Learning to deal with uncomfortable heights, one New Jersey monument at a time

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The High Point Monument doesn’t look so high now, does it? PHOTO BY TIMOTHY MALCOLM

The young woman working behind the desk at High Point Monument had definitely heard the question a million times before.

“So how many steps to the top?”

“Two-hundred and ninety-one.”

Far up in the very northern corner of New Jersey, High Point Monument is an obelisk veterans’ memorial that recalls the Washington Monument or Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts. At 220 feet it’s approximately the same height as the Bunker Hill obelisk, standing atop a hill at High Point State Park, part of the Kittatinny Mountains in Jersey.

And, as the woman told me while visiting the monument on Saturday, it has 291 stairs.

I’m not one to walk up staircases to observation towers. Back in 2007 I walked to the deck at Philadelphia City Hall as part of research for a book I was writing, and I did once ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney World, but otherwise I prefer not to scale something very high. So the conceit of viewing the hills of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania from the top of High Point wasn’t very tempting, but I’m writing a travel guide, and High Point is part of it, so I decided this was something I should do.

A few weeks ago while hiking in Connecticut, I met a woman who was hiking alone on Bear Mountain, up near Salisbury. She sat at the summit for a decent while – she was there before I arrived and stayed after I left – and said she loved the spot. Somehow the subject of dangerous ledges came up, and I mentioned I hiked the Beehive – which includes portions where you’re walking on ledges in open air, and you have to use iron rungs to scale to the next ledge – at Acadia National Park. She said she tried the Beehive years ago, but her knees buckled, then she shriveled and had to work up courage to turn around and go down down the hill.

In short, she was afraid of heights. I replied that she was hiking up a relatively high peak (for the region), and alone. But – and she’s right – that’s different. On Bear Mountain you’re surrounded by vegetation and never feel as if you’re about to fly off the shoulder. On the Beehive you have to watch your step and, if you look down (or up), you may shut down. Of course, me being an idiot who was having a really awesome day, said “When I see something like the Beehive, I think ‘Wow, this is cool!'”

The truth is I don’t think that until after the hard part ends. Before that I’m literally worrying about everything that could happen, and all the time. I worry before I board a plane, and enough so that the day before air travel is filled with paranoia. I worry before trying even a relatively strenuous hike, because what if my legs give out or I get bit by a snake or I get lost? I hike alone a lot, so I should prepare for these things, but I go overboard thinking about them. I wouldn’t say it’s a fear or phobia (which is why I use “worry” and not “fear”), but I do get uncomfortable with heights.

Still, I do things. I get on planes because I have to if I want to get somewhere fast. My wife’s family lives in Texas, and we can’t drive there every time. I want to travel to Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, and the easiest, fastest way to get to those places? A plane.

And I hike things like the Beehive or literally any summit because I don’t want to think about why I didn’t do them. Just this summer I started scrambling Timberline Falls at Rocky Mountain National Park but stopped halfway and returned, because a hole in my shoe gave me enough worry about wet feet – but also falling off the waterfall – to end my attempt. But then I stood there and watched other people head up. And my brain started doing things. I started openly questioning the pros and cons of just doing it, and my wife, sitting there on the rocks (because she decided with a clear mind she was going to stay behind) knew full well what I was doing. “Go. Just go.” So I did. And later I said “Wow, this is cool!”

Before Beehive I juggled all the possibilities without telling anyone I was feeling trepidation. Once I started the trepidation slowly dissipated; the moment I’m on the hike and in the process, things break down and become crystal clear. By the time I was actually climbing the rungs and shimmying on the ledges I was so focused on the next step that fear never crippled me. I’m lucky for that, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

On Saturday I handed in the $1 to climb to the top, read the signs alerting visitors to the smoldering heat that’ll hit you as you ascend, and began my climb. I hopped up the first bunch of stairs. This didn’t feel too bad.

Then those stairs end, leaving you on a platform where you then see a winding series of about 250 stairs, winding up and up and up and up until you can’t really see much anymore. I exhaled and continued.

About 90 stairs through this I stopped, looked down, looked up, and felt a buckling. I felt the wall, heard the echoes of other walkers way up above me. Then I thought about the things I think about in these moments:

  • This monument has been around for a while.
  • Scores of people have done this exact walk.
  • Just look at the stair in front of you.

I exhaled again, then continued. A few moments later some walkers descending the stairs met me, and that helped even more. They were about my height and weight. They were kind. They shimmied around me and I looked at the stair in front of me.

From that moment it was much easier. I looked up a few more times before reaching the observation deck, and with a fog of heat choking me, I stood alone in the small platform and got my views of the Kittatinny region, the Catskills and Hudson Valley, and the Poconos and everything west. I felt good. I cracked a joke to the next couple that appeared from the stairs. I bet a lot of people who finish the climb crack jokes.

The way down was easier, though my legs were wobbly from a full day of hiking and walking. When I finally touched solid ground, I couldn’t remember just how many stairs I had climbed, so I went back to the young woman behind the desk.

“So how many stairs, again?”

“Two-hundred and ninety-one,” she said for the zillionth time. I wonder how many people are like me after doing the whole thing: They’ve conquered another uncomfortable height and now need to talk about it in some sideways manner. I totally get it.

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