In my experience, quite often in conversations people will talk about how they used to struggle with heights – or still do.
I think it is important to differentiate between the fear of height, acrophobia and the awareness of height. Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort. I do not believe that most of the time this is what people are talking about, as I struggle to imagine that someone genuinely suffering from this kind of condition would chose to work at height. Having said that there are certainly many variations on the theme: in my experience there are all sorts of reasons why people feel uneasy at height, such as feeling out of their depth, lack of faith in equipment, awareness of height due to an open canopy structure, to name but a few.
I actually find it reassuring to be dealing with someone who is aware of the inherent risk posed by activities at height, as this is something I can deal with. On the other hand someone who, without a foundation to be able to correctly assess and mitigate the risks, comes over all cock-sure and macho frankly makes me feel very uneasy. It is a fact that the subjective experience of height will differ from person to person. I have climbed with people where everything is fine… until the wind picks up and the tree starts to move, then they start to struggle. I always think of trees like aircraft wings, you only need to start worrying when they stop moving in a dynamic fashion, but this is probably not helpful as how we experience height can only in part be influenced by experience and training, there remains another part which seems to be hard-wired. This does not yet make it a phobia, it simply explains how perceptions can differ wildly and seemingly without rational explanation. And this is the kicker: these different experiences of height are indeed not rational, as this is your reptilian brain in action: this region of the brain is described as the oldest part of our brain, comprising the brainstem and the cerebellum. It regulates the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance, it is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive. This explains in part how we can try as much as we want to to rationalise things, yet the reptilian brain bypasses higher cognitive areas of the brain, leading to strong gut reactions in specific situations which we may struggle to influence.
What I have found helpful in challenging situations is to work through them systematically and to make sure that I retain control over the situations at all times. Take the climb in the photo above: This was on a job last week in a large London plane with a very unusual structure, a main upright stem and three others taking off into the blue yonder, the canopy was certainly as wide as it was tall, if not wider. The distance from where the access line into the canopy was installed to the outermost points must have been a good twenty meters. Add to this the fact that there was a lot of empty space below the traverses between the stems, points that were really hard to reach and the need to re-anchor on inclined limbs and then working above the anchor points made for quite a challenging mix. In fact there came a point that I found myself struggling to see how I was going to approach and solve this problem.
Not least because this kind of situation makes my awareness of height more acute, not in a paralysing sense but rather it gives the situation a kind of crystalline clarity: I need to get this right or I am in serious trouble. I find it helpful to break the challenge down into manageable increments, work my way step by step in a methodical fashion: Define the next point to throw the Captain hook to, traverse, make myself secure, redirect or re-anchor, to then assess the situation anew. This will involve all senses and equipment I have on me, constantly striving to optimise my work positioning, getting the most in terms of efficiency and safety out of the gear I am carrying on me.
But above all in situations like this I will have a mantra buzzing round my head which is I am in control. It is imperative that I remain in control at all times, that I dominate the height – and not vice versa. If you lose that sense of control and let yourself be dominated by the awareness of height, you end up in a state of paralysis and lose the initiative and come to a grinding halt
This is not rocket science, all it takes is a level of competence matched to the situation at hand, a bit of self-reflection, confidence in the tools you are working with and your anchor points – as well as spatial awareness.