HikingHiking Stories

Hiking with a Fear of Heights – South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains

Drakensberg hiking view

I crouched against the mountain practically paralyzed with fear. As I looked over the ledge, my guide stood in front of me and said, you can trust me.  But could I? When it comes to putting my life (as I saw it) in another’s hands, I’m more than reluctant. I don’t like being out of control and trust within the context of being in a foreign country with someone I don’t know comes hard. What do you do when fear overcomes reason?

But almost worse than the immediate fear of falling, was the thought that my fear of heights was going to stop me from hiking all the other places I want to go in the future. I was mad, scared, and humbled – all at the same time. It was a come to Jesus moment.

I knew the Sentinel Peak Chain Ladder hike in Drakensberg, South Africa would be physically challenging – but it turned out to be much more of a mental challenge for me.

Amphitheater Mountain in Drakensburg is one of the most popular and spectacular hikes in South Africa. Table mountains rise precipitously above the rugged desert landscape. It’s a strenuously long day hike to get to the top but the view is spectacular.

Amphitheater mountain view drakensberg

Another reward is Tugela Falls, the second tallest waterfall in the world (with a great swimming hole on top!).  When I heard about this hike it was a no brainer for me to accept the challenge – despite being told beforehand that we would have to rope up for safety to climb ladders back down. I didn’t allow myself to think too long about the ladders part before signing up. My fear of heights, or acrophobia, wasn’t something I liked to think about. This was a bucket list hike and I wanted to do it.

Drakensberg hiking tugela falls view
Your reward!

I’ve been afraid of heights for quite a while as an adult. However, as a kid, I wanted to be a pilot and dreamed of flying jets. Go figure. How could that kid grow up to be someone who got vertigo while watching videos of climbers? Free Solo made my knees go weak.

This wasn’t the first time hiking with a fear of heights became an issue. Years ago on a hike down the Grand Canyon the wind started to blow hard. Perched on a narrow trail on the edge of a cliff with only air between me and thousands of feet to the bottom – I had another CTJ moment. We had to turn back. My friends were astonished. My irrational brain won that day. Irrational fear: A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.

Acrophobia is number 3 of the ten most common fears. So I’m not alone. However, in Drakensberg, I watched all the other hikers (except one – thank you for the solidarity) climb down the famous chain ladders clinging to the side of the mountain. They continued without hesitation even after the guide yelled down to a couple who were about to take the second set of ladders, don’t take the one in the middle someone fell off that recently and it’s closed.

My google search only found one accident on these ladders. However, from my perspective these ladders looked like many accidents waiting to happen. If you watch this video, everyone seems quite happy to climb the ladders. See below for the view I had while cowering against the cliff waiting my turn to get roped up. I couldn’t even consider climbing down without a rope (but then my alternative was to live on the side of that mountain for the rest of my life?).

Drakensberg chain ladders
My CTJ moment.

The actual hike to Tugela Falls and Amphitheatre Mountain is gorgeous. A winding mountain road delivers you to Sentinal Mountain car park.  The road is paved except for a section of tire popping and oil pan breaking couple of kilometers that will get your heart pumping and is definitely not suitable for rental cars (in case you’re wondering). Even the car park affords eye popping views of the surrounding mountains.

Sentinel Peak Drakensberg

From the car park, expect a strenuous zigzag uphill for 2.5 kilometers until you arrive at the steep gully at the base of Beacon Buttress (3121 meters and an alternative to the ladders as well). This climb is also not for those with a fear of heights. I’m also not sure how safe it is without roping up either – although no one seems to do it.

This imposing gully goes straight up (it takes 45 minutes to an hour to climb, depending on fitness level – and you’d better be fit). Before climbing, our guide told us, if there’s a rockfall please warn those below. For those below- don’t shut your eyes and put your head down but get out of the way. This did not inspire confidence for some reason.

However, at times I was literaly climbing with hands and feet – so a rockfall could’ve been disastrous.  Losing your footing here also exposes you to a fall of tens or, if you’re unlucky, hundreds of feet down the mountain. This was my first CTJ moment on this hike. Climbing plus the tension from my fear of heights exhausted me. This exhaustion also added to my hitting the wall of fear again later in the hike when I confronted the ladders and, afterwards, when I had to walk the narrow cliffside trail from the ladders back to the parking lot.

Drakensberg hiking view

Fear can humiliate, warn, and instruct. This hike tested my limits and I came up short. Hiking with a fear of heights means you need to prepare a bit more. This hike reminded me to always research a new hike thoroughly – to be more fit physically – to try and learn how to overcome my fear of heights – to sometimes just say no (and that’s ok too) – and lastly, to forgive myself for not being as bad ass a hiker as I thought.

As for my dreams of hiking the Himalayas, Dolomites, and anything else with steep slopes, rockfalls, and views off cliffs – I’ve heard a pill is being developed for fear of heights (would I take it? I don’t know). In the meantime, I’ll have to find another way – because there are far too many beautiful hikes I need to do in the mountains. And, Alex Honnold, don’t worry, I won’t be breaking your records anytime soon.

How about you? Do you fight your fears when you hike? If so, I’d love to know how you do it.

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