By James D. Shipman
Heights. Bloody, God-forsaken heights. I can remember exactly the first moment I realized this. I was three or four years old and my family had taken a drive up the North Cascades Highway in Washington State. Anyone who has travelled this route knows there is a suspension bridge along the way. We stopped and walked out on the bridge to get a better view. For some incomprehensible reason my father picked me up and held me over the rail. Let me be clear, I don’t mean dangling over the edge, Michael Jackson style, I just mean up above the barrier. I shuddered and gasped for breath. Didn’t he realize how high up we were? If you went over that rail, it was lights out for sure. I yelled and squirmed until he let me down. My dad turned to my mom and noted, “I believe James is afraid of heights.” Thanks for that, dad.
After that time, I’ve struggled with a fear of heights. In high school I worked a few weeks at a Presbyterian Summer Camp called “Tall Timber Ranch,” with my friend Judd. One of the full-time employees took us for a hike up a local peak called “Butterfly,” or “Moth.” Something with a larvae stage. About a thousand feet up I lost it and refused to go further. They decided (because it was the 1980s and you could make these kinds of choices) to leave me alone and climb the other four thousand feet. I enjoyed myself for about an hour but ultimately discovered I have an additional fear of being alone in the wild. At some point I decided I would make my way out by myself. I hiked down a few hundred feet through some heavy brush which ended abruptly in a cliff dropping at least five hundred feet to the base of the forest. If I had slipped at that moment that would have been the story of me. I held on to a branch in terrified immobility for a few minutes before I garnered the courage to make my way back up the hill where I was rescued by my friends a few hours later. The employee warned us both not to mention any of this to the camp authorities.
I made another attempt at height bravery this past year when we took a group of Young Life kids on a hike up the North Fork of the Sauk River to the Pacific Crest Trail. I probably haven’t mentioned that I’m also in only moderately good shape. This was a three-day, two-night hike. The first day trek in is only about a 1,200-foot elevation gain but six miles. I was ready to call it good after that but I was shamed into continuing. The second day included a 4,000-foot elevation gain in three miles through twenty-seven grueling switchbacks. I was dead last in our group and exhausted when we reached the top, but that was only the beginning of my troubles. The switchbacks were covered in forest so you could never really see very far down. When we reached the top, the trail cleared out and was about a yard wide with thousands of feet dropping off to the right. I was so tired I didn’t notice this phenomenon for the first half mile or so, but as oxygen reached my brain I started to panic. My friend Ken noticed I was having trouble about the same time. Our guide, John, helped the situation by noting that he’d been up here a year or so before with some pack donkeys and one of them toppled off the edge and rolled 2,000 feet down to a crushing death at the bottom. Ken grabbed me by the back of the shirt and turned me around. We trudged carefully back to the tree line and down to our base camp. I never made it to the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’m still alive.
I haven’t included my fear of heights in my writing as of this point but I’m going to add it to my list. I’ve certainly reacted to heights in books and movies. The worst experience of all was watching “Free Solo.” For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s the documentary of Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan by himself without any ropes. He’s literally 2,500 feet up, hanging on by a couple toes and a finger or two, with no noticeable ledges or cracks in the rock. One twitch at the wrong moment and he would topple off to his death, like apparently pretty much every other free solo climber has. It’s the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, and I was sweating through the entire ordeal. Who knows, perhaps Alex is terrified of writing a historical novel? I hope he’s afraid of something.
I’d love to be able to include a happy ending here. Some moment where I conquered my fears and triumphed over adversity. Not true. I’m as afraid of heights today at 49 as I was at four. Do I intend to take this on and let my will triumph over my phobia? I doubt it. I’ll say a prayer for Alex instead, and keep my feet on the ground.
Learn More About Task Force Baum by James D. Shipman:
In the tradition of Saving Private Ryan and Bridge Over the River Kwai, bestselling author James D. Shipman delivers a powerful, action-packed novel that illustrates the long-buried secrets and unending costs of war—based on the true story of General Patton’s clandestine unauthorized raid on a World War II POW camp.
March, 1945. Allied forces are battle-worn but wearily optimistic. Russia’s Red Army is advancing hard on Germany from the east, bolstering Allied troops moving in from the west and north. Soon, surely, Axis forces must accept defeat. Yet for Captain Jim Curtis, each day is a reminder of how unpredictable and uncertain warfare can be.
Captured during the Battle of the Bulge after the Germans launched a devastating surprise attack, Curtis is imprisoned at a POW camp in Hammelburg, Bavaria. Conditions are grim. Inmates and guards alike are freezing and starving, with rations dwindling day by day. But whispers say General Patton’s troops are on the way, and the camp may soon be liberated.