Four weeks ago, I posted a Revelation and attendant podcast titled, “Fear of Flying.” In it, I divulged that I have developed a syndrome that it turns out is not all that uncommon, at least among skiers old enough for membership in AARP. Several readers responded to my saga with tales of their own, silent battle with this affliction, with several noting that realizing others had the same issue at least provided the comfort of knowing they weren’t alone.

As the subject of fear of high lifts, or FOHL, seems to have struck a chord, I wanted to share some of their stories in the hope that these personal histories will help others cope with their anxieties. I’ve omitted all my correspondents’ names to respect their privacy. Some material has been edited or omitted to stay on point. 

I’ll begin with the email that kicked off this discussion, along with a pair of revealing follow-ups.

THANK YOU!  I enjoy everything you publish and appreciate your responses to my inquiries. You are the ONLY ski source I listen to, read and engage – and I refer folks to your musings while I refer your ski boot fitters to them- it’s a win/win/win.  And incredibly, after my working in Utah over 30 years ago –  my wife and I recently made the commitment to purchase a home and move to Park City to “retire” so I can be close to my favorite ski areas: Alta, Snowbird, Deer Valley and my newly discovered Powder Mountain.

OK, so the reason for this email is the “needle in the haystack” question you asked the skier turned Alta Psychologist (Kristen Ulmer) during an interview that caught me completely off guard – and has been a study of mine for the last 10 years and more so since I was stuck on a Vail chairlift for over 90 minutes at a moderately high-altitude spot.

I’d almost quit skiing because of it; “FOHL” – Fear of High Chair Lifts.  I couldn’t believe THAT was something you had developed.  It makes me wonder how prevalent it’s become among older skiers.  You cannot imagine how it’s impacted my outlook on life!  As much as I liked her interview and answer, in my opinion she failed on her reply to your question…

Since I know it’s on your radar screen, I imagine you have resources or input beneficial to me and others who have the issue or are fighting it.  The solution, as I’ve come to realize (allowing me to ski 41 days last year and 32 this year) is not as challenging as it might appear.  I’m a student of life and not a teacher, so although I spend time on it to keep me skiing and living – I don’t have all the answers and am always interested in discussion and input.   If you think it’s relevant (and I believe you do), I’d love to get on some type of link and share thoughts.

Anyway – I wanted to reach out and say THANK YOU for all you do for the ski community.

The Dear Reader’s follow-up to my reply:

I continue learning of folks who don’t ride certain chairlifts due to height, only ride lifts with safety bars or have stopped skiing all together.

Ironically, my last day this year was at Powder Mountain with my son.  As we got on our first lift, I realized we didn’t have a pull-down bar. I hadn’t been on one in years and immediately jumped off (at 10+ feet) – freaking out my son and thereby realizing “I still have issues.”  Note – I skied all the rest of the day in wonderful powder – just avoiding certain lifts.  So – to some regard – yes, I continue to “have it handled,”  just clearly not at 100%. 

Afterwards, I contacted my cousin who is a Clinical Psychologist (Stanford/Harvard).

She suggested a top Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (who happens to practice in Park City).  After a brief consult,  I have my 1st appointment with him early November. 

I’m determined to continue understanding how I can ski so many days, ride hundreds of lifts – yet still have fears.  I believe it’s acrophobia, which is typically caused by an episode – yet mine began long before I was stuck on a Vail lift in 2021.

Either way, we move to Park City February 1 and I have every intention of enjoying skiing for many years.

The most recent communiqué from this Dear Reader shed more light on the subject:

Yes, I read Fear of Flying and as usual it was absolutely wonderful writing and full of imagery – especially of the problem. I hadn’t realized your level of concern.  From the feedback you’re receiving it might indicate we’re just scratching the surface. 

My immediate reaction is concern with suggestions that include “avoidance – NOT riding lifts solo, avoidance of certain lifts, or a change of thinking when “thinking” occurs.   These are old, outdated band-aid solutions that deal with symptoms while hiding from what’s really happening – and ultimately leads to less skiing among our aging brethren – exactly the opposite of what we want.

Consider this – If we don’t have any concern with low chairs – and then at some point of elevation we do –  then it’s our “thinking” creating the issue – in other words,  I don’t have a FOHL issue – I just “think I do.”   For example, for decades when I got a cavity filled, I would get Novocain shots and yet would sit in the chair with my arms and feet crossed and more than a bit of tension as my dentist drilled.  I asked her about her patients and she said approximately 15% are tense, 15% sleep and the rest unaffected.  Now, at the dentist I acknowledge my thought for what it is (my dentist-office thought), don’t focus on it and it passes – and relaxation comes.   I’ve done this so often over the past 2 years that it’s all but disappeared – now I rarely cross my arms or feel any stress. Should it arise, I would not consider avoidance.   It’s disappeared by acknowledging the thought, not the symptom.   

There’s a whole new world of acknowledging our thinking vs. old school of challenging, changing or denial.  This also applies to depression, fear of flying, alcoholism, athletics, business, anxiety.  

So why am I visiting with a shrink?  Answer – because I jumped off that lift – not due to immediate fear, but uncertainty.  If I want to join the Park City ski club and travel/ski at various mountains then it’s a good idea to put it on my goals, along with the fact that I turn my skis much better to the right than the left – which is also part of my goals.

From Another Dear Reader:

Thanks for your FOHL revelation. I truly thought I was alone never having met a single skier with this issue. My ailment could be described more as FONB – Fear of No Bars, with a minor in FOHL! While the height of a lift is bothersome, I am unable to ride a lift without a bar. 

It was not always this way for me. I grew up skiing on the east coast, with periodic trips west and Europe. I do not recall the height of a lift, nor the lack of a bar, ever being an issue. Of course, in the East most states require a bar so it was not something I had to ponder. I am certain I rode many older bar-less lifts at Alta, Vail, and other ski resorts without issue.

About 4 years ago we moved to Summit County, Colorado. While the Vail resorts have bars on all lifts, other do not. I no longer buy a pass at Copper because many of their lifts I would enjoy skiing have no bars. I did not ski Loveland until last season because until then, none of their lifts had bars. Thankfully Loveland rectified that situation. At A-Basin, I rode the old bar-less Pali lift holding on for dear life with clenched fists, fearful I would be magically catapulted forward out of the chair. Thankfully the new Pali has bars, although it is much higher and that does cause trepidation for me.

I believe your remedy, never ride alone, may be helpful to me. Funny thing is, I have been doing exactly the opposite. Riding alone whenever I could, afraid of being embarrassed should my chair cohorts discover my FOHL/FONB. I plan to try your way this season.

Thanks for sharing your FOHL. I feel better knowing I am not alone.

Another Dear Reader echoed these sentiments:

I am a 74-year young skier, been skiing since age 6. No FOHL until around age 60. I am a retired Family Physician and have seen all sorts of anxiety disorders but not FOHL, except myself. Now I am not alone. I now ski locally at one hill in Minnesota where there are chairlifts with safety bar and footrests. I now ski out west at Vail only, because they have all high-speed quads with safety bars and footrests. I am happy in gondolas since my reptilian hindbrain knows if I pass out, I will not fall to my death. Helicopters OK, too. I do not know why this happens at this stage of life but it sucks (maybe Mortality is getting too close?).

In reply to my reply, this Dear Reader wrote:

Most common phobia I saw in practice was fear of flying. Therapy seemed 50-50 in effectiveness (small sample). Also, different therapists use different approaches, so like a lot of life, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Relaxation techniques, mindfulness, breathing exercises, mind games, etc., are all used.  If you haven’t tried it, I would say give it a shot. Medication can help – Xanax helps me some, but causes tiredness, propranolol is used for anxiety due to speaking before crowds with some success, but can cause fatigue also.  

On a more humorous side, my ski buddy that I used to always spend a week at Snowbird with (pre-anxiety days), knew an instructor who noted her client seemed nervous on a chairlift. She asked her if she was afraid of falling off, and the client said no, she was afraid she might jump off, and might grab her instructor on the way down!

I can relate to that, since my worst panic seems so uncomfortable, jumping off almost seems logical. That same friend was showing me around Squaw Valley (pardon the old name), and took me on the Red Dog chair – worst ride of my ski life.

On a different note, the best man at my wedding 41 years ago just had a brain hemorrhage and is on life support, doubt he will survive. Just another reminder at my age I intend to enjoy every day of skiing like it could be the last, anxiety or not. 

Another Dear Reader joined the chorus of concern about FOHL:

I have developed a similar concern about heights over the last ten years or so. I track its source to a ride up the Falcon Chair on Peak 10 at Breckenridge on a very stormy day. I was wearing a small daypack, which naturally moves me forward in the chair about 6″. At the highest point in chair elevation, there was an unanticipated stop, pitching me slightly forward as I grabbed the bar. That seemed to sow the seeds for realizing how high in the air I have been hanging for these 50+ years and will at times still give me pause.  

It has even carried over to other occasions. For example, when paragliding behind a boat alongside my wife, towed by a boat in the bay at Cancun. I was NOT enjoying the complete suspension so high in the air with just the harness around us attached to a long rope down to the boat. She was having a great time, not the least because of MY discomfort!

Glad to hear I’m not the only one!

Several responders could trace their FOHL to a single experience:

FOHL is rare for me, but a few years ago, near the end of one of my first days ever skiing the ski resort formerly known as Squaw Valley, my friend and I decided to ride the Red Dog triple chair. At some point on the ride up we were pretty high above the ground and out of nowhere came this feeling of great insecurity about how safe I was sitting on this chair so high up. The seat of the chair felt like it shrank in depth to the point that a fall would be inevitable if the lift stopped suddenly. Being only two of us on the chair we each were sitting next to one of the riser arms of the chair so holding on tight to the one on my side and to the back of the chair with my other hand helped calm my nerves until the ground eventually came up to a short distance below the chair.

Maybe my subconscious mind was recalling the uncomfortable rides I took on the old Paradise triple chair at Crested Butte which had no safety bar and took its riders high above the gut of the mountain. I hated finding myself in the middle seat position on that lift with nothing to grab on to except the skiers on my right or left if the lift jolted to a stop.

As long as a lift has a safety bar, I have no problem with the height above the ground, but sans safety bar, I guess I will always be susceptible to panic attacks if I am not distracted by animated conversation or having my eyes and mind focused up the mountain, or somewhere else, so I’m unaware we have gotten high enough that a fall would be consequential.

Maybe the mishap I shall now relate, and its narrowly avoided consequences, reside deep in my subconscious just waiting for a trigger to remind me I escaped once, but might not be so lucky next time.

Remember when Stowe opened its first gondola circa 1970? I was on Christmas break from college and with some friends and was staying at the Vermont State Ski Dorm a short walk from the single and double chair lifts serving the front face of Mt. Mansfield in those days. The temp was -40F when the lifts opened and I was stupid enough to want to ski regardless of the temp. My friends stayed in bed. Those were the days, you may remember, pre-global warming, when New England could get extremely cold, and some ski areas provided wool blankets to bundle around idiot chairlift riders. Thanks to the blankets and warming breaks I survived the morning. 

After my brain thawed out during lunch it suggested I should seek shelter for the rides up the mountain in the new gondola and check out the new trails it served. On one of my rides up the gondy the mechanism that releases the gondy car from the tow cable released the car I was in prematurely just as the car was about to enter the top terminal building. The result was not a car dropping off the cable and onto the building floor, but the car dropping so that the wheel that normally supports the cars as they slowly proceed as skiers disembark dropped down and caught on the top of the haul cable where the cable was still tilted downhill. In no time at all my car was speeding down the rather steeply inclined cable toward the gondy car coming up behind it. I was sharing this ride with a complete stranger and we both saw the oncoming collision and moved to the uphill seat and braced ourselves with our feet against the downhill side seats. The impact was sudden and loud, cracking some of the plexiglass windows in our car, but miraculously our car didn’t bounce off the cable and drop the long way to the ground. If it had, I wouldn’t be here recounting this. All this time the lift had not been shut down so the car we had just crashed into pushed our car up and into the top terminal, where a lifty grabbed our skis and handed them to us as we got out and asked if we were OK. Replying yes to him, he then wished us a good run and that was that. 

Knowing I came within millimeters of the gondy car’s wheel bouncing just a little off to the side of the cable and not holding on to it during the collision, I have a healthy respect to the consequences of a drop off a lift, no matter how deep the snow under it may be. Fortunately, in spite of my gondy mishap, I have no reservations, or fear, about riding any trams or gondolas, just non-safety-bar chairs that get higher than usual above the ground. However, I never again skied on a -40-degree day. At those temps, one never knows what might malfunction.

This Dear Reader concluded his tale with this provocative suggestion:

Any Revelations up your sleeve about music and skiing? What sound track plays in your mind as you shove off down the hill? Some people sing while skiing. I sometimes whistle while skiing, as does Scott Kauf. Greg Stump must have an amazing mental juke box to select from to accompany his turns. Mikaela has particular songs playing in her earbuds as she either mentally calms her nerves pre-race or psyches up and energizes in the start area. Your metaphysical inclinations might lead you to discover a skier with chromesthesia whose white world can turn into a technicolor riot when certain notes strike his or her ears. Wouldn’t that be fun!

I realize this was a bit of a slog for anyone who neither suffers from nor cares to hear about FOHL.  I thank you all for your kind forbearance.

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