When I was a child I would happily climb trees and find a ladder to get onto the top of the garage roof. I remember that heights never bothered me. I’ve been looking back at what changed in my life that I now have this fear of heights and in particular walking along paths with sheer drops to one or both sides.
A lot changed when I had an operation in 1993 after my appendix burst and I nearly died. I spent six weeks in hospital and several months convalescing at home. It was a very odd time for me; I had just taken my A levels (exams taken at age 18 in the UK) and was looking forward to going to university, which I did, but not the one I had originally wanted to. I was aware even back then that this incident made me much more risk averse, where before I took calculated risks.
As we go through our everyday lives we naturally avoid our fears to the point that it becomes an unconscious action. It's only when you are faced with those fears that you really start to consciously consider how they impede what it is you wish to do. In my case, I didn’t realise how debilitating a fear of heights, or acrophobia as it's known technically, could be when coupled with long term travel.
In 2005 I was up a ladder helping my father paint my first house before selling it and moving to London. At the top, paintbrush in hand, I looked down and suddenly realised I was much higher than I had thought. I froze.
In 2008, on the flat roof part of my house in London the builder wanted to show me the reason why it had been leaking. The second I reached the top to stand beside him, he said, “oh! I didn't know you were afraid of heights!” That obvious, huh?
In 2010 Sam and I met in Cesky Krumlov, a beautiful medieval town in the south of the Czech Republic not far from the Austrian border. We decided to look around the castle gardens. Sam mentioned that there were some ruins about 500 meters away from the end of the gardens and all we had to do to get to them was climb over the wall. The climb onto the top of this thick stone wall was easy, but what I didn't realise was the drop the other side was more than a meter further down.
Sam jumped down without hestitating and I just looked on in horror at the thought of dropping to the ground below me. I was also annoyed as Sam had been blissfully unaware of the greater drop on this side. This was the first instance that Sam realised I didn't like heights, and we’d already been together five years by then.
He, unusually, was lost for words. I remember well asking exactly how far down it was from the bottom of my shoes. “About 30 centimetres”, Sam replied. But it couldn’t be; it seemed so much more! In hindsight I found my question was odd to say the least but I understand now why I had ask it: to try and rationalise my irrational fear.
After nearly 10 minutes of Sam trying to reassure me that it really wasn’t that far, I jumped down and instantly thought how stupid I’d been. Hands still clammy we walked to the ruins and discussed this annoying fear for the first time.
Fast forward to our current South America trip. In April, we were at the Museo Quinquela Martín in La Boca, Buenos Aires, when I had another confrontation with my fear of heights. After looking around this stunning museum we were asked if we would like to view the sculptures on the roof terraces and take in the views of the harbour from the balcony on the top roof.
This all sounded terrific and was indeed impressive until I had to climb a very tall, open spiral staircase to the top balcony. Looking up I thought “this doesn't look particularly solid”. My hands felt incredibly clammy and my heart beat faster as I began to climb the staircase. Reaching the top was a relief, and I was able to distract myself with the great view over the old harbour. Interestingly, I noticed later that descending had become easier.
Approaching the end of our stay in Argentina, Sam and I visited the small town of Cafayate. Known for its amazing landscapes and high altitude wines, we decided to embark on an afternoon tour to visit the different landscapes in the area.
At one point, we were in a valley several hours from the town, and our guide was explaining what minerals were represented by the different colours in the rocks. Once he finished his explanation he turned around and pointed up towards a narrow path climbing up alongside a ridge of the valley. At first I wasn't too concerned as I was having an interesting discussion with a German girl.
Once we reached half way up the ridge, I began to feel anxious and wondered if I should turn back. This would have been easy if not for the people behind me on the narrow path. Sam realised something was wrong and turned back to meet me. He told me that the drop eased off ahead and took my hand to lead me further up the ridge.
Reaching the top the views were breathtaking and more so as Sam and I were experiencing them together, which is the whole point of us doing this; to share such experiences. Despite my clammy hands and increased heart rate, I was happy to have reached the top with him.
Projecting the Fear
Lake Titicaca is one of those places that has always seemed mystical and out of reach, so making it there was a special experience for me. Sitting on the shores of the lake is the Bolivian town of Copacabana where there are many opportunities to explore ruins and climb to various view points.
Sam I walked to several very interesting places, one of which was Horca del Inca, a rock formation which was used as a place of worship by the Inca. The climb was not so easy particularly at altitude though we managed, breathlessly. Reaching a particular plateau I had that sudden point where I froze. I could go no further. Seeing the shear drops and narrow walk ways I stayed put while Sam explored further ahead.
He walked away from me towards the edge of the cliff, and to my horror, climbed up on an extremely narrow rock that seemed to jut out into nothing. “He’s going to fall and die!” I remember thinking, but he seemed so happy and relaxed. He came bounding back to me to check that I’d taken the picture he’d wanted.
“Oh, it just looked like that; it was actually only about a metre off the ground, and at least two metres from the edge of the cliff,” he reassured me. I still couldn’t help feeling afraid for him doing such things, but I realised later that I was just projecting my own fear.
The following day we climbed the hill behind our hotel to get a moment together watching the sunset. I was a little anxious climbing but I was determined to make it and enjoy myself, as I knew this was something special that Sam wanted to do. I pushed through, and did manage to enjoy it, despite slightly clammy hands. Having Sam push me a little each time I feel myself getting stuck has been a great help, and something I am extremely grateful for.
If it weren’t for him, I’d sometimes still be stuck.
I have for a long time wanted to resolve my fear of heights wondering if I should try hypnosis, therapy or do a course. Have you or anyone you know experienced a fear of heights? And have they overcome this fear?