As I heard Mike Rowe say recently, “It’s not heights I’m scared of, it’s widths.” I don’t think I’m overly afraid of heights. Whenever I stand at a precipice, I can feel part of myself panic. It takes some will to suppress that panic, and the higher I am, the more will it takes. What makes sitting in an airplane seem perfectly normal, and standing on a ledge seem so dangerous? There must be some psychology at work on a plane, making the environment seem less like 35,000 feet, and more like a living room or bus. Skydivers must imbue that feeling of safety in their parachutes. How else could they even stand at the door of a plane? I guess that people who aren’t afraid of heights rely on their balance or insanity to get them through. I think everyone’s looked over a safe ledge or platform to test themselves. It’s a little thrilling to look down from a height and still feel safe.
I went on an Outward Bound trip when I was in sixth grade. We did a lot of things that this suburban kid had never done before. We walked through a waist deep pond, navigated with a compass… and rappelled off of a 100 foot tower. I think that’s the first time I had to deal with heights. Dan Shechtman was at the top holding the safety line as I started up the ladder. At first, it wasn’t too bad, it felt like climbing any ladder. After about 20 feet, I started to feel that panic fighting against me like gravity. I felt a little heavier after each rung. Dan could see that I was scared, and kept encouraging me. When I reached the top, there was a final hurdle that I couldn’t overcome. Dan had put the safety line over the safety barrier, but I couldn’t climb over it. All I could manage at that point was to flop under the railing and lie on the platform panting.
I never really felt relief at getting to the top. There were only two ways down, after all. I wasn’t going near that ladder again, so that left rappelling off the front. The front of the tower was covered with planks until about 20 feet off the ground. I crawled towards the edge, then turned around and hung my legs over the edge. It took a bit of coaxing before I really trusted the line to support my weight, but a second later I was hiked out on the wall, 100 feet up. I froze for a second, but I had a good wide stance, and the panic became more manageable. I let my death grip on the line go a bit and stepped down the wall. The carabiner pinched my finger just as Dan said “Watch your right hand!” It hurts, watch your right hand if you ever go rappelling. That kind of woke me up a bit, because the line felt really real twisting my finger like that. I stood up a little and freed my hand, and jumped out a bit. the line slid through my hands until I squeezed and swung back to the wall. Rappelling is a lot of fun, and I bounced my way down the wall until I met the last 20 feet. By then, it wasn’t a big deal, and I hovered down to the ground with some grace that had been missing up till then. I think it’s good for me to look over a tall height from time to time, just to remind myself what it takes to overcome a fear.