Travelling has really opened my eyes to the full extent of my fear of heights. Back in the UK, I always chose cycling as my sole form of exercise and I never tackled any serious hikes. Heights were never something I had to deal with.
While researching what to do in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, some of mine and Tim’s bucket list activities involved scaling volcanoes and steep jungle terrain. These are common tourist activities, I thought, so many people do them- how hard can it really be?
Well, very hard, actually.
It turns out that I’m not just ‘scared of heights’. I’m terrified of steep drops and slippery slopes, to the point where I get dizzy and feel frozen to the spot. The ground swims around in front of me and I feel like I’m swaying uncontrollably when I take a step. Not so great when you’re trying to climb up the side of a volcano in time for sunrise!
I’m absolutely fine in a plane though. Or in a lift. Anywhere that’s enclosed or has a good sturdy handrail is okay by me. My heart rate will jump up on a set of steep stairs but if they’re solid, I’ll be able to get up there. The problem starts when I can see the heights. Ladders, narrow paths without railings, coming down steep stairs without anything to hold on to… these are all my nightmare fuel.
I’ve written about being dragged up Mount Batur by our endlessly patient guide. Mount Bromo wasn’t as bad, but I still threw a miniature tantrum on the steep stairs going up to the rim. It was the jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra that really pushed me to my limit. On the overnight hike, we were constantly going up and downhill. It had been raining so the ground was slippery. Some sections were so steep that we had to haul ourselves up using tree roots.
There was constantly an unending drop into deep jungle on one or both sides of us. I didn’t even need to look over the edge- just knowing it was there made my head swim. I only felt grounded when I had two points of contact with my body and the Earth. This meant that if I couldn’t cling onto a tree (or Tim) when I took a step, I’d either need a hand on the ground or I’d give up entirely and slide forward on my butt. Of course, there were plenty of times where the path was normal and almost flat but it seemed as soon as I’d recovered from one panic-stricken effort, another loomed ahead.
Most importantly though, I finished it. I may have cried, shook uncontrollably and slowed the whole group down a bit but I managed to do the whole trek and I’m so pleased I did. I’ve considered never doing a trek again after Sumatra but I can’t help but feel drawn to do something similar in the future. Even knowing all my limitations, there’s still a little voice in my head that says, come on, it’s not that bad… it’s just walking!
So, I guess I’ll end up clinging to a tree on the side of a cliff again in the future. If you have a similar fear, here are my best tips for travelling with a fear of heights. Unfortunately, even with all of them, if you have a fear of heights, none of these are going to get rid of that. Just take the edge off, perhaps.
Tips For Travelling With A Fear Of Heights
Take Your Time
To be fair, this one will probably happen by itself. When you’re clinging to a rock on the edge of a cliff, you’re unlikely to be moving anywhere fast. However, what I find especially difficult is the feeling that I’m slowing other people down. It makes me panic more and try to rush myself. Let everyone else go at their own pace! You’ll get there eventually.
You better believe if a guide offers to hold my hand on the way up a difficult path, I’m taking it. Yes, it’s awkward at first but they know what they’re doing. They know where to step. They’ll help drag you up. This is what they’re paid to do. They’ve probably held thousands of hands! These are the things I tell myself.
Think About The Big Picture
Wanna hear the main reason I actually finished the Sumatran jungle trek? So, I wanted to quit. Like, so much. I thought about how lovely it would be to give up every fourteen seconds. But then I realised, that’s literally not an option. We were five miles into the jungle! It was a two-day trek, what was I going to do, sit down and wait 24 hours for the group to pick me up on their way out? Not an option! The only way out was through, so I had to deal with it.
Wear Good Footwear
Don’t be me and wear Vans for every single hiking occasion. They really are shite on any surface that’s even the least bit slippery. I wouldn’t want to be carrying around full-on hiking boots on a backpacking trip around Southeast Asia though, so if I could do it all again, I’d invest in some lightweight trail runners. Decent footwear makes all the difference in feeling secure while getting through slick terrain! I hate the lurch you get in your stomach when you take a step and your foot slides out from under you. Wearing Vans, it happened every few metres. Ugh.
I saw a girl hiking up Mount Batur for sunrise with a pair of hiking poles. When I saw her just after we’d set off, I laughed. Overkill, I thought. An hour later and I wanted to be her. It would have been a very different hike with some poles to help me! Especially since I only feel secure with at least two points of contact with the ground at all times.
Keep Doing It
I want to be able to say that the more you deal with heights, the easier it gets. In my experience, it doesn’t. If anything, the more frequently I get that rush of fear, the worse it is each time. Yay! It’s important to not let it actually stop you doing things though. I mean, I know I’ll never attempt mountain climbing or become a trapeze artist. I’m just not going to let a little stomach-churning-dizzy-making phobia stop me from seeing awesome things all over the world.
I’m never doing a damn jungle trek again though.