When I was little, one of my favorite pastimes was to climb the tree in our backyard that grew up through the deck. From there, I could play on the roof or just climb as high as I could in the tree. Being up high felt like freedom; nobody can see you and you can look down on everything. It’s definitely a different perspective from where a child typically sees the world on a day-to-day basis.
I continued to scale trees (and houses, and fences, and ladders, and just about anything) throughout my childhood and into my teens. I thought nothing of climbing a ladder to help a friend with his college house painting business, and always enjoyed being up above the world, until one fateful day when I took a road trip with some friends to Yosemite National Park.
Mostly, we went because we thought it would be a fun weekend day excursion. We drove the four or so hours to Yosemite and made our way slowly through the park, stopping every so often to take photos or just play around. At one point, my friends decided that it would be fun to scramble up one of the domes, and I was completely game. Being young, in shape, and relatively stupid, we decided not to use a trail but just to sort of go straight up to the top. I didn’t think I would have any sort of a problem with it, as I’d always been fond of both outdoor activities and heights, but as we started to climb the rock I found myself out of breath. At the time, I was running regularly so I knew I was in decent cardiovascular condition, so I chalked it up to being at a higher altitude. Then, my heart started to race. The palms of my hands got sweaty and my breath was more and more shallow, and I started to freak out a little bit because what the hell, man?
I figured if I just kept going, it would all pass, but the more I climbed the worse it got. Tears ran down my face, and my friends (one of whom was my ex boyfriend, and all of whom were male) thought it was hilarious. But it was really, really not funny. In fact, it was pretty damn scary. I was 21 years old, in great shape, and having a panic attack while scrambling up a not-terribly-difficult dome in Yosemite while my friends pointed and laughed.
We made it to the top, and I was so concerned that I might freak out even worse on the descent that I swallowed my pride and asked College Ex to stick by me in case I needed actual physical help. He realized at that point that whatever was going on with me was actually serious and he stopped laughing. Luckily, I made it down far more easily than up had been, though I did kind of ruin the butt of the pants I was wearing. I didn’t care; I was down. We continued the drive through the park and end up on the Nevada side at Mono lake, and then drove a different way home. I brushed the entire incident off, thinking it was probably just a freak occurrence.
A couple of years later, I happened to be in Santa Cruz with some friends, on the UCSC campus. We were there to celebrate a birthday, and the birthday person proposed that we go climb a redwood tree that had ropes and steps bolted on to simplify the process. (Redwood trees are not made for climbing, especially once they get past a certain height, unless you have spikes on your shoes or someone’s kindly provided a ladder for you.) Everybody else merrily made their way up the tree, and I made it about four steps up before I realized that I Just Could Not go any further. Couldn’t force myself to do it. I felt like I was going to pass out and throw up at the same time, when my blood pressure spiked and I broke into a cold sweat and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. What was wrong with me? I loved climbing trees, had done it since I was little! I was no pansy! I wasn’t afraid of heights…right?
It was only after the tree climbing debacle that I wracked my brain to try to figure out why all of a sudden I just couldn’t get more than a few feet off the ground without freaking out. And then I remembered that my mom’s severe vertigo that has kept her grounded for longer than I’ve been alive…was adult onset as well. She’d merrily climbed trees in her childhood, she’d told me, but when she grew up she just couldn’t do it. I’d spent my whole life thinking she was silly when she wouldn’t climb a ladder to go on the roof, or when she got upset driving next to a dropoff…and here I’d gone and inherited the adult-onset vertigo from her. Great.
It’s been nearly 10 years since that Lembert Dome scramble, and my first height-induced panic attack. I did manage to climb Half Dome in 2002, though to be fair the only reason I was able to do it was because it was dark so I couldn’t see the drop as I climbed the stairs and then the cables. (Yes, it was probably less than legal for us to do the cable climb at night, and it was certainly illegal for us to sleep on the top, but to be fair we only slept until about 4 AM (arrived at the top around 11) when the first of the Half Dome trail runners got there. And we didn’t leave any waste.)
Since then, I’ve found myself bothered by sheer drops on one side of the road when we’re driving (like the Durango to Silverthorn highway), and I can’t seem to get more than four steps up a ladder without starting to panic a little. I even have a hard time watching scenes in movies that show the POV of a steep drop, since that seems to trigger my vertigo more than being next to a drop myself for some reason. It’s totally irrational, and totally ridiculous, and totally miserable. I miss being able to climb things.
On Sunday of this past weekend, Dan and I went on yet another hike, something we try to do at least once a week. He found one in an area we’d never hiked before, west of Sedalia (which itself is southwest of Denver). The point of the hike is to make it to the fire tower, from which one can see nearly 100 miles in any given direction on a clear day. It took us longer to get to the trailhead than we expected, and we had one false start, but once we got going it was a lovely trail, ascending about 1000 feet over 1.7 miles. The weather looked like it was perhaps not going to cooperate, but by the time we got to the tower it was a little bit overcast, and we heard some thunder, but it didn’t seem too bad.
I looked at the steps, and I looked at the tower, and I looked at the sky, and I said to myself, Self, you can do this. Just go fast. Fast fast fast. I climbed all 143 steps repeating “Look at the steps. Look at the steps. Don’t look up, don’t look down, just look at the steps” and was at the top and climbing across the rock to the tower before Dan even made it halfway up. I didn’t quite run them, but I went superfast, took deep breaths, and didn’t allow myself to be scared. Up in the tower we found an older gentleman who has spent the last 26 summers living in the cabin at the base of the rock and sitting in the tower, looking for forest fires, all day long, every day. It was a pretty neat experience.
The fire tower had a huge lightning rod, so I felt pretty safe on the climb up and the climb down in that respect, but I had to take the stairs down nearly as fast as I’d taken them up, which in some ways was even more difficult because I’d already hiked 1.7 miles and climbed 143 stairs, so my legs were tired and noodly. When I made it to the bottom of the steps, I waited for Dan to come down, and when he reached the bottom I mentioned to him how proud I was of myself for making it up and down those steps. Because damn, yo. I totally did it, and I didn’t have a panic attack. Go, me!