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 …
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.
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.