Acrophobia (from the Greek: ἄκρον, ákron , meaning “peak, summit, edge” and φόβος, phóbos, “fear”) is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort that share both similar etiology and options for treatment. Most people experience a degree of natural fear when exposed to heights, especially if there is little or no protection. Acrophobia sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and become too agitated to get themselves down safely.
This story begins at Ke’e Beach at the trail head of The Kalalau Trail, along the Napali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii considered by Backpacker Magazine and one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the USA. Well, it actually started weeks before when we booked our flight to Kauai to do this hike. In my old age I’ve become increasingly fearful of heights. I’ve never been a big fan, but I would never consider it a full blown phobia. The day we arrive in Kauai it was raining and we’re told it’s been raining for the past 3 weeks straight. We have also been told the trail is even more dangerous when it’s been raining. To exacerbate my already heightened anxiety we talk to a few people coming off the trail that look as if they just wallowed in a pigpen. I mean they’re covered in thick red sticky mud from head to toe. One guy tells me that “Crawler’s Ledge” wasn’t even the most scary part. The slick as snot red clay hills are, which there are two, perched on top of dangerously steep cliffs. Another guy tells me that “I wouldn’t do it if it’s raining. I’d turn around” My brain starts to conjure up thousands of different ways I’m going to fall to my death.
The next day we get started out on the 11 mile one way hike with large amount of elevation gained and lost. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day and it was, but I was still very nervous about my ability to do this dangerous section of the trail. The trail immediately starts to ascend and round knife edge ridges 500′ above the raging surf far below. So far so good, because the trail is wide and the exposure so far has been within my tolerance level.
We arrive at the half way campsite in the jungle of Hanakoa Valley and it’s a great disappointment, because of all the trash left behind from amateur hikers, the muddy campsites and the lack of a good view, but we make the most of it with a hike to a nearby 2,000′ waterfall. We come back and have H. H. and while sitting there enjoying our cocktails of Rum and Gatorade in walks a hot young blonde woman wearing nothing but a pair of sandals, a backpack and a smile. She seems to be going to the waterfalls we just hiked to, which I thought was a bit ambitious, because it would be an additional 4 miles, and she mentions in passing that she was doing the whole trail that night. (without headlamp) I don’t know how some people survive out there in the wilderness, but this girl was quite literally a “Babe in the Woods.”
The night starts to fall so we make a fire, only to see our young ambitious hiker pass through our camp site again. By the big smile and the look on her face it seemed like she wanted to strike up a conversation, but Jen must have gave her some kind of secret girl vs girl gang sign that said “keep on going“, cause she left immediately after looking Jen’s way. Off she goes into the fading flickering light of our camp fire as if she is some sort of mythical woodland nymph.
We have a couple more drinks and finish up our gourmet meal of freeze dried Lasagna. The fire being feed with driest waterlogged branches I could find keeps wanting to go out, but I’m determined to keep it going. In almost complete darkness in walks James silently out of the jungle and into our campsite with dreads down past his butt, barefoot and without a headlamp. He’s British and a well established world traveler. He seems famished for conversation, which is good because I could use a little distraction from tomorrow’s impending doom. James is witty, light hearted and has a good sense of humor, so the hour long conversation was entertaining even though I cannot recall a single thing from it, maybe because I have other things on my mind.
We end the evening nicely saying goodnight to James and go to bed early when the terror starts brewing in my mind once it’s silent, and I have time to think about the next leg and most dangerous section of our journey. Like an epic battle between rational and irrational fear I picture myself in great detail in thousands of different scenarios of falling to my imminent death. These nightmares play over and over again in a constant rotation of a never ending stream of personalized horror stories like a faucet of pure terror. I toss and turn in a cold sweat in the middle of the night like a prisoner condemned to death on the last night before their execution. Some of these nightmares are so real I can still feel the breeze in my hair and the angry bees in my stomach as I’m falling for like ever to the rocks thousands of feet below. As irrational as it may seem to someone un-afflicted by this phobia, it is all too real for me at that moment. I am overcome by it and it has taken full control of my mind. I cannot shake it no matter how hard I try. It’s a never ending state of panic, an all engulfing fear of surely falling to my death, which my mind does not even question it’s inevitability. I run through the various scenarios of what I would be thinking, feeling or how long I would suffer once I hit the ground. Would it be a split second, minutes or hours before I die? Would I be seeing my life flash before my eyes or would they be shut in a fading scream as I fall? Trying to calm myself down I let my irrational fears think it’s won the battle by saying “I just wouldn’t go” so I could get some sleep before dawn breaks, which was about the time I finally did fall asleep.
The dawn breaks and we get up and start getting packed, but I cannot contain my fear any longer and tell Jen “I don’t think I can do it.” At this moment I was willing to give her anything not to. On the other hand there is nothing anyone could give me to do it. I am totally overcome by this fear that has been building up for months, stoked by movies like (please watch this clip when they’re doing Crawler’s Ledge) “A Perfect Getaway“, internet reviews and the fact that it’s Backpacker’s Top 10 Most Dangerous Trails. I think I’m having a nervous breakdown, quite literally! We are both crying for two very different reasons. Me, because I’m in the total grip Acrophobia and Jen because she’ll be alone in Paradise. We reluctantly agree to go our separate ways after a long difficult discussion. Me back to the car with my tail between my legs in complete shame and humiliation, and Jen onto a dream she’s been dreaming about for months. I’ve already got it figured out that I’d sleep in the car and she’d spend a day out there and come back the next day. Our bags are packed up and I’m feeling something I’ve never, ever felt before in my entire life, an epic and complete mental failure to control my fear. At this time I am willing to face the shame and humiliation of family, friends and even recent acquaintances at the campground we’ve been staying at. No matter how hard I try I cannot over come it’s grip on me. At this point, I’ve just given in and we kiss goodbye with tears in our eyes. We are about to go our separate ways when I suddenly feel that constant flow of fear that has been plaguing me for the past 24 hours has suddenly shut off like a kink in a garden hose. The building pressure is strong and I can feel it in my racing pulse, but the sheer terror has almost completely stopped. As I turn, about to take my first step in the direction towards the car I say “Well, I’m this close I’ll just go and take a look, since it’s just another mile to “Crawler’s Ledge.” I can feel the fear immediately start creeping back, but somehow I’m able to shut it out. I take a few steps forward not knowing if I’ll be able to do it, but also highly aware that I’ll have to do the same series of ledges and cliffs on the way back. I tell myself that I can do this, and strongly believe that if I don’t it could be the start of a very bad and dangerous downward spiral of not facing up to my fears, or having it turn into something else like Agoraphobia, or worse yet becoming a general disappointment to someone I love.
I take the first step past the sign saying “Dangerous Cliffs” ahead. It’s terrifying, but I completely shut down that part of my brain and just stare at the ground ahead of my feet like a zombie, even though the scenery is amazingly beautiful. The trail looks like it leads straight down to raging surf with cliffs for miles in both directions, so if somehow I do survive the fall into the ocean, I’d just be a swimming pile of fresh bloody chum for the sharks to eat alive. We get past “Crawler’s Ledge“, but according to the guy at the parking lot the worse is yet to come. Jen says “Yeah you did it“, but I keep looking down at the trail not wanting to celebrate until we get there. We press on past one gorgeous view after another from high atop knife like ridges, but alls I can do is look down at the trail.
The sheer drops feel like they’re trying to pull me over the edge like a force stronger than gravity alone, but I hold tight to any exposed root, branch or tree I can get my hands on. This hike is not easy, even though 11 miles would be a normal hiking day for us back home in WA, but this trail just keeps on going and going with little seen progress. Plus, it’s nearly 80 degrees out and coming from 40 degree Seattle, the heat is nearly killing me. We don’t see anyone coming or going, so huh could it be they all died trying? “Keep calm Jim” I keep saying to myself in the third person. We press on past one glorious view point after another. The North Shore is lush green jungle clinging to dramatically steep cliffs and ridges kept that way because of daily rain in the winter months. The dramatic views are extraordinary when I do look up. I mean they’re breathe takingly beautiful and I take a snapshot or two when I’m feeling brave enough, but rarely do because my camera blocks my view of the trail and somehow my balance. Not a reassuring feeling when you’re at the edge of a 500′ sheer drop into the ocean below.
The end is near and I feel like I just had accomplished a major milestone in my life. I’m not kidding when I say that, because I never felt more relieved or had such a sincere sense of accomplishment in a long time. I just conquered one of my biggest fears and now I am being rewarded by entry into this secret secluded Naked Beach Club Paradise. I feel like I’m starring as Leonardo in the Beach, except now one dies in this one. This place is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. Nothing like it before and we’ve done a lot of great hikes and adventures around the country in the past. I feel like I’ve just turned a big mistake into gold. We march on with great anticipation. We’re immediately greeted by a group of three beautiful naked young ladies who literally welcome us to Paradise. We continue on past more beautiful naked hippies and wonderful campsites until we see one near the end of the beach next to a large drinking water fresh clear and cold waterfall, which we drank from unfiltered for 5 days without incident. We choose this choice campsite perched high on a bluff above the beach with a view of the entire Kalalau beach below. It’s gorgeous spot and as soon as we setup our tent a young man named Spencer wearing a backpack on his chest says he “likes our style” and offers us a cold beer. Wow, a cold beer in Paradise, thanks! Now I’m wondering is this Paradise or did I really die and this is my version of Heaven? “Please GOD which ever it is please do not make me go back!”