I don’t remember the first time I felt it, at least while I was awake. It could have been on the Peruvian chair at Snowbird, or perhaps the old Little Cloud chair on the same mountain. I distinctly recall the first time I felt something like it, for it was the centerpiece of several exceptionally vivid dreams in which the already skinny supply of slats beneath my bum on the first-generation Little Cloud double would begin to disintegrate and fall away, one by one, as I ascended. My rapidly inflating fear would wake me, then linger a moment while the comforts of consciousness were restored.
Now I’ve come to accept the fact that an uncontrollable, gut-churning terror could settle over me on any given ski day. I’m happy to report that it’s not automatic. On occasion, I can ride a high chairlift or tram and feel as I used to, that is to say, unfazed, as whatever trigger mechanism that causes fear to snowball fails to fire. Those are the good days.
But even on days when my mind doesn’t begin fogged with fear, all it takes for it to return is for the uphill conveyance to stop.
There’s something special about being suspended… motionless… above an abyss that stirs the chemical stew inside our heads. I suppose it requires some predisposition to acrophobia, but that wouldn’t explain my experience. When I conducted the annual ski test for Snow Country Magazine I had mild chondromalacia in both knees, which I would alleviate between runs by hanging off the chairlift by one butt-cheek so I could straighten one leg or the other. I thought nothing of it.
I was in my early forties then, which I mention as this manifestation of fear of heights may be just one more of the myriad delights associated with aging, like wrinkles, unexplained spots and unruly ear hair. My suspicions are that some part of the aging process may contribute to this predisposition to being terrified, but it’s the height off the ground, compounded by the sensation of being inadequately protected from extreme danger, that sets the stage for fear to take over the moment the lift stops moving.
Bundled up with all my speculations about what led me to this state of affairs are a pair of incidents that tether my fears to plausibility, as though they were only an unpleasant extension of reasonable caution. The first occurred while riding the Headwall quad at Palisades Tahoe with three long-time ski bros. It was a fiercely windy day but the skiing was good, so we didn’t mind that we were being transported into the teeth of a gale. Suddenly, the lift stopped cold; all of us slid a few attention-grabbing inches forward. A ripple of near-miss relief flooded over us as four hands reached up in unison to grab the safety bar.
The second event that memory never fails to bring to the surface when fear intrudes occurred on Thanksgiving Day a few seasons ago. Mike Greenlee, a co-worker at Bobo’s and passionate skier, fell from a chairlift at Palisades Tahoe and broke his back. There appeared to be no rhyme nor reason for his nearly fatal fall, an enduring ambiguity that robs comprehension of its capacity for solace. Mike is never far from my mind whenever I board a chairlift on a windy day.
Why the Group Therapy Session?
So, I suffer mind-numbing angst at the very thought of being stranded in mid-air. Why shouldn’t I do as my parents taught me: if you have a personal problem, the least you can do is keep it to yourself. Why burden my Dear Readers and Listeners with this melodramatic sideshow?
Actually, it was one of your number who alerted me that FOHL – Fear of High Lifts – was an identified form of trauma. (A grateful nod to Dave Porter, who heard my confession about fear of high lifts in my Kristen Ulmer podcast and contacted me about the condition we share.) He contracted FOHL during a 90-minute lift break-down at Vail while suspended at moderately high elevation. His story persuaded me there are many among my listenership who would at least feel less like freaks if they knew they weren’t alone with their affliction.
This is the point in my tale in which I would love to share The Cure, the surefire means I’ve unearthed that banishes FOHL entirely. I can only tell you what has kept me going thus far, and what a brief romp around the Internet suggests is the current conventional wisdom. (For real wisdom, perhaps you should see a licensed therapist, which I assuredly am not.)
First of all, as Ulmer coached me, grok that the fear you feel is part of you. You can’t drub it into submission because you’re just flogging yourself. Accept it, but don’t embrace it. Give your mind something else to do: get involved in a lively conversation, sing a song at full throat or somehow or other engage with those around you. If there’s no one around you, that could be a problem, so never get on anything but a surface lift alone. Sullen solitude is not your friend.
One nugget that Ulmer shared with me that has served me well since is the realization that the fear that rises to fever pitch doesn’t retain the same intensity over time. This too, shall pass, if given a few minutes to burn itself out. The best way I’ve found to keep fear at bay is to occupy your mind with some form of social interaction.
I realize I’m not the first scribe to raise this issue or offer palliatives for the afflicted, but I bring it to the surface again because I don’t hear it mentioned in the U.S., yet my suspicions are it’s all around us, gnawing silently away. (The subject may be more openly discussed by European skiers, as the Alps are home to many gondolas that rise to giddy elevations. For all I know, half the occupants of any given cabin are numb with foreboding.)
I hope that by exposing this often-hidden phobia I will encourage others to share their experiences with FOHL, and reveal whatever coping mechanisms seem to help them. If you, my Dear Readers and Dear Listeners, would care to share your story, please send an email via Realskiers.com with FOHL in the subject line. (Outlook delights in tossing my most important correspondence into Junk, so a distinct subject helps me find the gold among the dross.)
To encourage candid confessions, permit me to briefly expound on my current relationship with FOHL. As it’s not an every-lift, every-time experience for me, I don’t let it dictate if or when I ski, but I do know which particular lifts let fear into the room, and I try to avoid them. I don’t ride single on any chairlift and would just as soon not be alone in a gondola. When I heli-ski, I take a middle seat. When, despite my precautions, fear nibbles at the corners of consciousness, I engage in conversation with whomever is handy and wait for the first wave of fear to rise and recede. Then I do what I have always done: I ski with lightly reined abandon, for when I ski, I am at home and I am safe.
And I’m off the goddam lift.