Conquering My Fear of Heights Through Backpacking

The first time I ever had a panic attack I was in the CN Tower in Toronto.  After zipping 1500 feet up in the quick elevators I had a discomfort I’d never known.  That discomfort evolved.  As I looked down on skyscrapers and helicopters I freaked the fuck out and my fear of heights was born.

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If you’ve ever been faced with death or severe bodily harm, its basically the same feeling.  You’re convinced you’re dying, and your mind and body are reacting as if that’s reality.   Having a severe panic attack is not unlike peaking on acid and realizing things are going south… quickly.  Simultaneously panic is the ultimate in mindfulness and mindlessness. It’s a terrible experience that I hope you never have to go through.

So, for years I was terrified of tall buildings.  Luckily heights in nature didn’t bother me too badly, unless I was in alpine terrain.  The thin air, exposure, and alien landscape (I’m from the South) tended to produce the same symptoms in me that a 50 story building would.  If I was up high on a hike, I wanted down.

The only way to get past a phobia is to expose yourself to it incrementally until you have kicked its ass.   I started doing that, hiking in higher terrain.  My first major breakthrough was hiking off trail above timberline on Mt Jefferson in 2014.  It didn’t bother me like it used to and now I had the courage to push it.

When the panic hits, you have to ride it out.  Like a real roller coaster, it’ll be over soon so you can just let it do its thing.  It always passes.  You’ll always come down.  You’ll never die from the panic.

What will kill you, is what you miss out on when you give in to the fear.

In 2016, I now prefer alpine backpack trips.  I’ve come a long way.  I like the exposure and wide open space.  The light headedness from elevation is tolerable.  My heart’s beating fast only cause there’s less oxygen.  Now I’m able to enjoy it to the point of only wanting to plan hikes in high country.  Its really the best in my opinion.

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I’m at a point now where I want to kick it up a notch and summit a couple of local peaks, which will have to wait for 2017.  I remember a time when watching people mountain climbing on TV was enough to induce anxiety to the point that I’d sometimes have to turn it off.  Now I’m able to read books and articles about summitting Mt Hood and Mt Adams, which give me the info and confidence I need to move to the next challenge.  Until then I’ll be continuing to challenge myself and push my known boundaries.

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