If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 20 September 2010

Fear of Heights

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.


  1. I think age is relevant. Boys in their late teens or early 20s know with utter certainty that they are immortal, that no harm can come to them. Which is why, I guess, that so many of them die in accidents.

    By the time you hit 30, your brain has managed to add up all the near misses and realise that you're not immortal, just lucky.

    Get to 40, and with a little further thought you then realise that the truth is that you've been lucky so far.

    And then the steep fall on either side starts to look like a threat, not a challenge?

  2. I sympathise. On a high building or cliff I get a tremendous urge to throw myself off (got it very badly in the whispering gallery at St Paul's). This makes me wonder whether some apparent suicides are actually unfortunate cases of this phenomenon.

  3. Sounds like a case of acrophobia. Yep, had to double-check the definition before saying so, but it fits.

    While checking, though, I was interested to note Wiki citations that some research points towards there being a biological rather than purely psychological element. In particular, with an inability to evenly spread the load of establishing a spatial model of the surroundings through vision, balance and feedback from the body's physical positioning sensors. In this theory the latter two are underused, and the compensation through excessive use of lower-value visual stimuli leads to overload of the visual cortex.

    That might explain why you suffer a much reduced reaction when unable to rely on vision, or when descending - where visual information increases in nearness, quantity and usefulness.

    It's a different thing from being drawn to jump - or feeling that there will be a desire to do so. There doesn't seem to be any term which specifically describes that: as far as I can tell, although it seems quite common, it isn't recognised as any psychopathology or disorder in its' own right.

    And I did come across this rather fascinating video, although you may not want to actually watch it!

  4. @patently - you're right about the increasing awareness of danger as we get older, but I think that is too rational for what I am describing. It's complete dread that I feel, way beyond any rational assessment of likely risk. I can walk in a straight line for 20 metres in my garden - but asked to do the same within 2ft of a cliff edge and I would be begging someone to shoot me. I would almost be tempted to jump off and get it over with, which is as irrational a response as you can think of.

    @Tcheuchter - the Whispering Gallery? I had forgotten about that one. I had the same feelings when I was there. Truly terrible! If you have never climbed the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, then I suggest you don't, ever. It's 330 feet tall, and the staircase goes up the inside round the walls, with only a low wall on the inside and nothing at all in the middle. For people like us, it's torture. (I went ahead and climbed it, at age 28, but it was a struggle.)

    @Endo - that's really interesting, thank you. I've been and had a look in Wikipedia, and the article there makes a lot of sense, especially the reliance on visual cues that are less strong as height increases. I had an episode of severe inner-ear infection when I was about 40, and it has left me with mild vertigo (if I spin round, I will often lose balance and fall over) but this fear of heights predates that by a long time. I guess some desensitisation therapy is called for. I started today by climbing a ladder and clearing all my gutters, but as I live in a bungalow this isn't overly heroic.

    Thank you all for the interesting comments. This kind of thing makes blogging worthwhile. Stay safe, now.

  5. Endo - I just watched that video clip. Thanks. I shall have nightmares about that, although curiously it wasn't as bad to watch as the tower climb. As one of the YouTube commenters says, I now realise I can hold my breath for nine minutes! Awesome footage, but I don't think I will be bookmarking it for later. I'm sweating buckets just sitting here.


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