Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Melting Glaciers And The End Of Civilization

These are the days of grim warnings about climate change, about an overheated, crowded, polluted planet, slowly cooking in a noxious stew of greenhouse gases, its rivers and oceans clogged with plastic and crude oil, its animals dying, its cities drowning, as floods and famine and hurricane and arctic freezes deliver blow after blow to its staggering frame, bringing it slowly to its knees, to an undignified and premature death.

I have become used to these warnings, to the visions of catastrophe and desolation they induce. Rather, my imagination has tried and failed to reckon with the dimensions of the disaster that is supposedly foretold.  It has retreated to lesser challenges, to conceptualizing and grasping situations more easily brought within its confines.

There are times though, when the evidence for climate change strikes the right chords, when its associated images stand out, brighter and starker than ever. A few days ago, as I watched a documentary on the Alps, I learned once again about the phenomenon of The Receding Glacier: that sad, familiar tale of how these mighty rivers of ice, which once filled valleys and crept up their walls with their accumulated mass, dragging millions of tons of ice, mud, rock, and assorted debris hundreds of miles, forming striated bands of grey, black, and white visible from space, before terminating in lakes and bays and calving off into icebergs. were now melting, drying, and receding, becoming diminished and marginal and pathetic versions of themselves, forced back up the valleys that held them, slowly threatening to disappear, leaving behind scars and tracks of their once mighty presence.

I had heard this all before. It was happening in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Rockies. Every mighty mountain range on this globe was diminished. But that was not all.

As I watched the mouth of a glacier give birth to a small stream, which thanks to all the tributaries from other melting points joining it slowly turned into a mighty, frothy cataract speeding down one rapid after other, bringing life and seed and color to mountaintop and meadow and down-valley field, I realized what had happened. The glacier had given birth to a river, one which would become grand and ponderous, heading for its flood plains and delta flats before flowing into the ocean. On the way, it would play its part in sustaining the human communities it made its way through.

And those communities and lives and cultures would be the first ones to go when the rivers that had so animated their regions, watered and fed them and brought them to life, would die once the glaciers and the snowpacks that gave birth to them, and which resupplied them every year, would dry up and vanish. Somehow, I had not realized, when listening to stories of receding glaciers, that I was also being told about rivers drying up. It was only then, when I made the leap from rivers to cities that I also made the most uncomfortable connection of all: the end of glaciers sounded like the end of civilization.