I don’t know for sure when I developed a fear of heights. I remember walking around at Mesa Verde in Southwest Colorado when I was in school, and I remember climbing on walls and walking across the tops of tall walls, but I don’t remember having any problems.
I remember being uncomfortable on Royal Gorge Bridge–especially when 1) I looked down through the gaps in the wood planks and 2) I realized they were wood planks. Eventually I got out to the middle of the bridge and was able to look over the railing, I don’t remember having any problems at the Grand Canyon.
I wasn’t able to go up to the roof of the World Trade Center during a trip to the 1981 Boy Scout Jamboree. I seem to remember being worried about losing my hat in the wind–I’ve mentioned before that I’m good at making excuses. I was also initially reluctant to back up against one of the windows when we were told to line up in our patrols. (Why is it always “tall people at the back?” Put the short people at the back for once.)
The first time I remember not being able to do something because of heights involved very basic rock climbing at Ben Delatour Scout Ranch North-Central Colorado. For reasons I don’t remember, I joined a hike to a nearby rock structure. The climb up was pretty easy and the heights didn’t bother me. However, at one point I remember we had to use a rope to climb over a small rock outcropping. I started up, but my foot was slipping and the rope felt kind of loose. I vaguely remember the guide saying to just climb and that my foot would stick if I just trusted my weight to it. I tried a couple times then just walked away, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone around me.
The first time I remember panicking was at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London during a university trip. I’d been pre-freaked by having to walk around the whispering gallery, which sits at a nice 99 feet or so above the splatter zone. The nonchalance of other people–who were leaning over the railing or leaning against it–whilst my brain was going “that was last renovated in the 17th century”–triggered the early stages of panic. When we got to the top, I practically had to be dragged out on the top of the dome. In fact, I only went out because the only survivable way down could only be accessed from the balcony.
Strangely enough, this is only an issue with buildings. I have no problems flying. I don’t mind looking down the earth from that high. Some of that may have to do with a notion I’ve heard sky-divers describe: they’re more afraid climbing scaffolding and ladders than jumping out of planes. The brain can’t comprehend 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, but it does comprehend 30 feet or 300 feet.
My brain also comprehends the notions of things breaking and structures failing. My imagination kicks in and I can see the 340 year old railing collapsing. I can see the 290 foot high sky bridge in the NS Building in Tokyo falling during an earthquake. Once such things are comprehended, panic sets in.
I’ve been working on the fear by visiting tall buildings when I can. I had some trouble in the glass elevator of the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka–the hanging escalators were also freaky–but I enjoyed the visit. I’ve found that it’s other people that set off my panic. If I could go to the Whispering Gallery by myself, I wouldn’t start panicking. I also watch videos of insane Russians climbing things. When I can’t look, I practice breathing and try to calm myself down.
As a test, I recommend the pictures on this page. If you think you’re not afraid of heights, watching these, fools, er, folks, might change your mind.