Irene Worthington Baron


by Irene Baron  

Dominique sitting on wall at Grand CanyonIt was 1984. What happened that caused my fear of heights was the most terrifying moments of my life.

My eight year old daughter and I were traveling in our 1973 VW camper across the United States. Dominique was given a paperback atlas of the United States and the thick Woodalls camping guide book. She planned mileage, routes and daily stops at campgrounds with swimming pools.  I liked to make stops about 4 PM to enjoy the early evening in peace. We usually departed areas by 7 AM.

We took the southern route to California to visit cousins and returned via the northern route.  Grand Canyon reservations were made over 6 months in advance. We arrived a day early. The personnel accommodated our arrival with a campground another family had vacated a day early. We were fortunate to have the site as the nearest public campground at that time was about 40-miles distant.

We loved the canyon, hiked some trails and drove some to different viewing points. The views and geology were fantastic. The trails had been newly cleaned and upgraded by volunteers.

There was a concrete viewing site adjacent to the park office and store about 25 feet in diameter. It offered a way to be able to look straight down into the canyon along the railing. Railings were made of round steel poles painted a light green color, much like you find at many schools along steps and walkways. The top horizontal railing was about 30” high. Another railing was halfway between that one and wide concrete steps to the viewing area. I asked my daughter to hold the railing.

There were about ten persons milling about on the concrete viewing area including five children. Cameras were clicking away as pictures were being taken of one another with the magnificent canyon background.

Since there were just a few steps to the viewing area, I thought the railing to be safe. It was not.

As my daughter began to move down the steps with her left hand gripping the railing, she tripped. The forward motion of her fall flipped her through the opening between the top and center railings. She Dominique, 1973 VW & Mountainswrapped her arm around the railing as she fell through it. When her motion stopped, she was hanging by her left elbow. There was nothing but space between her and the canyon floor over a mile down.  

I froze. She froze. So did everyone else on that lookout point. My first reaction was to jump toward her and grab on for dear life. If I did, I thought she might let go of the railing and grab for me? Would any such motion cause her death? I didn’t want to frighten her with any sudden movement. I was so scared. I wanted her to keep calm and not panic.

I said, “Let me help you.”

No one moved. Every child and every adult was deathly quiet. Every eye was on the two of us. They seemed to know instinctively that any distraction could cause my daughters’ death.

Dominique said, “I think I can do it.” My mind went crazy.

I thought, “She thinks she can do it. Thinks? ” My heart plummeted to the bottom of my soul. I wanted to help her but was terrified any motion on my part would cause her to lose her concentration.

I said in a calm voice, “Take your time. Keep your grip tight.” She was healthy and athletic, but the railings were too wide in diameter for her small hands to grip tightly. I was sick. What took only a few moments felt like an eternity.

Dominique slowly climbed back on to the safe, concrete steps. The minute she was safe, I grabbed her hand. Every parent at that scenic view site grabbed their child securely. Everyone  vacated the site.

I didn’t go to the park office to report what happened. I took Dominique right to the camper which was parked nearby, drove to the campground and stayed there the rest of the day. I didn’t want to remain at the park, but my daughter did.

The next morning, as we neared the park office, she wanted to go to the viewing site again. The thought of it made my knees weak and my heart rate increase. I was so weak, I couldn’t get out of the camper. I didn’t want to look toward the canyon, but it was everywhere. I drove back to the campground, gathered our supplies and checked out a day early and wondered why the previous campers had also left early.

After that terrifying incident which could have been deadly, at any high point my legs became weak, my body felt unstable, and I wanted to sit down and hold on to something secure.  My daughter is now just over 40-years old and my fear of heights has not diminished. 

Now, a twist on the same subject.

The New River is the deepest river-carved valley in the United States east of the Mississippi River. Many times I rafted the Lower Gauley and New Rivers white water ending up under the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. That one span bridge is the third highest in the United States at almost 900 feet.

On one Saturday every autumn, the bridge becomes a human launch pad. Called Bridge Day, it is an adventure awaited many during the year. They dive off with parachutes to land in the river. Waiting boats on the river were present to help anyone needing assistance once they landed. A young acquaintance is an NOAA employee based in that state and assigned to work on the bridge that day. She said safety is paramount. Rules are enforced.

When I drive over that bridge, my body feels the same alarm as I had at the Grand Canyon. That feeling has transferred to me whenever I drive on any high bridge. If there is a center lane on the bridge, that’s where you’ll find me.

Strangely, being a pilot and flying at high elevations does NOT bother me. One summer, I piloted an airplane into the Fayetteville airport for a weekend vacation at a dude ranch. When I flew out, I decided to fly over the New River Gorge Bridge. The minute the airplane was over the bridge and I looked down at it, my body weakened and my knees felt like jelly. It was the same feeling as when I was at the Grand Canyon. I was okay until the airplane was over the bridge. Once past the site, I was fine. I still think about it. Other pilots afraid of height report the same thing has happened to them when they flew over that bridge!

Who’s a psychologist to analyze that?  

USGS Grand Canyon picture

  USGS Grand Canyon lower falls picture

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