Since 2006 Will4Adventure have been running courses to help people find a cure to a fear of heights. Over those years we have learned quite a few things, helping clients with a fear of heights. Here we offer some insight, tips and advice for leaders in the outdoor industry on how best you might deal with a situation where one of your clients might be gripped with fear and glued to the spot …

image of walker with a fear of heights sat on Park House Hill in the Peak District

Working with clients who have a fear of heights

What’s going on?

Imagine you’re in your car driving at speed down a motorway when the car in front of you suddenly brakes. Without warning, you see those rear lights illuminate in a full red glow and their car boot is getting closer at an exponential rate of knots.

At this moment your fight or flight mechanism will take charge. This is called amygdala hijack. The amygdala is located centrally in your brain and it is extremely good at responding to and processing incoming messages from our senses and internal organs. In a split second, the amygdala tells the rest of the brain that it is in control. (The back of that guy’s car is fast approaching and there is no time for a consensus of opinion within your brain).

The frontal lobes, which are large and very good, though relatively slow, at processing information release control to the amygdala. The amygdala pumps you full of adrenaline, and raises the heart rate which gives your muscles blood, oxygen and strength for this perceived threat, but which is also, all very tiring. In these split seconds it amplifies your senses and it screams “left turn, right turn, straighten up, pump the brakes!” …

And then phew. You breathe, the immediate threat has been neutralised by the actions of the quick thinking amygdala and your brain congratulates it once again on a job well done, thus reinforcing the chances of it all working again like this should such a threat present itself.

The amygdala has its place and its role to play. The problem comes however when it kicks in too easily. For example, this may be the person who has frozen at the top of an escalator in a railway station, or maybe the client who has walked up a hill, but faced with the view, struggles to walk back down again. Or any number of countless situations we as outdoor professionals may find ourselves in.

Prevention

You don’t have to be facing the Eiger to have someone freeze up on you. It might not be a mountain, but to some people the Great Ridge in the Peak District might as well be. (Particularly the ascent up Back Tor).

Knowing your clients is really important. But so is good clear communication from the outset. People ask me if I ever have problems with my clients whilst out on adventures with them. And when I think back, actually I don’t think I do. People turn up on my walks knowing if it’s going to be an all day monster hike, or just a short stroll. As well as telling people that they may be exposed to heights, I also have pictures and links to video clips to show them what is going to be involved. As much as possible when people book a course or adventure with me I want them to do so being as fully informed as possible about the nature of what lies ahead.

Tricky situations however can occur with corporate teams. Typically one person is taking the lead and the rest of the team are kind of expected to follow suit. Especially on days like these I try and introduce my team to aspects of steep ground while the going is easy to escape. This might be walking the team up to a grand view from the vantage point of a high edge. Look at your team, are any of them particularly hanging back? Or, if you see some easy rocks you can scramble up, take that opportunity. Encourage your team to deviate from the path to join you in this playful activity. How do they move? Is anyone particularly reticent? The same applies when I take children or novices rock climbing: I get them to lower off their first climb while they are still within reach of the ground. Essentially it is better to learn about and deal with any issues before they become a real problem.

Use this key information to help you decide if your plan A needs changing somehow according to your client team’s needs. (Just as you would if the weather looked as if it was going to deviate from the forecast). This is all part of your dynamic risk assessment.

Positioning

If you know that one of your team is nervous at height always consider where you will position yourself at key moments. This could mean that if they need to climb a small step your best place might be to stand behind them. Alternatively when walking down a steep slope, walk directly in front of them. Not only does this block the view but it gives them a sense that you will also stop them from falling anywhere. If it means they move more confidently then this will probably be the outcome!

Pre-empt the situation

Let’s say you decide to stick with your plan A. We lead people on adventures after all and we are all about taking people out of their comfort zones. (Especially me: that’s what people with a fear of heights come to me for). Or more simply the circumstances conspire that your client is unexpectedly and all of a sudden, out of their comfort zone. This happens to all of us at some stage wherever we are at in our career.

I have clients who particularly wish to challenge themselves at height. I have lots of walks here in the Peak District I use that fit this purpose. One such walk is a traverse of Chrome Hill and Park House Hill.

First of all, as described above, I will know my clients and know what level of challenge they’re up to. Of these two hills, Chrome Hill is slightly kinder than Park House Hill so I will do that one first and see how they get on. But at the end of the day I’m working with people who come from a background of having a fear of heights so it’s really important to get into their heads.

When I walk up a path I constantly think about how this view, this wind, this ground and all these stimuli will be perceived by that amygdala in my client’s head. If I can register something now then I can be sure my client will be doing so but on a much bigger scale. In turn I might try and pre-empt the situation.

I never down-play what the situation is. This is not a time for good old British understatement. (The Hillary “step” – ha!). They will not thank you for such a stance. While things are calm, talk about what lies ahead. Describe it first as how they will see or perceive it, and then describe it how it really, rationally, is.

“As you look up the hill side, it may look impossibly steep and you won’t be able to see where the path is. But as we get closer you will see one traversing upwards to a crest. You will also see that the path is well worn, clear and actually quite manageable. As you head up that path your eyes will see the infinity of air and space beyond the crest. Don’t worry, you are not going to suddenly appear at the top of the Eiger; but instead on an even and spacious platform of grass. The view down the other side will be a big view, but actually you will see it is simply a grassy hillside and one that is not as steep even as this one …” And so on.

Also a part of this communication is explaining exactly how many times they can expect to be challenged. Try not to get this wrong. But if you are unsure, tell them you will make it clear that once it’s all over and you know for sure, that they can then relax.

By talking through what they will be faced with, how many tricky bits there are, and showing them how you understand exactly their thoughts you will be creating a relationship based on TRUST through empathy.

Ok – so now the situation has escalated … What to do

It’s rare things ever get this bad. If you have judged your client and the situation well in the first place then it’s unlikely that you will ever get to the point that a member of your party is glued through panic to the ground/rock/mountain. But if it does happen, you need to calm them down, and then get them moving to somewhere that they agree feels safer.

When helping clients with fear of heights the first thing you need to do is calm the person down. You need them to stop thinking with their amygdala but instead with the big information processing parts of their brain: the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are good at processing information rationally. This will take a little time and the person may be in a hurry to get out of this situation. Ok, here are some do’s and don’ts:

  1. Don’t forget the rest of your team. Take a look in their direction and check they’re all sat safe first.
  2. Do get your client to try and control their breathing. “I want you to breathe in through your nose, and slowly exhale. Ok, with me …”
  3. Don’t tell your frozen client “it’s fine, you’re fine, there’s nothing to worry about … ” – or words to the effect of “look even my 6yo kid can do this”. This won’t show empathy, understanding nor lead to their trust in you. Do tell them that you will take good care of them. Do tell them that you will stay with them. Do tell them what you are doing through a running commentary.
  4. While they’re focused on breathing calmly, tell them you really need them to listen to what you’re going to ask of them and to try their absolute best to answer your questions.  (The amygdala is just too small to answer hard questions, or to manage complex tasks, so the frontal lobes have to take over and these allow the person to think a bit more rationally). Ask them for their phone number. Then ask for their phone number but in reverse. Alternatively can they sing you a song? Singing or music is great for making those frontal lobes work. (Climb Every Mountain is probably more suitable than Stayin’ Alive).
  5. Keep them breathing calmly!
  6. Tell them your plan and if possible break it down into chunks/achievable goals.
  7. Try to get them to move as normally as the position allows. For example standing upright offers a better more normal balanced position. Leaning forward on all fours means that their shoes will be shearing away from underneath them and in turn they will feel less secure.
  8. All the time tell them that they’re doing great and how you are getting closer to that safe-finish.

Once you’re in a position that feels safe for them, get them to drink some fluids (they’ll have a dry mouth) and to eat some food since they’ll need to recoup their energy levels. Talk about what’s next.

Does this sound like you?

Maybe you have a fear of heights or maybe there’s something going on that is stopping you from say climbing better. If you find yourself frozen on the crag ever, try doing the same. Sort out your breathing, and then say your phone number in reverse. You may find it just calms the head enough to make that next move!

Don’t reach for the rope – when a reassuring smile will do

So don’t reach for a rope if you can avoid it at all. Chances are, the consequences of a slip in these situations is probably not that great anyway. But thinking about how you position yourself in relation to your client, and how you speak to them can make all the difference.

Further Reading

UKC.com – Playing With Fear February 2018
The Scientist – January 2018
Esquire Magazine – How to Cure a Fear of Heights March 2017
UKC.com – How to Conquer the Fear of Falling – November 2016

Will Legon (of Will4Adventure.com) works professionally in the outdoors leading groups walking and instructing rock climbing. Since 2006 Will and his team from Will4Adventure have been helping hundreds of people overcome their fear of heights.