There’s an inherent problem with fear-of-heights (acrophobia) and mountain rescue. Like a lifeguard who’s afraid of water, there exists a constant and underlying carrier signal that ranges from slight anxiety to full fledged terror. Interestingly enough I’ve met a lot of climbers who only got into vertical pursuits because they were afraid of heights.
Exposure therapy can be done in a clinical setting under the guidance of a skilled practitioner or you can just DIY the goddamn thing. Like home surgery it may not work out well all the time but you can’t knock the sense of accomplishment when you pull it off successfully. Chalk it up to the many cases of things that work out well for you but that you may not advise others to do themselves.
So when I got tapped in rescue training the other day for “edge”, I had the dueling voices in my head:
- Voice A, my helpful voice, the angel on my shoulder: “This is great, you’re around expert climbers and riggers, you know all your system components yourself, and you’re going to get exposure and show yourself that you know how to do it.”
- Voice B, my other-than-helpful-voice, the coward on my shoulder: “HOLY SHIT NO YOU’RE GOING TO DIE WTF ARE YOU THINKING!?!?!?!?!”
I nodded at my instructor, “Got it, edge.” For those not in the know, “edge” basically means you hang out near, on, and sort-of-but-not-really-over the cliff edge. Rarely are “edges” a clear delineating 90 degrees, hence the vagueness. People up higher who aren’t in the “hot” or “death” zone as it’s affectionately called can be unroped, but “edge” needs to be properly able to move around, securely, while ensuring a nice, happy, and safe environment in the aforementioned “death” or “hot” zone. Terms clearly used to remind you that a single careless act will, not could, result in your untimely expiration.
These days, I’ve found it best to not think about the scary stuff. The old expression of “don’t look down” is well intentioned but unrealistic. Better for me is “look at the task at hand and things you need to pay attention to.” That gives me a focal point and objectives so I keep my mind occupied in a constructive capacity.
Like telling someone to think of anything other than an elephant, instantly they think of an elephant. I’ve needed to scrape the whole concept of “down” out of my mind and fill it with anchors, edge protection, patient comfort and safety, and kilonewtons. Randomly tapping on my carabiner gates to ensure that yes, just like thirty seconds ago, they’re still locked.
I’m still a scaredy cat around heights and have very little desire to intentionally place myself in harm’s way. Gravity never sleeps and the minute you screw up Newtonian physics is there to turn you into a mushy pile of goo at the bottom of whatever you’re on top of. Ladders, roofs, mountains, ski lifts: we should all do these wide eyed, knowing that better people have died doing the same.
But I’ve tried to replace that fear with more helpful things. The other day I tied some bowlines in an old 8mm rope and had some fun. Secure one end to a big rock and the other to my truck’s 8,000lb winch, I had a go at it. Then I did the same with a dynamic load by having it tied off to my truck’s rear bumper as I drove away. Faster and faster until eventually it broke. It might sound dumb, but now I know my properly-tied-tail-inside-double-bowline on 8mm from GM climbing will hold me. There’s more parts to the system to verify (anchors, harness, etc), but piece by piece we can build confidence.
In rescue world, we have dedicated safety officers who are inspecting all the equipment that you can’t see yourself, monitoring for loosening, chafe, and the such. Once you get to know the system, you can start drilling into the component parts a bit more. Coupling all that knowledge with the mental discipline to never even think of the “down” word, one can at least occupy their mind with other things. Things that are productive, helpful, and genuinely reduce the risk of you turning into a human pancake hundreds of feet below.
And then when on flat and wonderful ground again you can shake your head at all these stupid vertical objects on our world and go sit on the couch, where god intended us to be all along.