I think most people’s palms would start sweating 15 feet in the air, hanging onto a wall with colored “rocks” dotting a faux boulder. Mine certainly did when Vertical Dreams manager and climbing guide Lee Hansche had me scaling the indoor climbing wall in the Manchester facility.
Hansche said he encounters climbers on a regular basis who find themselves feeling a little panicky — even indoors, where the risks are low.
“I have a lot of people who specifically come in and say they came here because they are afraid of heights and they want to get over it,” he said. “What I find is that experience is really the thing that gets people past that [fear]. The more times you lean back expecting to fall to your doom and you don’t, it just starts sending this message to your brain that changes that.”
Today, recreational activities like ropes courses and rock climbing walls are so safe, you feel a little ridiculous for being scared 10 feet off the ground. The equipment and safety features prevent injury and falling, but some climbers can’t escape their nerves.
“Usually when people are terrified, they just don’t do it anymore, but there are people that have a strong will that keep on pushing,” Hansche said. “Anybody who has a certain fear of heights has a threshold, whether that’s 5 feet off the ground, sometimes it’s 20 feet off the ground. But it’s funny, when you watch this person climb throughout the day ... they’ll make it to the same point on each wall, and they’ll say ... that they can’t do. If you look around the room, all those spots where they had trouble are all at the same height. And they won’t know, they won’t be measuring, but there’s this internal trigger that says, ‘Oh, this is it,’ and then they convince themselves they can’t go any higher.”
Discover your threshold
“What I always tell people who say they’re afraid of heights is, start from the bottom and do what you can. The other thing I always go to is, ‘Just one move,’” Hansche said when I asked him how he handles climbers who have hit their threshold. “I have a good bedside manner ... a cliff-side manner, we’ll call it. ... I say a guide walks a thin line between being a coach and a therapist, because there’s something that they need to work through in order to continue.”
“One more move” doesn’t seem that bad when you’re on the ground. Hansche had me try two different climbing courses. The first was a beginner’s climb. I started to feel nervous but excited mid-way up the wall. I was moving fast, too — probably trying to get it over with. When I nearly reached the top, I thought I was done, but Hansche hollered up and told me to grab on to the last hold marked in an “x” with purple duct tape.
I did it, but the second climb was more challenging, and “one more move” was easier said than done. But with Hansche’s encouraging words, I kept reaching for that next faux-rock.
Hansche recommends to note which hold you get “stuck on,” when reaching that mental threshold. Once you’re down on the ground, look up and and find a distinct hold just beyond it.
“Make your goal touching that hold. If you always think about the top, and how scary it is to consider going to the top, then you’re going to try and take a much bigger leap than you can handle,” he said.
And I fell. The fall itself wasn’t scary, because logically I knew that, safely strapped into my harness, I wouldn’t fall to the ground.
Maybe I didn’t conquer my fear in one day (and I’m certainly not ready for the 70-foot climb up the elevator shaft), but it was fun and thrilling. It also helps to have a patient belayer and guide.
“You might have a fear of pushing yourself physically, which I do work people through as well,” Hansche said. “In the elevator shaft, we have holes in there that most people who are fit should be able to do. ... It’s just a mental block. … You might be afraid to try something and fail — I get that from people a lot.”
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.