What is it like to have fear of heights in a mountainous country? Austrians have absolutely no understanding for this. So how to get over it? By sucking it up and skiing, and falling, and skiing, and falling, and skiing again until I didn’t fall
I’ll never forget my first time on an Alpine lift, in Kitzbuhel. Halfway up, I was utterly convinced I’d slide out, plummeting to a certain death in the snowbanks below. I clenched the chaise’s rail until I could get out and regain composure. I admit it: I am not schwindelfrei (“dizzyness free”).
I first experienced acrophobia on a five-meter diving board, age 11, ultimately taking the plunge, but only once. My second bad brush was in my 30s, on a magazine photo shoot at the Trapeze School New York. Standing on a lofty platform and rigged to safety ropes, I trembled uncontrollably. The (Austrian!) photographer said my shakes were visible from the ground (here, too, I swung out and even twirled before dropping into a net, but it was horrible.)
I am an American flatlander. I was born in a desert town near the Mexican border. My parents are from North Dakota, a state so flat you can see clear across its amber waves of grain. I was a competitive Nordic skier in high school and university, skiing uphill more than down. Mountains? I did study in Vermont – where The Sound of Music’s von Trapp family established the first American Nordic center near an Alpine ski area, but the mountains there are rolling knolls compared to the Alps.
Back to Kitzbuhel: In Austria, family pressure forced me to learn to Alpine ski at age 41, and the process was arduous. I started on the bunny hill with three-year-olds, then I had two days on real runs with a crusty old-school instructor named Lois. My Nordic experience was a plus, but not good enough: Standing atop any steep run sent me into spasms of fear. I didn’t know how to edge. I learned, slowly, but the fear lingered. About a year later, on my first solo foray, I found myself on the crest of a run of moguls and had another panic attack. I called my now ex, who laughed and said he’d done that run at age six (note to Austrians: this is not how to assuage flatlander fear). There was no way back; only down. I had to suck it up.
I skied around one mogul and fell in a heap. I got up, skied around two more, then fell again. I got up and made it further, then fell again. Each time I lasted a little longer on my feet. At the bottom I felt exhausted, but energized. I kept skiing; a couple of years later I realized the panic had entirely disappeared.
Like many things in life, mastering snowy altitudes takes practice, persistence and lots of patience. Gently take your flatlander friends to higher heights, and we can climb every mountain.