Don’t drive off that cliff!

Pike's Peak Highway
Pike’s Peak Highway

On a recent trip through Colorado, my family and I took the opportunity to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak. If you haven’t visited Pike’s Peak and get the chance, I highly recommend it. One of Colorado’s famous 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet), Pike’s Peak (a National Landmark) features both a highway and a cog train to the top. These two routes give many people relatively easy access to reach a height they otherwise might not be able to. Of course for the more fleet of foot or sadomasochistic, you can always run or bike to the top.

As we slowly ascended the mountain in the family SUV, the air grew thinner and my palms grew sweatier. Struck by the relative lack of guardrails on many of the exposed turns, I wondered if the Park Service didn’t employ a sort of Darwinistic approach to road design when building the road. If you’re dumb enough to drive too fast at 14,000 feet, maybe you should get what you deserve.

We approached the summit on the exposed last gentle curve and my mind struggled to think about what lay over the edge. I saw road seemingly ending in sky in front of me, and to our right the precipice beckoned eerily at my mind. I realized the absurdity of a flipflop-clad right foot (poor choice of driving shoe) separating us from death and straddled the yellow line while praying we wouldn’t meet a descending automobile. Just as I felt the urge to floor the accelerator and turn the wheel to the right, we safely pulled into the parking lot at the top.

Turns out the urge I felt isn’t that unique and there’s even a name for the psychological phenomenon that many people feel in similar high places – High Place Phenomenon (HPP). A couple of years ago (2011), researchers began to conduct studies on the phenomenon to try to understand why some people feel the urge to jump when they find themselves at heights or on ledges. What they found was that anxiety prone individuals feel the urge as a sort of self-preservation (fight or flight) response. Just as the urge triggered me to straddle the yellow line, scientists postulate that the anxiety serves as a mechanism to prevent us from doing anything stupid.

In my work-life, I’ve always appreciated the motivation that comes from stress and anxiety associated with a deadline or big meeting. And stepping outside of the office bubble and experiencing it in a real world situation definitely makes you feel alive!