Who wouldn’t want to do all the spectacular things that the professional mountaineers who grace the covers of all our favourite magazines do? You know, those superhero-like characters who make climbing big walls look easy and run along terrifyingly narrow ridges like it’s no big deal. It’s amazing, they seem to have absolutely zero interest in the seemingly endless depths that lie beneath their feet.
True, not all of us have to be THAT adventurous, but most of us do have a desire to tackle routes and paths that require “surefootedness and a good head for heights”, right? Well, in the following, we’re not only going to clarify what that phrase entails but also help you figure out how to get to the point where you read it and can say with absolute certainty: “Yeah, I’ve got that”.
Let’s get things started with a question: Why can some climbers pull off the most acrobatic of moves with 1000 metres of air beneath their feet, whilst others feel paralysed the second they get as high as three? Does it just take some getting used to? Is it training? Are some people just built that way? Or does it have to do with genes?
Whatever the reason, some people have visual height intolerance, whilst others don’t. If the feeling of anxiety begins immediately after you leave the “safety of the ground”, you might even have acrophobia, which is otherwise known as a fear of heights. Visual height intolerance and a fear of heights are by no means the same thing, as you will find out shortly. They are similarly troublesome, but very different phenomena that require different approaches (provided that you’re interested in mitigating or eradicating one of them).
After addressing these two topics, we’ll also take a closer look at surefootedness, since it’s often mentioned in the same breath as having a head for heights. We’ll also try to figure out if there’s a connection between the two and how you could potentially benefit from it.
What is visual height intolerance?
We’ve all experienced this to a certain extent, some of us more severely than others: you’re standing on a tower, balcony or some high place and experience a feeling of instability, queasiness and trembling. Depending on the height and degree of exposure, you might even feel like everything is spinning or swaying. And you’re not wrong, at least to a certain extent. Things look like they’re spinning because of the lack of stationary objects in your peripheral vision. Stationary objects are essential as a reference to help orient you. Your head then automatically begins to sway slightly so that the eyes can create a sharp, three-dimensional image of the surroundings. This can then spread throughout your whole body, impairing your postural reflexes.
As a result of disruptive breathing issues (usually hyperventilation), you may also experience a feeling of dizziness akin to the one you get after standing up suddenly after squatting for a long period of time. In the most extreme cases, you may even feel like you’re losing control over your body and are about to fall. Dizziness can lead to paralysis, panic, fainting and unconsciousness. If you do nothing, things can get extremely dangerous (more about what to do later).
This blend of feelings is known as visual height intolerance. Depending on the situation, there is nothing abnormal or pathological about this bodily reaction. On the contrary, some research suggest that a healthy fear of heights is an innate, subconscious survival instinct that prevents both small children and animals from simply falling from a drop-off (cliff-edge phenomenon). The real danger arises when we physically and psychologically overreact to the risk of falling. We might not be in any real danger at all, but we end up creating or increasing the risk of falling because of these overreactions. It is particularly dangerous if your body starts to sway back and forth, which causes more stress and can thus lead to a fall.
When do you have a head for heights?
The “trick” to having a head for heights lies in the severity of stress reactions: Simply put, the subconscious doesn’t perceive the ground below as a threat. As a result, all those warning signs and symptoms associated with stress hardly manifest themselves – if they do at all –, allowing you to maintain your concentration on your immediate surroundings. Thus, you perceive your position and posture as safe and stable, even when the path or route is very exposed.
The good news is that you can change and reduce the amount of stress you experience by systematically desensitising yourself to such situations and using various other methods to combat the anxiety. But, before we get into that, it’s worth mentioning that there is no clear distinction between having and not having a head for heights, so we don’t really have a clear definition to work with. According to Wikipedia, having a head for heights means that “one has no acrophobia, an irrational fear of heights, and is not particularly prone to fear of falling or suffering from vertigo“. “Not particularly prone” implies that you could be somewhat prone to a fear of falling.
Based on my own experience, I suspect that for most mountaineers height does indeed play a role. While most would probably be unimpressed by a 30-metre drop, a 300-metre one is a completely different story. Whether or not they experience a spinning sensation also depends on how steep and direct the drop is. The steeper and more direct the drop, the less there is for the eyes to “hold onto”, so while many alpinists can move relatively uninhibitedly in exposed sections of a route, they would never walk over a steel girder on a skyscraper or transmission tower without the protection of a rope. That kind of nonsense can be left to extreme athletes, crazy(?) roofers and other people who work at great heights and could be described having a “head for heights”.
What is acrophobia?
If an individual experiences an irrational fear of heights in everyday situations, such as when climbing a ladder or crossing a bridge, one could say that he or she suffers from a fear of heights. The stress reactions occur despite the fact that they’re well aware that they’re not in any real danger. They can work themselves up to the point that they have a fear of the fear itself, which goes hand in hand with the fear of losing control. They’re afraid of being drawn toward the depths and tumbling down to the ground below.
True, people with a “normal fear of heights” have these thoughts as well, but they usually disappear as soon as they take a step back from the edge. If you’re truly acrophobic, the thoughts persist and the stress ends up restricting your freedom of movement, even in everyday life. These cases require action, often in the form of professional treatment. Now let’s talk about what you can do about visual height intolerance.
Immediate strategies to cope with visual height intolerance
Take a deep breath. This little piece of advice almost always works and has the added bonus of helping with dizziness. Taking a deliberately calm, deep breath and holding it in for a bit is the best way to respond to a spinning sensation. You should also look away from the ground below and focus on stationary objects in your immediate surroundings, keeping them in your peripheral vision. Avoid tilting your head and looking up, into the distance or at moving objects, as they will increase the feeling of dizziness. Of course, you can make quick glances toward your feet to adjust your footing, since the spinning sensation usually arises after a delay.
Then try to stabilise your body as much as you can by giving your hands and feet the support they need. If necessary, sit down or crawl on all fours. Then focus on your immediate surroundings, next steps and movements. Some encouraging words and a short rope can help to overcome difficult sections as well.
If these situations come up repeatedly or lead to significant delays, you should play it safe and call off the ascent.
Immediate measures to cope with acrophobia
A person with acrophobia would certainly never be in a situation like the one described above, but let’s assume for the sake of example that an acrophobic individual does head up into the high mountains – be it because of them overestimating their own abilities, peer pressure or whatever. The only difference between the situation described above and this one is that there is significantly more stress, time and “drama” involved. I say drama because it is entirely possible that the person in question feels absolutely paralysed and refuses to move, even with the help of a rope or other protection. In theory, sedatives and other medications could help, but they also inhibit motor function and responsiveness, so they should only be used for the ride back with mountain rescue.
In general, though, if you lack the experience, practice and techniques, there’s really not much you can do in acute emergency situations that arise as a result of somebody’s fear of heights.
Long-term training to combat visual height intolerance
The basic recipe for success is simple: Through repeated practice, you can become accustomed to exposed places and greater and greater heights. You can do this by deliberately putting yourself in situations at, say, the climbing gym or during less ambitious outdoor activities that would usually induce fear. Once you find yourself in the situation, wait until you feel the fear subside. If you give yourself the proper dose, the fear will indeed subside. Ideally, you will gradually start to close in your personal limits and eventually push beyond them. Do keep in mind that such training methods rarely lead to an unflappable head for heights. After all, there’s got to be a biological component at play as well.
It’s important to remember that when desensitising yourself to heights, you should also wear the proper shoes and take bodily cues and warning signs seriously, as you would on every other trip. In a German magazine called Merkur, the therapist Petra Müssig who specialises in acrophobia points out other factors that are normally never associated with visual height intolerance:
“Your endurance, strength, walking technique and equipment should conform with the requirements of the routes you choose. In an estimated 70% of all cases, a fear of heights is initially caused by fatigue or exhaustion, which can be traced back to a lack of physical fitness!“
Therefore, strength and conditioning training as well as selecting and planning your activities accordingly can help prevent you experiencing anxiety and dizziness in the mountains. If you work on your balance and coordination (balancing on tree trunks, kerbstones, etc.) as well, you can reduce the severity of body sway when you start to feel dizzy as a result of height exposure.
A previously rehearsed repertoire of exercises for breathing and muscle relaxation is also very helpful. This allows you to calm yourself down more quickly and effectively when you start to feel dizzy.
Long-term training and therapies for acrophobia
If none of these methods helps, you should consult a doctor to see whether you have any issues with your balance organs. If you can exclude any physical causes, you may very well be acrophobic. In this case, a look inside yourself is always a good idea. You may have a fear of heights because of unresolved inner conflicts of some kind. Competent medical and psychological consultation can be very helpful. Behavioural therapy is often recommended in such cases.
However, uncovering and analysing those internal causes should only be the first step in the process. It’s not at all rare for people to get stuck at the first step and “forget” to take the active steps to put an end to the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to sound judgmental. It’s only a “problem” if it prevents somebody who loves the mountains from enjoying the mountains to the extent that he or she would like it to. If the person in question doesn’t consider their fear of heights to be a problem, then it isn’t a problem.
I also don’t want to come off like I’m claiming to have any qualifications. Since I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I can’t make any concrete recommendations, nor will I refer you to any. What I will do is provide you with a great source with tips on how to overcome your fear of heights that you can find here. In any case, it’s easy to see that a fear of heights is anything but a simple phenomenon with single cause and that it can take intricate individualised paths to even begin to overcome it.
What is surefootedness?
We’ve all seen people fluidly and gracefully skipping, hopping or jumping down the steepest of trails, cliffs and scree slopes like it ain’t no thing. This amazing ability to walk safely on any surface, even at higher speeds, is referred to as surefootedness.
What does surefootedness have to do with a head for heights? Well, they’re interconnected because of the effect they have on each other. While a feeling of dizziness can have a negative effect on your surefootedness, a lack of surefootedness can make you feel dizzy and unstable. Conversely, the more surefooted you are, the safer you feel in treacherous terrain and at great heights. You may have heard or read at some point that a head for heights is a prerequisite for surefootedness and vice versa, but that’s only partly true. Plenty of people are extremely surefooted and graceful when hopping over tree trunks and brooks, but don’t have a head for heights. There are also plenty of rock climbers out there who have a head for heights but aren’t all that surefooted. Such climbers have more trouble getting down scree slopes than they do climbing up a wall with super-tiny footholds.
Of course, there is an indirect connection as well: the more surefooted you are, the better your walking technique, coordination and sense of balance will be. And, these physical abilities influence the reactions of the brain and subconscious mind in exposed terrain where there’s little for the eye to work with.
Improving your surefootedness
You can improve your surefootedness with surprisingly little effort. There are loads of training options on fitness or trim trails, sports grounds or even grassy or asphalt areas. A simple and effective option is to stand and walk on bricks or wooden blocks. If you can’t find either of the two, you can simply draw them on whatever surface you’re training on. You can then experiment with variations and higher levels of difficulty and gradually increase the overall difficulty of your training, but do be careful. For example, you can increase the distance between the markings you’ve laid out, if you have mastered a certain setup and distance.
Exercises with rocks are obviously more realistic because they can move (which you should try to prevent by applying your weight evenly from above). If there’s a kid’s birthday party in your future, you can take part in some sack races or egg-and-spoon races as well.
With confidence, surefootedness and head for heights, outdoor adventures are safer and a whole lot more fun. :-)