High places and I have always lived in uneasy truce, at least as long as I can remember. Some recent experiences have made me see my fear of heights in a new light.
I didn’t have a word for altophobia (fear of high places) when I was around ten and went scrambling over rocky Shoshone Falls [which were only a falls 24 hours a year, when the irrigation gates were opened] with my mother and brother. In fact, I was speechless when I came to a spot halfway up a rock chimney and realized I was too terrified to climb higher and equally afraid of retreating. I don’t know how long I stayed frozen there. I do remember my mother gently talked me down when she realized I was in a state of utter panic.
When I married a climber, I didn’t expect scaling—and, worse, descending—steep slopes to be part of the contract. Hiking a narrow track above a death-threatening drop petrified me. I viewed skiing as a deranged plot to strap slippery boards onto my feet and push me off a snow-greased mountainside.
My failure to live up to the steep-slopes clause likely contributed to the eventual demise of the relationship. So how was it I found myself, in my early sixties, floating at the full extent of a 600’ cable, high over a deep lake, laughing uproariously? Had I gone completely mad?
As it turns out, I can point to two reasons for this new-found courage: security and trust.
The security came from finally acknowledging I can rely on safety features. For parasailing that meant a harness that allowed me to sit comfortably beneath a parasail while a boat sped around Lake Okanagan. Even if the motor conked out and the cable severed, I calculated my gradual descent would mean nothing worse than a good dunking. (I had not read the accident reports nor watched the YouTube pratfalls but would do it again.)
That sense of security kicked in again when, a year later, I ziplined across the Kicking Horse River on what looked like a sturdy cable with a reliable braking system. Later that year, standing on a glass floor, 88 floors above the Melbourne CBD (central business district) didn’t phase me. At home, I can lean over the balcony of our tenth-floor condo without the slightest palpitation. Heights, when I see that security measures tip the odds in my favor, no longer hold terror for me.
But I think it’s the second reason that’s strongest: trust. I have a partner who encourages me to stretch my limits but never pressures. He’s delighted when I agree to some new experience but loves me just the same if I quote Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.” Knowing he loves me too much to risk my limbs or peace of mind enlarges my circle of safe activities.
Perhaps if my father had played a role in my life, I might have gained confidence earlier. Certainly there are studies that point to the influence of a strong and supportive male influence. That wasn’t to be, and I’m grateful I had such a good mother.
I still quote Bartleby, when neither security nor trust is enough. And I do so with confidence in my choice and in my relationship.