Two days ago, I posted a video clip of some linemen working on a communications tower. In common with a lot of the commenters on Obo's original post, watching the clip made me feel physically sick and I had to stop. I had a feeling of panic and dread in my chest, and my stomach was churning. This is not a figure of speech: I had these physical symptoms. I have watched any number of nasty things (usually out of curiosity, I have to say) and I have never had a reaction like it.
OK, confession time: I am not good with heights. It's not vertigo. I have suffered from vertigo (proper vertigo, loss of balance, swimming vision, puking, the lot) in the past and it isn't pleasant. But these aren't the symptoms I get if I am somewhere high and exposed. What I get is a feeling of dread, which makes me want to drop to the floor and crawl away from the edge. If I can't get away, I retreat into a swearing, sweating mass of nervousness. Heart-rate goes to 200 bpm and I want to die. I've thought about this a lot over the years, and I have concluded that what triggers it is open space. Open space over my head and to the side is fine. But open space below me makes me panic. It doesn't have to be a sheer drop: anything below about 30° below the horizontal sets me off. I had one of my worst episodes on Striding Edge in the Lakes:
You can see that there are no sheer drops off Striding Edge, just long and fairly steep slopes which go down for a long way. If you slipped and fell you would go, but you wouldn't go far. So it's not a fear of falling as such. Anna and I had climbed up from Glenridding and got about half-way up Striding Edge when Anna froze and couldn't go any further. She was trembling and in tears, so we cancelled our plan to get to the summit of Helvellyn and retraced our steps back down, very gingerly. I was being all brave and manly, but in fact I was almost on the point of panic myself, and I was grateful to have an excuse to retreat. The fact that there were youngsters leaping between rocks and casually ignoring the absence of landscape below us made it all the more humiliating. Strangely, I climbed Swirral Edge on the opposite side of Red Tarn in my twenties, in thick snow, using ice axes to cut steps up the steepest part, and I was fine. Keenly focused on what I was doing, as it were, but fine. So this thing has come on during my thirties.
It's all visual. It seems as though if the reference points (anything well below the horizontal) are taken away, my brain starts to panic. It needs substantial contact with something solid before the brain will accept it. I can look over steep cliffs if I am lying down, for example. And here's a funny thing: Anna and I once climbed Jack's Rake on Pavey Ark.
This has been described as "extremely exposed" and a man died after falling off it in 2008. The route scales a crag diagonally, and the drop is absolutely sheer. There is a flake of rock to protect you from the drop for most of the way, but towards the top this disappears, and the final section is a scramble up a bare lump of rock with nothing to either side and the drop behind you. And yet we did it without a problem. The reason? Thick mist. (We were out with experienced people who knew the area well, so this wasn't as daft as it sounds.) My brain knew that we were a long way from the next bit of horizontal ground, but althought that made me take great care, the simple knowledge didn 't bother me, as I couldn't see it. If the clouds had parted and the view from half-way up revealed, I think I would still be there. I wouldn't have been able to move a muscle.
While reading the comments to the video clip, I had the thought that, if some magical force could put a huge circle of paper round and through the tower, so that I could climb without being able to see what was below (but, crucially, know I was not protected from a fall), I would be as able to do it as anyone. Without that kind of visual mask, I would be frozen to the spot. I would be tempted to throw myself off, just to end the torture. I can walk along the top of a six-foot wall, for example, but would be completely unable to do so on a hundred-and-six foot wall.
One rather disturbing thought, which is at the back of my mind throughout all of this, is that if I am somewhere with a big drop (there are a few of these in Pembroke Castle), I sort-of project forward in time and watch myself fall. It's almost as if might throw myself off and be unable to stop myself.
Oddly, I have climbed and abseiled underground without any real problems. The difference is that in caves it is dark. I think my biggest descent and climb was about 120ft in Easegill, but when all you can see below you are the tiny headlamps of your colleagues in a pitch-black cavern, there is no visual reference and no panic.
Sorry if this post rambles and gets nowhere (what's new, huh?), but the video clip had such a strong reaction with me, and it woke up thoughts that have been safely tucked away for a long time. Better out than in, as they say.
Postscript: something else has just occurred to me - all these panic moments have been when I have been going up. I could walk down Striding Edge no problem. I once climbed the stairs to the second étage of the Eiffel Tower and made myself very scared, but once I had started coming down again, I was fine. Strange.