finding my father sitting on the hill, looking up at me.  Relieved, the experience passed from my immediate memory as we continued our visit to the museum, but looking back, I’m pretty sure that was the first significant time I associated a perception of height with a sensation of danger.

A general unease with heights continued more or less throughout my adolescence and adulthood, and I made a point of avoiding places where I might feel exposed.  It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I came home to visit my family after spending time in wartime Baghdad, that I realized how hyper sensitized I’d become to heights.

Church of Saint Paul Facade, Macau.  Photo by Mo707, via Wikipedia.
Church of Saint Paul Facade, Macau. Photo by Mo707, via Wikipedia.

As part of a vacation, we took a trip to Macau, near Hong Kong. One of the city’s best-known landmarks is the baroque facade of the Church of St. Paul, the only part of the church to survive following a fire and typhoon in 1835.  The back side of the facade is accessible to visitors via a steel latticework and stairway through which any tourist can look straight through to the ground.  Though only perhaps thirty feet above the ground, I found myself almost frozen with fear, my heart pounding and my knees weak.  To be sure, I got myself down as soon as I regained my composure.  Looking back on it, I’m confident that the sometimes daily rocket attacks, evasive flying in helicopters and dashing across unprotected streets from base to base in Iraq somehow had exacerbated my long-present fear of heights.

Yokohama Marine Tower, 106 m (348 feet).
Yokohama Marine Tower, 106 m (348 feet).

Fast-forward two years.  I’m living in Japan and anything involving heights is the farthest thing from my mind.  Until I happen to watch a series of movies, most notably Touching the Void and Joe Simpson’s The Beckoning Silence. The former piqued a nascent interest in alpinism, and one of Simpson’s lines from the latter proved pivotal in reorienting my attitude toward altitude.

“It’s quite a strange game it plays on you, because, you know, this drop isn’t actually doing you any harm at all.  It’s just there.  But it gets in your head.”

The more I thought on it, the more I realized he was right.  I also realized that if I ever wanted to climb a mountain I was going to need to find a way to overcome my fears.  I resolved to see how far I could push myself.

The first place I tested myself would have been laughable to most.  A pedestrian bridge near my home spanned across a deep canal, amplifying the sense of space beneath it, especially at low tide.  I went from walking gingerly down the very center of the wide footbridge to moving along one side or the other, first gripping the handrail, then without.

The next test was obvious.  Perhaps fifty meters from the far side of the canal stood the Yokohama Marine Tower, billed inaccurately, it seems, as the world’s tallest lighthouse.  My first trip up the elevator was terrifying, and I spent most of the short visit standing along the center core of the observation deck.  But over repeated visits the place took on a routine feeling.  Something else happened, too; I began to appreciate the view.  Instead of worrying about what might happen to me or how unsafe I might be at one-hundred meters, I saw detail I hadn’t noticed before.  Boats, cars.  People.  A rooftop garden, replete with gazebo.  I could get used to this.

Landmark Tower
Yokohama Landmark Tower, 296 m (972 feet).

At almost one thousand feet tall, the Yokohama Landmark Tower is the second tallest building in Japan.  This time, the viewing platform was expansive, the views sweeping.  Leaning over the angled windows to peer directly down was an odd sensation; I could feel my body trying to react, as it always had, to the lofty perspective, but it just couldn’t flip the switch to full-blown fear.  One or two visits later, I could fully enjoy the view—on a clear day—as far south as Yokosuka and as far north as the Tokyo skyline.

View of Tokyo.
Tokyo, Japan, as viewed from the Yokohama Landmark Tower.

Soon afterwards, we moved to Tokyo and I sought out a climbing gym that provided opportunities for both bouldering and roped climbing.  The confidence I gained in my own ability to hold on to the artificial features added to my comfort moving up the walls tied into a rope.  That, too, was a new level of trust for me.  It had been a long time since I had depended on a rope to keep me safe during Boy Scouts ropes courses and ROTC rappelling practice.

I decided it was time to see whether my new-found confidence with heights was here to stay, to see whether I truly had overcome my fears which, only a few months prior, had been debilitating.  That summer my family and I had scheduled a vacation back in the United States.  As we did our planning, I located a service that guided climbs in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains.  I was interested in learning how to do multi-pitch traditional climbing—where you go farther than a single rope length—safely, and in the process I would test myself against real exposure.  I will give a full account of the climb in another blog entry, but suffice it to say that I found the exposure exhilarating, not frightening, and I left knowing that I had successfully conquered my fear of heights.

Now this is more like it!  View from the start of my summer climb.
Now that is more like it! View from the start of my summer climb.

What I’ve found interesting since that time is how being comfortable with exposure has made other parts of my life easier. In particular, driving over tall bridges or along elevated viaducts is now enjoyable (or as enjoyable as urban traffic be, in any case) and I don’t find myself grabbing the steering wheel with white knuckles. And recently, when family visited and we all went up Tokyo Tower, I was able to take in a view of the world’s largest metropolis from 250 meters (820 feet) with a sense of awe, not terror.

I still get a tickle when I’m looking out from a tall place.  I understand this now to be part of the thrill, and I hope it doesn’t go away.  But I’m so happy that I’m now able to experience it for what it is, to realize that the drop is just there, and that it’s not doing me any harm at all.

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