A Fear of Heights

From the BBC:

An Australian diplomat has died after falling from a New York City balcony while socialising with friends.

Julian Simpson, 30, accidentally slipped from a seventh-floor ledge of his Manhattan building to a landing on the second floor, the NYPD said.

US media reported he was playing a “trust game” with a friend when he fell.

This is tragic for his family and friends, and 30 seems a bit old to be pulling stunts like this. Then again, I’ve found a lot of Australian men shed the reckless bravado of youth rather later than most, if at all.

One thing’s for sure, you’d not catch me playing “trust games” seven stories up. I have a very mixed relationship with heights: I am fine in a tall building, I don’t mind being hoiked in the air by a crane while sat in a frog, helicopters and planes are okay, and working on the outside of tall structures while clipped on doesn’t bother me (but takes a little getting used to). But put me on a balcony with a low railing, or near a ledge, and I go weak at the knees and start to feel sick. The fear is twofold: I am petrified of someone pushing me over the edge either on purpose or by accident, but also I have a burning desire to jump off which I am never convinced I can overcome. This means I can abseil without much fear, but if I were to visit somewhere like the Trolltunga in Norway you’d not see me taking selfies at the edge, or sat with my legs dangling into the void. You’re more likely to find me a mile away, looking at it through binoculars. There’s something about being up high and unsecured that terrifies me, which is why I’d not be hanging out of windows seven floors up in New York.

Sometimes just for fun I lie in bed and watch videos of those Russian or Ukrainan nutters who climb buildings and cranes with GoPros on their heads. There are two in particular that I like, both in China:

Even in bed these videos make my stomach churn, which makes them fun to watch in a masochist kind of way. This one of a couple of Romanians climbing a chimney in Slovenia is good too:

Frankly, I think the people who do this sort of thing are complete idiots but at the same time astonishingly brave. It’s a shame this Australian lad didn’t stick to watching videos of other people doing stupid things rather than having a go himself.

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51 thoughts on “A Fear of Heights

  1. They actually make me feel physically sick.

    I get what you say about wanting to jump off, although I think that it is more that you feel compelled, or drawn, to jump, rather than want to.

    Slavs are nutters. Useful in a trench though, so go halfway to fulfilling my criteria for an all round good egg: “Good in a trench. Good at dinner.”

  2. I get what you say about wanting to jump off, although I think that it is more that you feel compelled, or drawn, to jump, rather than want to.

    Possibly, but a ledge a thousand feet up is not the place to get bogged down in the distinction! 🙂

  3. Put me at the edge of a cliff, waterfall or on top of a mountain and I’m fine. I remember being on holiday in the Eastern Transvaal when I was about 13 or 14 and crawling to the edge of a particularly high water fall just to look over the edge. I can’t do high-rise buildings though, I just go weak at the knees. So much so that I couldn’t even go near the glass floor at the top of the CN Tower in Toronto. Can’t even watch those videos.

    My other phobia is cockroaches – can’t even look at pictures of them.

  4. “Frankly, I think the people who do this sort of thing are complete idiots but at the same time astonishingly brave”

    I couldn’t do it either, but are they actually brave in the sense that we would have to be in order to do it? Do they have to summon courage to overcome their fear, or are they actually without the fear in the first place? I read somewhere that certain racial groups don’t have such a fear of heights as others. It might be that these Slav nutters are merely confident and realistic around specific risks. We are the same when threading through moving traffic on foot while crossing busy roads, and that might look like insane bravery to someone from an agrarian background.

    And another issue. My fear of heights is multiplied by a considerable factor if my children are around. Watching my seven-year old lean over a parapet above a drop is enough to reduce me to weeping with incoherent fear. Other people’s children have a similar effect. I was once walking across the Pont du Gard near Nimes. That was bad enough, until I met a family coming the other way, and the toddler was having a full-on flailing temper tantrum. Nasty nasty.

  5. Of course, being rational about this, the risk from 20 feet is the same as that from 1,000, but it doesn’t stop us treating one insouciantly and the other gibberingly.

  6. Put me at the edge of a cliff, waterfall or on top of a mountain and I’m fine…I can’t do high-rise buildings though

    That’s odd, I’d have thought anyone who was okay at a cliff edge would be all right in a building, but clearly not.

    My other phobia is cockroaches – can’t even look at pictures of them.

    I got used to them in various places, but I really hate snakes.

  7. I couldn’t do it either, but are they actually brave in the sense that we would have to be in order to do it?

    Yeah, brave probably isn’t the best word. “Balls of steel” possibly? They might not fear the height, but still…they’re doing what would terrify most people.

    That was bad enough, until I met a family coming the other way, and the toddler was having a full-on flailing temper tantrum.

    A French toddler was having a tantrum on the Pont du Gard and you *didn’t* shove him off? Tsk.

  8. Of course, being rational about this, the risk from 20 feet is the same as that from 1,000, but it doesn’t stop us treating one insouciantly and the other gibberingly.

    Indeed, the fear is mostly irrational.

  9. Those crazy Russian climbing videos give me the willies. I do watch the crazy Russian driving ones too, although I worry that in some I am actually watching people being killed.

    Henry Crun – I also hate cockroaches. Not quite a phobia or living in Hong Kong would be rather tricky, but they are vile creatures.

  10. I do watch the crazy Russian driving ones too, although I worry that in some I am actually watching people being killed.

    Oh, I watch those and think “Yup, saw that in Russia. And that.”

  11. Cockroaches: they got everywhere when we lived in Brisbane. Shrug.

    Heights can make me dizzy though; this came on in middle age.

  12. MC, dearieme – I think I’d need serious therapy if I ever went to live in HK or Brisbane. I used to live in South Africa and on the Highveld they aren’t much of a problem but down in Natal they have some big buggers and ones that fly as well.

  13. Yes! The “should I jump” impulse applies just as much to oncoming trains as to over the railings on a bridge. And I thought perhaps it was only me; good, I feel better about it now.

  14. The “should I jump” impulse applies just as much to oncoming trains as to over the railings on a bridge

    Yup. And also, at least as far as I’m concerned, standing at the rail of a ship.

  15. I used to be fine with heights – a very old job of mine involved going up ladders on the side of grain silos, wandering across gantries high-up. minimal kind of ‘protection’ around you should you slip. No problem.

    It took until I went travelling and ending up on a cliff-edge at Kings Canyon in central Australia. Confident with heights up until then, I took a peep over the edge to find not even a sheer drop under me, but the cliff disappearing under our feet at an angle… had to draw back quickly as others in my group started taking photos etc on the edge.

    Been totally buggered for heights ever since then. Later on that trip (well, grand-tour really!), we went to Grand Canyon. I watched the other half and a couple of others standing on the edge whilst some others were walking down a scraggy slope behind them to have a look too. I could just picture one of them stumbling and the whole lot of them going over the edge. I just had to walk away.

  16. I could just picture one of them stumbling and the whole lot of them going over the edge. I just had to walk away.

    Yes, further to what Sam Vara says, I also find myself fearing for others who are tottering around at heights.

  17. Also, why does this seem to hit you later in life? Is it because you have stopped being an idiot by then and finally realised standing around on the edges of cliffs isn’t a good idea?

  18. The Australian guy and his “trust game” buddies were probably drunk. Not to stereotype or anything. 🙂

  19. Actually, it’s not height I’m afraid of. It’s the drop…!

    It’s not the fall that’s the problem. It’s the sudden stop!

  20. but also I have a burning desire to jump off which I am never convinced I can overcome.

    I have this as well. Apparently this is vertigo. Not a fear of falling but a fear of launching.

    Apparently it was a most sought after attribute in potential dive bomber and fighter pilots in WWII on all sides. Which is interesting because I am friends with one of the red bull race pilots and he once took me up in his own plane in England. I was sitting in the front and he put me through every damn stunt in the book and some I had never heard of before, (like going backwards in a plane).

    I didn’t have a problem with it at all. Loved it in fact, (although the G forces were rather off putting). I wanted him to dive faster. But put me on a window ledge over three floors up? I’m rooted.

  21. Apparently it was a most sought after attribute in potential dive bomber and fighter pilots in WWII on all sides.

    That’s interesting.

    Which is interesting because I am friends with one of the red bull race pilots and he once took me up in his own plane in England.

    Ooh, that would be awesome! I’ve seen those guys on TV, they all seemed to be older guys, some well into their 50s.

  22. Ooh, that would be awesome! I’ve seen those guys on TV, they all seemed to be older guys, some well into their 50s.

    Yep. Never go up in a stunt plane with a young pilot. You want a guy who’s worked out how to survive.

  23. “ones that fly as well.” They did in Brizzie. In the evening in the dry season you’d rug up in your sitting room, switch on the reading lights or the telly, and the buggers would fly into your face. We just had to learn to shrug.

    If we’d had cockroaches when we lived in Adelaide we’d have been thought utter sluts. In fact I never saw one there.

    Snakes though: there’s something A and B had in common. And mozzies.

  24. Snakes though: there’s something A and B had in common.

    Not Melbourne, fortunately. No spiders, either.

  25. Melbourne is infested with tiger snakes.

    I didn’t know that. Thankfully not the Eureka Tower!

  26. “Not Melbourne, fortunately. No spiders, either”

    Oh they were there all right, watching, taking notes, out of sight.

    *shudder*

  27. Re that splattered diplomat: The BBC report was brief, here may be a touch more to the story:-
    Some key quotes which I had to mine a combination of three stories:
    (I link below to the three newspapers)

    All those who police interviewed admitted to drinking alcohol that night and police reported a strong odour of booze on those involved.
    Police sources also confirmed accounts given to the New York Post that Mr Simpson died while playing a “trust game”.

    Perhaps this may have more to do with it:

    Mr Simpson then went to a higher roof landing with another woman in the friend group, the official said, “and decided to swing her around.”
    When the group went back inside, the husband of that woman confronted Mr Simpson, the official said.

    The story keeps getting interesting:

    To prove that the husband could trust him, he suggested playing a “trust game” in which Mr Simpson would lean over the ledge and his friend would stop him from falling.
    The man
    told investigators that he put his arm out to catch Mr Simpson but he slipped and fell to his death.

    Right.

    http://www.news.com.au/world/north-america/australian-diplomat-julian-simpson-killed-after-falling-from-new-york-rooftop-after-game-of-trust-goes-wrong/news-story/46f8f735c37673b9a008ba56dfbf3047

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/australian-diplomat-dies-after-fall-from-new-york-building/news-story/0468bb577227a22a9148448ca72d8e4e

    http://www.smh.com.au/world/australian-diplomat-falls-to-his-death-from-manhattan-rooftop-reports-20171115-gzmaqg.html

  28. My brother in law is a roofer.

    In spite of my fear of heights, I helped him out a couple of times- carrying stuff up scaffolding. I was scared shitless watching him- he will quite happily walk out on 4 inch girders, carrying tools in both hands and smoke from his cigarette blowing into his eyes.

    His interview technique for wannabe roofers is to bring them up as quickly as he can in a cherry-picker, preferable on a windy day, and shake the cherrypicker as it reaches it full height. Many interviewees decide then to look elsewhere for work.

  29. Me in my early 30s. Climbs very high distillation column, puts wheel-dog on valve wheel, bugger won’t budge. Tag it.

    Climbs down, finds fitter supervisor.

    “I need a bloke up there to free the stuck valve: I’ve tagged it.”

    Him: “I’m not putting a man up there in this wind.”

  30. There’s fear & then there’s the other thing. Terror? Fear’s a healthy, rational reaction to danger. Keeps you cautious. if you stop feeling frightened, best not to do it. Never hold danger in contempt. Terrified people are irrational. That’s more of a danger than the danger itself. Seen it with people at heights. Get up there & then they’re stuck. Can’t get themselves back down & you probably don’t want to be rescuing them.

  31. “When the group went back inside, the husband of that woman confronted Mr Simpson”

    Wow, talk about means, motive and opportunity!

  32. …but also I have a burning desire to jump off which I am never convinced I can overcome

    Me too 🙁

    Possibly, but a ledge a thousand feet up is not the place to get bogged down in the distinction!

    Correct

    Also, not scared of heights: being on a roof doesn’t bother me.

  33. The BBC report was brief, here may be a touch more to the story:-

    Blimey! Yes, this story is a lot more interesting than that which is being reported! Sounds as though this guy meddled with someone’s wife and got chucked off the building for his efforts!

  34. Oh they were there all right, watching, taking notes, out of sight.

    I remember reading a kids’ horror story about spiders turning out to be super-intelligent aliens planning to take over the world, and had been sitting there biding their time, watching everything…

  35. Also, not scared of heights: being on a roof doesn’t bother me.

    It only bothers me when I’m near the edge. Interestingly, I am quite happy on a ski-lift miles above the ground but sometimes I get vertigo stopping on a wide, steep section of piste when I can see the entire valley floor in front of me. I get over it by actually skiing, which puts me back in control. It’s definitely something to do with being up high and unsecured.

  36. I can confirm that you should most definitely be concerned about one of your mates shoving you over the railings if they get the opportunity.

  37. Henry Crun
    My brother-in-law is an entomologist, specialising in cockroaches. He breeds them in tanks throughout his home. His favourite species is the Madagascarn hissing cockroach, which is, I concede, a quite impressive beast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my brother-in-law is 62, unmarried and autistic. Anyway, if you want a week of desensitization, I’m sure he’d fit you in…. He recommends leaving a saucer of beer containing some crusts of white bread in your kitchen overnight….You might be surprised at the drunken guests you find in the morning…

  38. “…but also I have a burning desire to jump off which I am never convinced I can overcome.”

    Sorry, Tim, but I find that weird, particularly in a guy so grounded (!) as you.

    I am fine with heights generally, but I don’t like edges without balustrades. After a 1985 car accident, I had to learn to walk again, and my balance sometimes fails me…

  39. “You might be surprised at the drunken guests you find in the morning”

    Which reminds me of particular drunken memorable cockroach experience of mine. It happened when I was living in the East Village of Manhattan when it was still a bit of ghetto. I came home “three sheets to the wind” and flaked out on the kitchen floor. I awoke and started to come to focus to see that I had vomited in my sleep on to the kitchen floor, where a large platoon of water bugs (that is what the New Yorkers called cockroaches) were drunkenly gorging on my vomit and on me!

  40. @Tim Newman on November 17, 2017 at 8:32 am

    …which puts me back in control…

    Nailed it. I’m a biker, but refuse to ride pillion.

    Probably due to a fairground ride when 14 that almost killed my brother & I.

    TL;DR – I saved us with logic, then shouted for help.

  41. Sorry, Tim, but I find that weird, particularly in a guy so grounded (!) as you.

    Oh, I’m full of irrationality. I still watch Wales play rugby in the hope of them winning, for example.

  42. I can confirm that you should most definitely be concerned about one of your mates shoving you over the railings if they get the opportunity.

    Just one?!!

  43. Yep, no shortage of snakes in Melbourne – they’re a major hazard on the sort of sites I work on (construction, motorways). Not just tiger snakes either – brown snakes are reasonably common as well.

    Plenty of spiders too – you don’t get funnel webs this far south, but redbacks and white tail spiders are common. Huntsman spiders are major pests, not venomous but very confronting for anyone with arachnophobia. I wouldn’t exactly call them harmless either, I’ve been bitten by one and it felt like two red hot nails being driven into my finger!

  44. My fear of heights is pretty legendary as well (and inconvenient for a construction engineer), though like you it’s more of a fear of edges – I’m reasonably ok if I’m secured or have something solid between me and the drop. Ladders in particular make me very nervous. Even a couple of metres is enough to turn my knuckles white.

    I was commissioning some overheight detectors outside a tunnel in Brisbane once. The units were mounted on a pole 5 metres up, and the electrician with me was scampering up a ladder to align them. One wouldn’t work, so I very very carefully went up myself to check it out. My conclusion was that it was knackered, so I called a long time colleague in Melbourne to scrounge his spare. He didn’t want to let his only spare go and asked me if I was sure we needed it. I said “Mate, I went up and checked it myself”. His response “*You* climbed a ladder? I’ll call a courier straight away!” 🙂

  45. I have eagerly jumped out of C-130s on numerous occasions, and would gladly do so again If I weren’t so decrepit these days. Low altitude jumps where you can see the tops of individual trees, making the height all the more real as you’re standing in the door or on the ramp. It’s all good. But these tower climbing videos literally make my palms sweat.

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