Aim high: four tips to fight your fear of heights

Posted by Carey Davies on 12/06/2014
Has anywhere seen more gripped scramblers than the terrifying pinnacles of Crib Goch? Photo: Alex Messenger

Are you a hill walker wanting to tackle steeper terrain, but nervous about heights? Don’t panic – there are steps you can take to fight the fear.

It’s happened to us all at some time or another; that head-swimming moment when you look down and realise the world is dropping away beneath your feet and a wrong move could lead to oblivion, or worse. Panic creeps up. You freeze, wanting nothing more than to curl up into a ball and teleport somewhere flat again.

A fear of heights is a natural instinct, but it affects some people more than others. At its worse it can prevent you from accomplishing things which should be within your ability. Luckily, there are steps you can take to deal with it – and one of them may involve turning conventional wisdom on its head…

1. Beat your personal demons

It’s important to stress there’s nothing ‘irrational’ about a certain anxiety in the presence of large, potentially fatal drops. Wariness around heights is an inbuilt survival tool, observable in toddlers, and without it the climbing and hill walking community would be a much smaller one.

Some people experience an exaggerated fear, which is when a perfectly normal, healthy instinct shades into the territory of a ‘phobia’. But adventuring in the mountains is likely to stretch and challenge this instinct, even in people comfortable around heights in normal circumstances – gaining altitude is the whole point, after all, and pushing yourself higher goes against survival logic.

Into the mix go negative past or childhood experiences, internalised critical voices and other psychological obstacles. Everyone is different, and where they sit on the ‘spectrum’ of uneasiness around heights is not a simple matter; everyone has their own demons.

The key to coping with all this is a combination of mental and physical readiness, which is obtained through guidance, practice and confidence. You can never fully overcome the fear of heights reflex, but you can learn to manage it.

2. Practice makes perfect

We’ve all seen people freeze and go into panic mode on the likes of Striding Edge or Crib Goch, where even the most basic actions seem to become impossible.  Just carrying on walking or making easy scrambling moves presents an insurmountable challenge.

Exposed situations are unfamiliar to us; this is a big part of what makes them intimidating. We encounter dangerous situations all the time in our daily lives but they don’t faze us because familiarity, repetition and routine have taken away the terror factor. We know to be careful crossing the road, but it doesn’t fill most people with a paralysing dread.

By the same token, you can acclimatise yourself to steepness, height and exposure through a similar process – getting accustomed to it through practice. The more time you spend tackling terrain where height is a factor the more able you will be to cope with both the mental and physical challenges it presents. If you can familiarise yourself with the feel of the rock under your hands and feet, trust your body to do what you want it do and believe in your balance, then the mental confidence will follow.

Practice, as ever, makes perfect.

3. Enlist an instructor

Getting to this stage, however, is the challenge. One of the best ways to do this is by hiring an accredited guide or instructor whose advice and abilities you trust.

It makes a huge difference to be with someone who instils confidence in your own capabilities. Many of us have been in situations where we think there is no way in hell we can do a given thing, whether it’s to make a particular move, overcome a bad step or climb over a hairy ridge. The moment when you actually do it is a revelation, one which will unlock new realms of exploration and possibility. But sometimes it takes another person to give your confidence the leg-up you need to do the thing in the first place. Gradually improving your ability will help replace those bad experiences with good ones.

4. Want to scramble? Try rock climbing first

Common wisdom holds the normal progression of difficulty in the mountains goes from hill walking, to scrambling, and then to rock climbing. But in some respects scrambling is actually the more serious undertaking. Scrambling is typically undertaken without protection, with higher drops involved. The moves themselves may be easier, but the consequence of a fall will often have a lot more finality. No wonder many scramblers starting out find the experience an insecure one.

By contrast, climbing with the security of ropes and gear makes it comparatively safe, at least at lower levels. Climbing gives practice at tackling steep-angled, vertical rock with the added reassurance of protection. Learning to climb to V Diff-rated level will give you a lot more confidence when it comes to scrambling.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the best way to tackle a fear of heights preventing you from getting into scrambling might just be to take the plunge (as it were) into climbing. 

Carey Davies is the BMC's hill walking officer. Follow his feed on Twitter: @BMC_Walk

Expert Q & A

Our expert is Dr David Hillebrandt, mountaineer, GP and medical adviser to the BMC.

Q. Are people with a fear of heights just being soft?

A. No, it’s totally normal. If you fall off something and hit the ground it can kill or hurt you. I can remember going along Crib Goch as a 14 year old and thinking it was horrendous. It’s a natural instinct to caution you and make you realise something is dangerous. Some people will never get over this fear and will never really enjoy hill walking or climbing. But if people want to take that next step into scrambling, then you can help them.

Q. How can people build confidence?

A. There are some brilliant instructors who specialise in looking after people. I’m sure there are classy psychological names for it, but being with someone who oozes confidence makes all the difference; it makes you confident in yourself.

Q. Some people claim to be able to ‘cure’ a fear of heights through psychological techniques – neurolinguistic programming, strange rituals, mental mantras etc. Is this just snake oil stuff?

A. It’s not snake oil, what they’re doing is taking fairly deep psychological techniques. But actually, standing at the bottom of a route and going through the routine of putting a harness and rope on is doing exactly the same thing, without us realising we’re doing it. These little rituals are part of the mental preparation based on experience. You have to associate something with pleasure, but you have to get that feeling to start with it, and that’s what an instructor can give you.

Further info

Hill Walking Essentials DVD

Learn the essential skills and techniques for hill walking from the experts. Includes scrambling. Find out more.

Active Outdoors

Book onto one of our subsidised skills courses, including courses in scrambling at the superb Plas y Brenin centre in Snowdonia. 

Watch the Hill Walking Essentials trailer on BMC TV:

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1) Anonymous User
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Also a touch of evening primrose oil once a week can alleviate vertigo and motion sickness in some people.

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