A few months ago, my friend Gail and I hiked up to Devil’s Bridge near Sedona. The end of this trail features a natural rock arch stretching around 50 feet above the canyon below. The path across is about 4-5 feet wide so you’d have to be trying pretty hard to fall off. At the access point, hikers, one by one, stride to the center of this arch and throw their arms in the air for a social media moment. When I was there, one woman smiling broadly at the camera, aligned her chakras and whipped her leg up into a tree pose. My photo moment was a little different. I quietly and slowly plodded across the natural bridge trying not to look down and keeping my knees bent. I’m not sure why I had my knees bent. I think I was trying to lower my center of gravity. I get to the middle of the rock arch and look back at the camera. I cannot put my arms in the air in a hurray gesture; I am using them as balancing devices. Feeling like I had won…a little, I turn to withdraw and freeze. I absolutely cannot move. There is a long line of non-acrophobics dying to cross the bridge and I’m stuck. Finally I turn, get on all fours and crawl back across, staring at the terra firma ahead of me. It was not one bit elegant and very embarrassing. Leaving, several fellow hikers ask if I was the one who crawled across the arch. Yep, that was me.
This acrophobia or the fear of heights has haunted me since high school and is incredibly burdensome. Hiking in the Grand Canyon, I actually forced my partner to turn around because I could not stand the terror any longer. And, I avoid high elevations with my daughter because she did not inherit one molecule of this fear and inevitably will want her picture on some precarious precipice. It takes every ounce of my will power not to swoop in and save her.
And don’t think I haven’t tried to get rid of it. I have purposely watched a terrifying video of a guy unicycling around the lip of a defunct smokestack in China, ziplined above the Costa Rican rain forest, ridden the tram to the top of Aiguille du Midi in the French Alps and stepped into the oblivion, dropping 10,000 feet tandem-skydiving. But, I’m still terrified.
I figure this is the year to fight back. Acrophobia has been messing with my life for a long time and I’m sick of it. After much thought, I’ve finally narrowed down my problem. I’m not afraid of flying and I love ziplining. I’m terrified when I’m the one in control in a high place. I guess I’m afraid I’ll accidentally but on purpose throw myself over the edge. Who accidentally on purpose throws themselves over the edge?! Researching, I learn this actually is a thing. Jean-Paul Sartre writes about it in his classic Being and Nothingness and the French have a word for it: L’Appel du Vide or “call of the void.” This is so not helping.
With more reading, I realize in the acrophobia realm, I’m not that deeply impacted. There are actually people who cannot climb on ladders or chairs. This makes me feel better although I have enormous empathy for those afflicted. I also discover a way to manage it: systematic desensitization. One exposes one’s self to acrophobia-inducing situations gradually growing in tenor and as a result the fear progressively recedes.
I decide to create my own systematic desensitization plan:
My ultimate goal is to hike to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. This narrow trail features 1500 foot drops, smooth and slippery sandstone surfaces, cables, and an other-worldly view from the top. My palms get cold and clammy just watching the Youtube video of it. But, don’t worry dear reader, this goal is not beyond the realm of possibility. In these clips I also see women carrying their babies in Bjorns and 12-year-olds stealthily making their way up the trail. Also, in the past 100 years of hiking Angel’s Landing, only 7 people have fallen. I figure my odds of survival are pretty good.
In preparation I’m going to…
I need to get ready physically too. I’m going to…
Regarding equipment, I plan to give myself every advantage for success. I will secure
In planning this trip I will…
On hiking Angel’s Landing. I will…
I’ll report back periodically on how the training is going. Maybe you too, dear reader, have a fear. I hope this inspires you.
Being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Being brave is having that fear but finding a way through it. ~ Bear Grylls
P.S. I woke up last night in a cold sweat. This fear is bigger than I thought. I may need to do a little rethinking. And, I'm worried about you too, dear Reader. Be super safe and careful while addressing any fear. Fear is sometimes there for good reason. ;-)