South London Photographer: Fear of heights, me? No, of course not!

If you’re just after photographs, please scroll down to the bottom of the page. Otherwise….

When I agreed with Nic Brown, editor of the local edition of family magazine, Raring2Go, to head out with her to the newly opened GoApe in Battersea Park, it didn’t really register that I had in fact agreed to climb to the tops of some incredibly tall trees, hang from ropes and then go careering through the sky.  I wonder, if those facts had actually registered in my mind, I’d have been so eager.  The thing is, just a few years ago I was too frightened to walk across a very high bridge I know well, never mind leap off tiny platforms, harnessed admittedly but still… When I say I was too frightened, what I mean is I was really bloody petrified – stuck, still and immovable about the whole tall bridge thing. But apparently, it’s all changed now.

“Sure”, I said, “I’d love to go along to that”.  I wasn’t even nervous.  In fact, weirdly, I had sort of forgotten that I was once so scared of heights.  So, off we drove this morning. And I have to say, even as we filled in forms and read through warnings that began with the sentence, “You are about to embark on a high risk activity….” I still didn’t think anything at all about my previous terror.

The five minute ‘training’ didn’t faze me, and the first couple of stages didn’t either. It was only as I found myself having to climb up a narrow but steep, netted in – thankfully,  tunnel that I had any hint of fear.  Hang on a minute, I thought, wasn’t I afraid of heights at some point?  Oh yeah…. anyway, I was really pleased because even though I found I was suddenly consciously aware of those past feelings, it still wasn’t bothering me.  Much.  Cool, I thought!

What was quite tricky, I must admit, was taking photographs.  We were high up, so even though I was enjoying myself, and not in the same sort of state I certainly would have been in several years ago, it was still fairly nerve wracking at moments, and the rain didn’t help either.  I managed to get some nice shots of Nic making her way across the wobbly roped bridges, but of course I always had to be very careful not to step too close to the really rather small platforms in-between each crossing as well as making sure I wasn’t holding people up, so there were things other than taking photographs to think about.

But the thing with the way GoApe is designed, is that it gets more and more challenging as you progress, and so a little scarier too as you get higher.  I’m saying I wasn’t as nervous as I once might have been, which is true, but I did swear pretty much every few minutes, so I guess I was finding it somewhat terrifying in-between feeling fine about it.  OK, I’m sort of playing it down; it was getting more and more ‘yikes’ as we went.  And then the bars you could hold on to were no longer available.  And as we made one crossing, all I could say in disbelief was, “It’s just a pole!, It’s just a pole!  It’s just a pole!’

Then we came to the zip wire.  Oh my god!  Was I really going to let myself fly down that?  Apparently I was – but only after some very nice friendly people told me that of course I could do it.  And guess what it was the most fun ever.  I loved it and was rather sad we’d come to the end.  But, brilliant news… We were told we could go up the next level of difficulty and go on another zip wire too – whoo hoo! – not, however, before someone working there asked, “Was that you screaming all the way down the zip wire?”  Uuuh, yup, that was indeed me.

So off we went again.  A bit harder this time.  Oh, hang on, a lot harder this time. More precarious seeming, higher and more wobbly all round.  I wasn’t keen on the wobbly bits at all.  But apparently I wasn’t doing it quite right, which I found out a bit later when someone told me how to get a better balance by holding on to the ropes properly, rather than clinging ignominiously to the wires.  Turns out it really feels better when you hold on to the correct ropes.  Note to everyone: maybe, just maybe it’s best to pay attention to the training rather than try to get great shots of the person doing the training… although who knows, perhaps they didn’t tell us about the balance thing; I wasn’t listening, obviously.

There was some more wobbly bits and a roped wall to cling to which wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

And then came the second zip wire.  Which was good, right? Because I loved the first one.  But suddenly I had one of those ‘what if’ moments.  And that’s the worst thing to have happened because somehow I didn’t quite make it all the way across, and I’m sure the ‘what if’ thought was responsible, although of course it could have been that I am just so terribly waif-like that I wasn’t quite heavy enough for gravity to do its thing and ensure I made it.  Er, hang on, am I really that waif-like?  Well, no, actually. I mean, I’m not large but I’m not a tiny wispy thing either.  Nope – I’m not even remotely a waif.

So who knows? It was probably the ‘what if’ moment that threw me off course a bit.  Anyway, my harness, with me in it, slid back to the middle after failing to make it all the way over, and there I was hanging goodness knows how many feet above the ground quite stuck.  I looked down at the ground feeling suddenly sick with fear and a very sweet looking man putting rubbish out the back of the cafe below smiled at me.  Or did he smirk.  Who knows? I was fucking terrified!  “Hello??” I called; horrible, hideous, terrifying thoughts racing through my mind, adrenalin pricking my cheeks.  “Hi,” said a voice from below, “what’s your name?”  I told him and he then explained he was going to give me an extra wire to grab onto.  “Ok!”  No one looked terribly panicked.  Well, no one expect me that is.  I felt really panicked.  I kinda wanted to burst into tears.  In fact, it was pretty bloody terrifying actually.  At the time.

But of course, I grabbed the wire, pulled myself over to the next platform and then stood very quietly by a steady and sturdy tree and tried to gather myself.  “Do you want to carry on?”  “No!” I replied, “not really”, the thought of any more hanging mid air really too much just at that moment.  “You’re nearly there,” said the kind voice.  “Ok,” I reluctantly agreed.  But I took my time.  Staying very still and letting the fear subside.  And suddenly as I stood there, everything became really clear and focused in my mind.

Shit, I thought.  You have to face your fears.  You have to do some weird and crazy stuff, like climbing up trees and flying  down wires.  You can’t just sit at your desk the whole time.  Or hide under your duvet, which obviously was for many years my default position.  But you can’t, especially if you’re going to take any decent photographs.  Because let’s face it, any monkey can learn how to press a button on a camera.  But if you want to do more than that, you have to take risks and put yourself in scary situations and push the boundaries of what you’re doing.  Again and again.  And for some of us, well for me, things can seem scary until they’ve been done – and I realise they weren’t that scary after all.  Or even if they were, I still managed to get through it and do something positive.

When I first went out to take photographs of actors for free in order to get some experience and build a portfolio, I was shitting myself.  And then when I set up and published my website, I was so frightened of what the world might say, I can’t tell you.  And then when I went to do some corporate jobs when I still felt I had really no idea what I was doing (I did though, actually, just less than I know now), I was so bloody scared, I nearly burst into tears on the way.

I have to say, one of the reasons I feel I was able to put myself in any of those situations, despite my innate desire to climb under the duvet,  is because after having found myself lying a pool of snot and grief on the floor three years ago, following the break up of my marriage, which was perhaps the scariest thing I have ever been through by far, I realised I can pretty much face most things.  Suffice to say, it has been a catalyst for all sorts of pretty challenging changes.  And definitely for the good too, I’m sure.

I must tell you though, that I still get nervous, but only because I really want to do a good job; and thankfully, no longer to the point where I can barely move, or where I spend more energy trying to quell the terror than I spend on just getting the job done.  The more you get out there and do it, the easier it becomes.  But the challenges you set yourself get harder, just like the levels at GoApe do.  There are barriers inside me that I have to overcome and always will be.  And maybe I’ll get stuck now and again but thankfully, there are people like the man who handed me the wire to help. Phew!  So, on I went and when I reached the last zip wire I made the people there promise me I’d be able to get across without getting stuck again and guess what, I did!

In the end I had a fantastic time.  It was so much fun and despite the slightly terrifying moment dangling from a wire between two trees in the middle of the air, I am absolutely pleased to bits I didn’t remember how bloody shit scared I used to be of heights and went along.  Thanks so much to Nic from Raring2Go for the invite! My muscles are really sore so I know I got some exercise. And all in all, it feels like a very good thing that I’m off for a drink with my friends now – I think I deserve it.  Here are some pics from the morning.  Stay well, SJ


All images (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015

Click here for more info about GoApe Battersea Park

Training – yeah, it’s quite easy two inches from the ground


Nic from Raring2Go


Scary… but really pretty too


Grabbing hold of the equipment


Rope wall – quite high up actually!


These were so wobbly but Nic has the right technique, holding on to the ropes on either side


My view


He was very sure of himself, up there on the wobbly, wobbly crossing


Press photographer taking pics


“It’s just a pole!!” I kept muttering; think he thought it was funny


Really, those are our choices…. geez!


This guy was so great. “You’ve done it!” he said. Some people bailed out, but not me!


Nic and I have a well earned coffee afterwards.