Vertigo on the rocks

September 25, 2008 by Machteld A. Smith, Senior Editor

I am climbing a cliff in Mesa Verde, Colorado. My goal is to reach the exit gate of Balcony House before I panic and fall. The cave that accommodates Balcony House–a spectacular cliff dwelling built around 1,200 AD by Ancestral Puebloans and located about 1,000 feet below the 7,000-foot mesa top–was created by rivers and oceans eons ago. I find the fa├žade’s first foothold (not OSHA approved) after having climbed a relatively short ladder from the “house.” While hanging on to the slightly swaying chain-link that’s anchored in the cliff at vertical spots, it dawns on me I’ve got nowhere to go but up. My husband coaches, “Look at the next step.” I am worried about hyperventilating–losing my grip. I acquire shin bruises clamping onto and leaning into the last rungs of the final ladder to safety. Then, I reach the ranger, nonchalantly sitting at the top gate, dangling his legs freely over the cliff’s ledge. It scares me to look at that. My breathing is now so loud I figure everyone can hear me.

The group stands at the cliff’s edge looking down at the path. Not me. I cower and hide low to the ground as far as possible from the ledge, shaking for the next 10 minutes. I did it! And–although proud to have ventured beyond the edge of my envelope–I will not do it again.

Just another checkride
The climbing adventure happened last week, several days after I passed my commercial multiengine checkride. With the new ticket fresh in my pocket, I felt quite boisterous, even confident about conquering my fear of heights. But when I climbed the cliff an unreasonable fear took hold of me–one I could not dispel.

Prepare and conquer?
While visiting another dwelling (Cliff Palace) the night before, I had explained my anxiety to the ranger. Would he recommend Balcony House considering my fear? “Climb this exit ladder and two-thirds up look left. How you doing?” he asked when I got there. “OK, that’s enough,” I thought while I looked into the abyss. But apparently it was not–I needed to push that personal envelope a little farther–and we both knew it.

Got similar experiences? Please share them, I’ll feel less silly and know I’m not the only pilot with this phobia.


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