Over the years we have helped hundreds of people, (maybe more), to face and to overcome their fear of heights. Every now and then someone has asked me if I have ever had a fear of heights myself. In case you didn’t know, the answer is yes. Fortunately for me though, time spent with Brian on our Fear of Heights courses means that these days my head is better equipped to focus on my climbing rather than on falling. But, I still need to invest time in myself, and to continue to push myself with more challenges.

image showing four climbers getting ready to climb in snowy Scottish mountains of Glen Coe

Gearing up on day 1

What’s good for the goose …

Unless you continue the journey there’s every chance you’ll end up at square one. And, that advice equally applies to me.

This past week, I have spent a week, mountaineering in Scotland. I’m a member of the Austrian Alpine Club, and an opportunity arose to join a heavily subsidised winter mountaineering course.

I’m a summer mountain leader well used to summer conditions and not used to operating on snow and ice. In the past, my mates and I have pottered around on some easy grade winter-climbs, but we have never really pushed ourselves. I saw this five-day course as my opportunity to do just that. I wanted to be able to climb harder routes, routes that would be more exposed, more of a head-game and all round more of a challenge.

Five days in Scotland

We arrived in Glen Coe and we were immediately asked to write down a synopsis of our previous experience. Now was not the time to be shy! If I wanted to climb harder routes I needed to be sure not to sell myself short. In turn I was teamed up with Mal, Dai and Chris: all experienced rock climbers, leading at about the same level as myself with some winter climbs under their belts too.

With an expectation of knowing that we knew what we were about, we were simply told to be ready to go the next day for 0815. We were told that it would be a mountaineering day, not a climbing day, so just the one axe would be required.

Well, there’s the first head game to be played. One axe means we’d be on ground that wouldn’t be too technical or too demanding. But it also means that we’d all be short of the security that comes from having a second axe to hand. It’s a bit like being told we’d be doing some really easy rock climbs – just bring the one arm. It also assumes that we’re the sort of experienced people that won’t be worried about having just one axe. The head is a funny thing and it likes to play its games!

Practising abseils through a cornice from a snow anchor. Picture credit Simon Verspeak.

I constantly tell people not to let anticipation ruin their day. It was time to heed my own advice and so I duly packed the one axe and met up with the others.

Simon was to be our instructor for the first two days: a highly experienced and qualified mountaineering instructor. As it turns out, he also knows me. He knows I’m an experienced mountain leader with many years, under my belt, working with clients in the hills and mountains. He doesn’t know that right now I’m slightly anxious about the day ahead … or is it excited!? I convince myself it’s the latter. Not going to let anticipation ruin my day.

And so it was. We spent the day getting back to grips with how walking on steep snowy ground feels. Placing our weight above our cramponed feet. Building snow anchors and then abseiling from them. All in all a good day – though I was a little unnerved as we daggered down the steep snow pack, kicking steps … (All unroped).

On our second day, Simon took us to do an ascent of Stob Ban via the South Gully (a grade I route). Keeping an eye on us he was happy as we made our way higher and higher up its steep snowy flanks. And to be fair, with still just the one axe, I was too. Somehow that exposure to yesterday’s steep ground was enough to remind me I can work in this environment: I’m just not used to it.

“Always good” he said “to try and build a belay, the moment you see one available” … as we ascended past various text-book anchor points. The slope got steeper. Blanking height and exposure from my mind, I wasn’t going to be the one to say anything. So long as we kept going up, kept moving, kept focused on anything but the ever increasing drop below I was doing ok. Then Simon said, “Right, let’s stop here and dig a bucket-seat.” Balls.

Gearing up before heading up to steeper ground on day 2

Dai, my partner that day was first up. He dug a seat, buried his axe as a back-up, and put me on the rope. That was a consolation at least.  Then off I went up this slope. Looking either side for cracks in the rock to place some gear. There were none.  I kept going up, with rope feeding out beneath me.

There comes a point where having a rope on just becomes the rope of death. You run it out so much that if you slide off, it can load the anchor below you so greatly that it just pulls your partner off as well. With the weight of the rope reminding me of this fact, and by now a good 40m on, I decided that the rocks would offer me no help here: I too would have to dig in.

On my front points and toes I start by carving out a slot in the snow-pack to stand on. With my feet now better placed and standing flat I commence digging out a bucket seat in which I can sit. I am stood to one side using the only axe I have to do the digging. My other hand feels like it could really do with a second axe right now!

Seat dug, I kick in a few steps upwards and start the process again, higher up, to dig in the axe that will act as my back up. Left arm getting tired now and feeling precarious. Feeling a tad out of my comfort zone. I rationalise, it won’t be a fall I take so much as mighty long slide. A fast mighty long slide which at worse will end in a few bruises maybe. Agh – stop thinking Legon, keep digging.

Funny how that amygdala tries to take control. It happens to all of us, and so long as we are aware of that, we can stay in control of our emotions.

Seat dug, axe buried, I put Dai onto belay. He now starts ascending the slopes. Phew – safe. One by one we top out through the cornice at the top and I’m reminded how bloody brilliant mountaineering is. The clouds have cleared enough for the sun to break through and warm my face. The views are magnificent. I am in my element. This is GREAT.

Rope run out high above Dai – me looking for a potential belay anchor

Me climbing through the cornice and finding the warmth of the sun once more. Picture credit Simon Verspeak.

Descending down the wonderful north ridge of Stob Ban at the end of a great day. Tricky but GREAT fun.

I was out of my comfort zone that day, but I reckon Simon judged the whole situation perfectly. By allowing me to be out of my comfort zone I have grown a bit and developed a little more courage and confidence. This feeling of being high up on a snowy mountain is becoming less strange to me now. I am conditioning my brain to these new experiences and enjoying it!

On the Wednesday we were broken down into pairs and joined by a new instructor: Stuart. Like Simon, Stu came with a wealth of experience and qualifications. With an eye on the increasing wind speeds Stu suggested we climb that day, a classic grade III route, SC Gully on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

We trudged off from our car and eventually made it up to the coire (basin) that sits beneath this impressive mass of rock, snow and ice. Our route was easy to see. It was the obvious gully in the middle peppered with black rock showing through. “Don’t let anticipation ruin your day Legon … No, that’s excitement. This looks brilliant.”

Our route SC Gully headed up the middle. Looks steep – and in places it was! Fantastic introduction by Stu to grade 3 Scottish climbs at their best!

Tied into the belay following the crux pitch with an easy last pitch to go. With the wind chill it must have been around – 30 degrees Celsius.

Once more, unroped we made our ascent up the steep snow slopes. Once at the base of the rocks we built the belay and roped up. When it came to my turn to climb the crux pitch, pulling myself over rocks as well as desperately trying to find some purchase with my axe in a slushy patch of ice ahead of me, I questioned if I could lead this route? Not yet was my answer. That would be a step too far: this was after all my first foray onto ground at this level. That’s not fear telling me that I’m not ready – that’s rational reason speaking.

On Thursday we headed to the Eilde Canyon and spent a day ice-climbing frozen water falls further developing our experience on this new medium. By the end of the day I knew I was ready to start leading routes myself (as opposed to seconding). I was hoping that Stu might hand us the rope in turn and tell us to give it a try. Alas, he didn’t and we weren’t able to progress this journey just yet. (It’s hard to make the call as an instructor working in the outdoors. On the one hand you want your clients to be totally safe, but simultaneously you want them to learn through new challenges and to take on new risks: it’s always a fine line).

Last route on Thursday – Malcolm following me up Palenque (grade III)

Our last day and the wind speeds were gusting at plus 60 mph over the mountain tops. I was intrigued what Stu would pull out of the bag. We would happily have accepted an easy skills day at the local quarry and that would have been an easy option for Stu. But he had other ideas … He’d found a a grade 2 gully that would be shielded from the wind and that also allowed for escape along a “shelf” that meant we wouldn’t have to top out in what would have been suicidal conditions.

We made our way up towards the west face of Aonach Dub. The grade II gully that Mal and I were to lead could be reached via a potentially tricky scramble, or by a grade IV ice climb up 60 meters of a frozen waterfall. The decision was unanimous – we’d take the ice-climb any day!

Once again we tied into the ropes. With a decision to go light Stu had packed a 60m rope and a shorter (maybe 30m) rope. Stu would lead the route, build a belay and then Mal would second, with me following up at the back. This meant that before Mal would have got to the safety of the stance where Stu would be tied in, I would have to start climbing.

This isn’t ideal. I knew that if I took a fall, that Mal would be taken with me. The system would catch us: we’d be safe all right, but as I say, it’s not ideal. It was additional pressure on me not to fall off and slightly unnerving.

Ice climbing is new to me. It’s a funny sensation. You gently swing your pick into the ice and using your senses you try to gauge if it will hold your weight when you go to pull up on it. Sometimes your axe goes through the ice and bounces off rock lying beneath the surface. Sometimes the ice just shatters. Sometimes you swing the pick into the ice and you see fault lines emanate from the point of contact, water bleeds into the cavity below, yet still this may be a hold that works. And sometimes you just swing the pick into the ice, you hit a sweet spot and you know instantly it’s going to hold.

Even though I describe all this to you now, this is still new territory for me, and so my amygdala, that ‘acorn’ at the back of my head was vying for the space to be in charge. I managed to keep it at bay and to think about how I would move into balance. It was a funny sensation, scary but really good. Good since I was acquiring new skills and growing in confidence all of the time.

Stu sets off on grade IV ice-waterfall, The Screen

Following our ascent of the Screen we swiftly set up for leading the grade II gully ahead. Malcolm was first off while I hung back on belay relishing the warm blood now surging back into my gloved fingers. Warmth was a fleeting moment however, as Mal fought his way up the gully through spindrifts of snow and ice-patches: the biting cold soon made its presence known to me once more.

Our ascent of this gully was easy for us but gave Stu an opportunity to watch how we placed gear and built our belays. As I rounded the top flank of this route and tied into a final thread-belay I could see our escape route off to the left. Tenuously, you could call it a shelf. As far as I could see this snow covered ground sloped steeply off down into the ravines and gullies below. One slip could have severe consequences.

With Mal safely beside me, Stu tied into the system and headed off on a precarious traverse to find the next anchor. The rope ran out and moments later Stu was tugging us on the rope. Mal and I untied from our anchor and then together we daggered on all fours (like scuttling crabs) our way across the slope.

For the past two or three hours now snow had been falling. The tracks of the previous climbers had been totally obscured and while Stu said nothing I figured that maybe the risk from avalanche might have increased from moderate to considerable during this time. Every now and then the high gusting winds whipped around the buttress of rocks abutting our left-hand side and reminded us that we were high up and and in a potentially precarious situation.

I knew exactly how Stu our guide would be feeling. He’d be weighing up the changing situation, watching to see how we, his clients were coping, anticipating what might happen, solving problems before they arose, continually and dynamically risk-assessing. He’d be earning his money right now – that was for sure.

We must have repeated this sketchy routine three more times before Stu told us to untie. From here we would dagger our way down. No more traversing – just the ritual of kick, kick, stab, stab, kick, kick, stab, stab, down down down. Eventually I could see the angle of the ground becoming more shallow. Stu had turned about and was descending facing outwards, albeit zig-zagging down.

I followed suit and considered how much my confidence had grown exponentially during the course of these five days. I chuckled a little bit. It was just like when my clients meet me on the Saturday afternoon on the heights courses, not yet sure of what they are capable of, only to see a complete transformation 24 hours later.

Of course Stu got us down safely. Ours was the last car in the car park but we’d escaped without needing head torches. It had been an ace day and a great experience for me to reflect on how we can all be affected when out of our normal comfort zone.

And that’s just it isn’t it. When we’re adjusting to a new activity we’re not going to feel comfortable and maybe a bit of fear is a good thing to have: it keeps us alive. It doesn’t have to control us though.

With practise and continual exposure to new challenges, and with experience, we learn to adapt our emotional responses to these stimuli and the more we do so the more we are capable of operating positively in these arenas. Personally I can’t wait to get out and to put my new found skills and confidence into action. Roll on the next deep freeze!

And never, let anticipation ruin your day!

Wonderful panoramic views from the top of Stob Ban

More Challenges to Aspire to …

Keep up the good work! For graduates of our Fear of Heights courses here are some challenges coming up.

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

Learn more about the  Austrian Alpine Club here.
Chasing the Ephemeral: 50 Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter
Scotland’s Winter Mountains With One Axe – niche guide book for those early forays

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