Fire Tower’s Vantage Point

When I looked down and realized that I was twice the height of the treetops, my stomach flip-flopped … my head started to spin. I could hardly manage to hold onto the steel ladder leading straight up to the fire tower lookout. I was in northern Wisconsin with some friends (in my early 20s). They’d proposed this adventure and—without thinking it through—I went along.

With two or three friends above me and a few below me, I didn’t have an easy way to retreat. So, I fought my instinct to descend and kept climbing. Can’t say that I enjoyed any of it.

When I arrived at the junction between the ladder and the platform, I froze. The fire tower swayed in the wind. My head was spinning, and I felt nauseous. How was I going to transition from the ladder to the look-out platform without missing a step? I’m not sure how I rallied the nerve, but I managed to get onto the platform.

The panoramic view from the top was exquisite. Woods spotted with lakes extended to the horizon in all directions. We could see the Eau Claire River flowing toward the St. Croix. I got lost in the elements and almost forgot about the trek up. However, after a relaxing reprieve, it was time to descend.

If I was terrified of getting onto the platform, multiply that by 10 when it was time to get off. Nightmare scenarios flooded my brain. Embarrassed to ask for help from one of my friends, I suppressed my fear of falling and summoned every ounce of courage I could muster to remount the ladder.

The entire way down, I only looked up or out—never down. I didn’t trust myself to process how high up I was. When I reached the treetops, I finally had the courage to look down. My chest loosened; I could breathe normally.

Blissfully relieved to be on solid ground, I learned that none of my friends experienced any terror. They also seemed oblivious to how terrifying it was for me.

On the Edge of Fear

Ever since that episode, I thought that I suffered from acrophobia. After all, my extremely tough and courageous mother was terrified of heights. Ladders, cliffs, or swing bridges turned her into a hyperventilating noodle. But digging into definitions of acrophobia, I realized that I suffer from fear of heights—not acrophobia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), acrophobia is debilitating fear that affects activities of everyday life, such as climbing a flight of stairs, standing near a balcony, or parking a car in a multiple-floor parking garage. Those situations do not trigger me—or ski lifts in the mountains.

I also learned that acrophobia can develop in response to a traumatic experience involving heights, such as having a panic attack or other negative experience while in a high place. My trek up the fire tower triggered a panic reaction—fortunately not a full-blown anxiety attack. Ever since then, high places make me dizzy, weak, and disoriented. Thus I’m extremely cautious and tend to avoid high heights. Sometimes, I freak out (a little) in these situations

High up on the fire tower, I faced a choice: cave into hysteria or keep moving forward? A few coping strategies helped me get through the fire tower episode and other frightening experiences.

Failure Is Not an Option

When I imagine my 20-something self on that ladder, the fears come rushing back. My recollections about how I coped are blurry. But a few elements stand out:  peer pressure, self-determination, and extreme caution. I kept going and suppressed my anxiety because of my peers—fear of rejection paralleled my fear of falling. Once I caved into peer pressure and continued to climb, it was up to me to mount each rung. So, I focused all my attention on each movement to avoid a clumsy misstep.

Look Beyond the Abyss

After I recounted my climb up the fire tower, my daughter said, “I can see how that terrified you.” She saw the visceral reaction that occurred when I told the story: flushed face, sort breaths, tense muscles, and an unfocused gaze. More than 40 years later, my imagination can spiral to a very dark place. But up on the fire tower ladder, I coped by looking at the horizon instead of the ground. That focal point kept me from spinning into an abyss.

One Step at Time

Like any challenge, it helps to take it one step at a time. Every rung of that steel ladder symbolized progress toward success!


  1. I’m pretty sure that I climbed the decommissioned fire tower described at 6:39 in the video adventure into the history of wildfire prevention. It was 80′ hight with an exterior ladder and platform on the top. (Source: A history-curious vacationer rents a cabin at AirBNB property that included access to a fire tower and plot of land in Gordon, WI. He explores and compiles the history of wildfire prevention before aerial infrared surveillance systems made towers obsolete.)
  2. It took a while to find a representative picture of the exterior ladder that I remember climbing. Most fire tower pictures depict interior stairways and enclosed cabins at the top. Through some deeper research, I learned that Aermotor (a windmill parts manufacturer) produced three different types of forest service towers by  in 1920. One design positioned the ladder on the exterior of the tower. The Gordon fire tower (which was very close to where were staying) used the exterior ladder design as described in a 1959 interview with Joe Lucius, the designer/contractor (go to 6:35).

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