Don't Let a Little Thing Like a Cliff Scare You

As many of you know, I travel a lot, mostly to photograph.  Recently I was back in Iceland coaxing puffins out of their holes, chasing wild reindeer and enduring hours of sea spray to get the perfect picture of the ice.  But I had a very unexpected experience that really amazed me.  For many years I have had a bone-chilling fear of heights.  How many people does it take to change a light bulb when they have a fear of heights?  Always one more than you have on hand, which means you are all standing around the foot of a ladder looking up at the offending light bulb in sheer frustration.  It's astonishing what irrational fear will do to you, mostly because it is very rational for the person experiencing the freezing effect that happens when you reach the fear point.  You are convinced that if you move even one inch you will die.  It is the most helpless feeling in the world, at least in my world. So I have lived with this for at least 25 years.  Until now.  Without any warning, our incredible Icelandic guide Siggy turned into a narrow little road that he said would lead us to a great lookout.  All you need to do is tell a landscape photographer, or in this case 8 landscape photographers, that you are taking them to an incredible lookout, and you will have them eating out of your hand.  Or in my case peeing my pants (literally), crouched down in the back of our van laughing so hard I was crying.  It was like reverting to childhood instantaneously.  One minute we were shimmying practically vertically up a gravel cow path with a 500 foot drop in our van with not even a rock to keep us from going over the edge, and the next I am uncontrollably laughing so hysterically no sound would come out.  I was like a silent film or a mime, but with a sheen of perspiration and pain in my chest from gasping.

Iceland Sea Stacks
Iceland Sea Stacks

At first everyone in the van probably just thought I was a lunatic, but as I quickly devolved into utter panic crouched down in the back of the van, they began to pity me.  When we reached the top of the lookout (on a sea stack), they very kindly let me escape from the van first so I could lie down in the grass and hold onto the earth.  My photography mentor did coax me slightly towards the edge just so I could lie in the grass and take pictures with a very long cable release while my tripod was perched a couple of yards further than I could go.  It was a spectacular picture I must say!

But of course it wasn't just going up, we also had to go back down the way we had come, which was yet another episode of comedic mime movements in the back seat of the van all the way down to ground level.  I'm sure this was the most memorable point of the trip for everyone else in the van that was trapped with me.

But the amazing piece was after all of this drama.  The next day our guide took us to another incredible spot which entailed miles of vertiginous winding around the edges of narrow cliff sides.  The entire time he watched me in his rear-view mirror, concerned that I would be re-enacting my lunacy of the day before.  But the only thing I thought was that he should be watching the road more than he was watching me in the rear-view mirror.  In fact, I felt .... nothing.  Nothing!  No fear, no anxiety, no panic, no urge to kick out the window next to me and flee.  I could look out the window at the ridiculous drop-off with no guard rail within a foot of the tires of the van and feel perfectly fine.  When we reached the top of a ridge, I could get out calmly and walk over towards the edge and still feel fine.  Wow!  I couldn't believe it.

It's almost like the fear left as quickly as it had originally come all those years ago when I was half-way up a trail on the edge of a cliff-face.  Was this some kind of emotional purging?  Can fear actually be cleansed out of your body and your mind?  Maybe there is something to be said for the idea of going parachuting to get over a fear of heights.  It may be the best colonic of your life, but you may reach the ground never fearing heights again.  I still think it's crazy to jump out of a plane with your life in a bag on your back, but that's a completely rational fear, right?