Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chickening Out on the Chimney Tops

The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Matthew 26:41

The flesh indeed is able, but the mind is weak.
Gulahiyi 11/15/09

The Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dawn broke on this gorgeous November day and I imagined the adventure ahead. By the time the sun reached its zenith, I would be sitting on top of the world, enjoying my peanut butter and blueberry preserves sandwich along with a proud sense of accomplishment.

Alas, it was not to be.

Instead, I would choke down my lunch with a large dollop of fear and shame.

Before setting out to any new place, I like to do my homework. I study my maps. I look up trip reports. I find photographs on Flickr. That way, I have some idea what to expect.

But in the case of a hike to the Chimney Tops, I got more than I bargained for despite my prep work. While the distance is “only” two miles from the trailhead to the summit, I knew that an elevation gain of more than 1300 hundred feet could make it strenuous. Actually, that part wasn’t so bad. After scaling the Appalachian Trail en route to the Albert Mountain Tower this was a piece of cake, by comparison.

When I was growing up, one of the little tidbits of family folklore was that my Mom and Dad had climbed the Chimney Tops back in the 1930s, long before I was on the scene. This was held up as quite an achievement, and I was always impressed. But as I hiked up the trail myself, I began to wonder about the hoopla. This was not such a big deal.

I had read enough to know that the final approach to the Chimney Tops required a climb over a few rocks. And when I rounded a bend and got a closer look at the first chimney, it still looked attainable. I finally reached the end of anything you could call a trail. Nothing but jagged rocks separated me from my destination, and they weren’t all that bad. It wasn’t like scaling a vertical cliff or a rounded mound of granite. This anakeesta rock formation offered an abundance of handholds and footholds.

Watch your step, mister.

Physically, there was nothing to it. Mentally, though, I was starting to have some problems. I was all alone and thought I might be overlooking the trail to the top. So I waited for the next group of hikers. I'd watch how they got it done.

As soon as some hikers arrived at the base of the rock, though, they were expressing the same doubts that had been reverberating in my head. Nevertheless, bolder ones in the group proceeded up the rock and I decided to follow.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is my fear of heights. I prevail over it on occasion. I can force myself to the top of a twenty-four foot extension ladder. I can shingle the roof of a two-story house so long as the pitch is not much steeper than four in twelve. I can walk up two or three flights of a lookout tower. (I made it even farther up the Albert Mountain Tower, but the gale winds distracted me too much to dwell on my fear of height. Go figure…)

It doesn’t make sense. I’ve never had a bad fall. I never got stranded on the ferris wheel. But even at the age of six or seven, standing at the top of a stairway gave me the willies.

On this beautiful November morning, disappointment was starting to set in. Physically, there was nothing to keep me from reaching the top. The only obstacle was in my head. I did push myself to climb a little, maybe a quarter or a third of the way up.

“So far, so good,” I told myself. But I knew I was in trouble when I heard the people behind me chickening out.

“This is it for me. I can't go any higher”

“I’m not so worried about going up. Coming back down is what bothers me.”

Murmurs all around.

I tried to forget what I’d read about the spectacular 360 degree views from the top. I knew I was wimping out and wouldn’t reach that point today.

I made it this far. La de dah.

How disappointing!

Even from my niche on the side of the rock, the view was awesome, but I wasn’t enjoying it very much. I was just feeling disgusted with myself. I hung on for a while, and then began my ignoble descent.

Don't look down.

They were right. It was worse coming down.

Damn it.

Reaching the trail again, I decided the time has arrived for me to overcome my acrophobia. So I’ve been surfing for answers. Millions are afflicted, but the condition can be cured, according to what I have read. Several courses of treatment address the fear of heights.

Since I didn't get to the top, it is very difficult for me to look at this photo...the intrepid souls who made it. God bless 'em.

One possibility is psychotherapy. “Great,” I sighed, “here we go with one of the big scams of modern psychology. I wish I had a hundred bucks for every hour of my life I’ve spent listening dispassionately and nodding ‘uh-huh, uh-huh.’” But these days, you can’t find many people who listen dispassionately and nod appropriately unless you do shell out a hundred dollars an hour. Anyhow, when it comes to curing acrophobia, psychotherapy has a low success rate.

This brings us to another great scam, pharmaceuticals. The strategy is to get doped up with some drug that will eliminate physical symptoms like rapid breathing and muscle tension. Might as well self-medicate, if that's what you're after. Getting drunk or stoned might help some people scale that pile of rock, but it wouldn’t do the trick for me. Scratch that.

Next on the list of possible remedies is behavior therapy. Now this one actually makes sense, in theory. Gradual desensitization can be achieved by taking frequent rides in glass elevators, according to one reference. But where would I find a glass elevator in Cullowhee?

A more drastic type of behavior therapy is called “flooding”:

…immediately introducing one of the patient’s most fearful situations without gradual steps. After literally surviving their worst fear, the smaller steps are not so traumatic. This approach may be used if time is limited or the patient is eager to “get it over with,” and may involve visiting the observation deck of a skyscraper or top level of a parking garage. Flooding is based on the idea that a fear response – the fight-or-flight response to a phobia – cannot last forever, and as the effects wear off, the patient realizes that they had nothing to fear all along. This type of behavior therapy is less common than desensitization, and naturally is unsuitable for patients with a heart condition or other medical concerns that could be aggravated by their reactions to their fear.

I think they call it “flooding” because that is exactly what would happen. No good. No good at all. Those rocks on the Chimney Tops are slippery when wet, and the other climbers would get grossed out.

Virtual reality technology is in the works as yet another treatment, but that might be a while.

Let's try something else. This is a lousy video, but somewhat on point. According to the blurb for this clip, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is the key. NLP is cool. NLP I’ve done. NLP I like. But I don’t see any NLP in this video. I do see people who are attached to ropes. And that strategy is one way I might make it to top of the Chimneys.

It turns out that YouTube has dozens of videos on “fear of heights” so I’m going to be busy for a while.

After the first trailhead sign promising "The View is Worth the Climb," the Park Service posts this warning. But the photo didn't induce vertigo when I saw it. Thanks for the warning. Nice try.

Maybe when it’s all said and done, my brain will be working right, and I will conquer the Chimney Tops.

One final footnote - until today I had no idea my Mom was such a trooper.

I am impressed!

So how in the hell did I end up with acrophobia genes?


It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

-Sir Edmund Hillary


Kathy Stilwell said...

We did Albert Mountain Lookout Tower on Saturday. I strongly resonate with your fear of heights. Good luck with finding relief and please let me know if you find something that works. My husband takes great delight in adding to my terror by going to the edge and pretending to fall off. It doesn't work!!!!
Thanks for the post. I am not forwarding it to my husband because he'll certainly want to cajole me into doing chimney rock...I'm going to spare myself that adventure!! The view would be worth the climb if there was some remedy for the shortness of breath and abject terror that goes along with it.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that somebody else had the same experience. I've hiked the Chimneys at least a couple of times--it's a hell of hike. The pitch is so extreme that I was panting hard most of the way and trying to imagine my mountain woman muse's voice responding. Did I climb to the very top? No way. I let my husband and daughter do that. I sat on the edge and wrote a poem. It's in Black Shawl, by the way. The Lookout. The view was great. I'm not a stickler for making the "summit." I'm happy to be almost there. Loved your panther piece, too. Thanks! A great blog.

dwbrewin said...

Yeah, I've had a fear of heights for most of my life. It got worse after I had a bout of vertigo and now when I'm on a ladder I'm wondering when I'm going lose my orientation to the pull of gravity. Keep us posted on your desensitization.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks, all. I greatly appreciate your comments on this. I've been wanting to go to Table Rock (SC) partly because of one of my all-time favorite descriptive passages, written in 1816. I had laughed it off as hyperbole, but now I'm thinking I should take this more seriously:

Almost everyone, on looking over, involuntarily falls to the ground senseless, nerveless, and helpless; and would inevitably be precipitated, and dashed to atoms, were it not for the measures of caution and security, that have always been deemed indispensable to a safe indulgence of the curiosity of the visitor or spectator. Every one on proceeding to the spot, whence it is usual to gaze over the wonderful deep, has in his imagination a limitation, graduated by a reference to distances with which his eye has been familiar.

But in a moment, eternity, as it were, is presented to his astounded senses; and he is instantly overwhelmed. His whole system is no longer subject to his volition or his reason, and he falls like a mass of lead, obedient only to the common laws of mere matter. He then revives, and in a wild delirium surveys a scene, which for a while he is unable to define by description or limitation.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks again, and I wanted to add a couple of points. For what it's worth, It looked like there were as many chickens and there were eagles yesterday. And it was a great hike...I'm thankful that these outdoor escapades don't always go as expected. The element of surprise is a wonderful thing, and I was surprised to encounter a mental obstacle surpassing the physical challenge. I think the best hikes allow you to go inside while you go outside.

Finding the Oconee Bells in bloom - something I'd looked forward to for years - was the highlight of 2009 for me. I've been wondering what to set as a comparable goal for 2010 and I think I've found it!

Anonymous said...

The first time I was on top of Pinnacle in Sylva, it was ok. The second and third...well I stood 100feet from it admiring and shaking. There won't be a fourth time:) This weekend I didn't feel comfortable on the edge at Deep Gap.

I get physically ill hanging off the side of a mountain or even a 30ft. deck.

Safe with two feet on the Ground:)

GULAHIYI said...

I need to hoof it up to the Pinnacle before long...or better yet, arrange a shuttle and hike from Waterrock down to Fisher Creek. (Yes, I'm lazy.)

It's funny how some of us can be OK with the heights one day and not so much the next.

kanugalihi said...

the only time i went to the chimneys i traveled around the side of the peaks to get to the second chimney. this is not a good idea. what an amazing view out into the great valley, and the bowl across the road and creek from you is a great field lesson in how anakeesta erodes at different rates than the other rocks. erodes not so much as slides away in sheets. spirits move and the wind whispers there. i'm sure you heard it anyway.