Fear of Heights: Going To The Top of Tall Buildings

jamie looking out of window at top of Baiyoke Tower in bangkok

As long as tall objects have existed, there have always been people stupid enough to go to the top of them.

Whether it be massive trees, huge pyramids, or gargantuan mountains, throughout history it seems one thing all humans share in common is a zest to reach high places.

My question is: why? Are we as a species completely fucking nuts? It’s built into all of us is an innate sense of curiosity when it comes to heights. In me, that curiosity also seems to lead to fear. It’s only rational though. Tall places mean falling, falling means death. Why I wonder do we constantly put ourselves into positions where falling is more probable? Where death is more likely.

Why do we love to go so high?

The answer, I believe, lies in the feeling we get when we reach a high place and see the world below us. When we sit at the top of a mountain and see the world disappearing around us we’re overcome with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Watching tiny cars in the distance we’re forced to see just how small we all really are. To get to a high place is to be humbled. It’s a spiritual experience, where you’re forced to confront your existence and your position in the universe.

That’s if you get to the top without shitting yourself, of course. Because reaching the top of a high building is for me a journey filled with vomit inducing fear. No profound thoughts enter my mind, the only thing I think about is escape.

daniel looking miserable on top of rockerfeller centre

How I feel at the top of most tall buildings.

I’ve always been afraid of heights. No, that’s not true. I’ve always been afraid of falling. Being up high doesn’t bother me. It’s my rampant imagination. Whenever I’m up high, all I can think about is what could happen.

Ok, this is starting to be a common theme in my blog posts, when I’m in a situation, all I can think about is the terrible What if scenarios. In this case the most common What Ifs are:

What if I trip and fall over the railing?
What if a gust of wind blows me over the edge?
What if a psychopath pushes me through the window?
What if the floor collapses?
What if in a fit of madness I jump?

All of these are thoughts I’ve genuinely had race through my mind at some point in time. Not ones that I’ve laughed off either, but thoughts that I’ve mulled over for far too long.

Now, I’ll have to sadly admit these thoughts aren’t even linked to what most people would consider truly high places. As far as I’m considered anything above hip height is high. I’m the type of person that gets to the top of the ladder and starts to feel queasy. Whenever I have to stand on a chair to change a light bulb all I can think is, “I’m going to fall and die!”

It’s insane, but that’s how it is. I’m a big believer in somebody holding the ladder. Never mind if it’s glued to the ground, I don’t trust the structural integrity of anything. Let alone buildings.

yaquina head lighthouse near newport oregon

A few years ago, Jamie and I went on a road trip along the Oregon coast. The perfect time to view some beautiful lighthouses. The opportunity arose to go on a tour of one of them. All the way to the top. At first, I was enjoying it, the tour guide was a young lady in period costume. Something about period costume is sexy, I don’t know what. Maybe it’s the chauvinist in me, thinking back to a time when women were slaves to men. Sexy slaves.

Never mind that though, as soon as we started walking up the metal spiral staircase to the top my mind started to race. With each step the stairs made a clang. That doesn’t sound good, I thought. These steps are probably over a hundred years old. I wonder when they last checked them. Maybe they haven’t checked them. Maybe one of the screws has gotten loose and maybe it’s just moments away from popping out upon which time the whole building will collapse killing me and the sexy young tour guide (oh, and my girlfriend).

By the time I got to the top of the lighthouse, I couldn’t enjoy the view – of the lighthouse or the young lady. I was too busy worrying about the metal floor falling inwards.

yaquina head lighthouse in oregon

Despite these same thoughts running through my head whenever we go to the top of a tall building, I still for some reason continue to go up them. It always seems like a marvelous idea when we’re in a new city and we’re confronted with another tall building which every site on the internet says is a MUST SEE.

Over the years I’ve managed to make my way to the top of many a building, paying far too much money in some cases, waiting in line for far too long in other cases. Only to get to the top, start panicking and leave within 5 minutes. (Although really, once you get to the top of these buildings there’s only enough to keep you going that long anyway.)

Oh, but I haven’t even mentioned the worst part. The dreaded elevator ride. Whoever invented the elevator must have been a lunatic.

I know what’ll be great. Let’s build a small shaky metal box that we can trap people inside, then we can pull them hundreds of feet in the air while forcing them to listen to some really shitty music.

I don’t want to even get started on the person who thought that windows would be an improvement. Or heaven forbid a glass floor. What were these people thinking!? No doubt that people would enjoy the view on the way up, but surely that’s why you’re going to the top! The majority of us instead just think, “Wow, if the cable snapped right now we really would be fucked.”

The worst elevator ride I’ve ever taken was in the Baiyoke Tower in Bangkok. It’s the tallest building in the city, so, of course it’s a MUST SEE. I headed there with a few friends and to start with we went to the 18th floor where for some reason there’s a driving range.

Yes, that’s right, on the 18th floor you can smack golf balls as hard as you like, although the building is surrounded by a net so you don’t get to cause any collateral damage to nearby buildings.

So far, so good. The 18th floor didn’t bother me so much because I couldn’t really see how high I was. I wasn’t going to head over to a window to look, that’s for sure. We had a great time, hitting golf balls, then we headed to the lift to go up to the 82nd floor. All the way to the top.

Now, the worst thing to do in any situation where you’re feeling nervous is to mention it to your friend. Especially if your friend isn’t really your friend, but just some dick head you decide to hang out with from time-to-time.

As the elevator began to climb I started to sweat. “Ugh. I’m not liking this,” I stupidly revealed. With a grin of evil my faithful friend, sorry, my faithful dick head started to jump up and down, throwing his weight into the floor, making the elevator shake. My heart was now about to explode and all I wanted to do was escape.

Soon my wish was granted. Unfortunately, I was now surrounded by a panoramic view of possible ways to die. It seemed like the building was swaying in the wind and immediately all I wanted to do was go back down – but not in an elevator with my former friend.

jamie on top of Baiyoke Tower in bangkok

Often when I’m at the top of these high places, I get a strange feeling inside. Not fear, but rather a giddy urge to jump. The urge is almost instinctive, coming from deep inside. The French have a name for it: the call of the void (l’appel du vide). That momentary instant when your body just wants to fly off the edge.

I tell myself now that I’ll never let myself get into the position again where I can get that feeling. That I’ll spend the rest of my life at ground level. I know I’m lying though. The next time I’m in a new city, I’ll find out about the tallest building and I’ll convince myself it’s a good idea to go. It’ll be fine this time, I’ll think, I’ll have fun.

But I won’t have any fun at all.


  1. says

    Dan, I love that face you’re pulling in the first photo. It’s brilliant! hehe 😀

    We are as crazy as you. Shawn gets sweaty palms at heights, and I get shooting pains in my feet. We look like a right pair when we do towers (last one we did was Auckland Tower).

    Anxiety, sweaty palms and sore feet aside, that lighthouse you guys visited does look pretty spectacular.

    • Anxious Travelers says

      We were tempted by the Auckland tower but when we looked up at it from below it looked like it was swaying back and forwards. Although I think it might have been an illusion as the clouds were moving behind it! We went up Mount Eden instead which is free and a little less wobbly!

Leave a Reply