Deep inside the brain you’ll find the amygdalae. These are two almond-shaped knots of gray matter that process primordial emotional reactions, such as fear, dread and anxiety. The really interesting thing about amygdalae, though, is their ability to bypass the prefrontal cortex: that part of the brain responsible for rational thought. The amygdalae, then, are the reason why terror trumps logic.
Imagine, for example, you’re standing on a glass walkway thousands of feet above the ground. You look down and see a plunging drop beneath your feet. In your rational mind, you know the glass is perfectly solid: it won’t crack, and you won’t fall. But all the amygdalae see is oblivion.
Enter the sympathetic nervous system, that physiological structure responsible for kick-starting the fight-or-flight response. Having evolved to protect us from physical threats, it is one of the oldest and most powerful biological systems in our bodies. And once it’s activated, a flood of stress hormones and adrenaline readies us for action.
At this point, you may experience a range of visceral reactions. For instance, accelerated heart rate, nausea, dizziness, trembling and tunnel vision are all common symptoms of the body’s fight-or-flight response. At its most extreme, it can overwhelm the mind entirely and result in freezing, paralysis or even blackouts.
So what happens next? Assuming you haven’t fainted or had a cardiac arrest, you have a number of options available. Deep breathing will calm the heart. Closing your eyes will block the fear-triggers from view. Clinging to the handrails – or, better yet, crawling on your hands and knees – will add a sense of physical security. Ultimately, you just need to get through it.
No doubt, fear is an unpleasant emotion that most people try to avoid. However, it does have an enticing flip side: exhilaration. Under controlled circumstances, fear can be invigorating and even enjoyable. It is part of the reason why we watch horror movies, ride roller coasters and participate in extreme sports.
It is also part of the reason why tourists are flocking to the Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk in China – that, and its stunning mountain views. Opened to the public on August 1, 2016, the 328-foot-long glass walkway clings to a high cliff edge on Tianmen Mountain. Its elevation is a staggering 4,600 feet, while the drop below is vertical and unobstructed.
Punctuated with woodlands, lakes, waterfalls, caves and a towering “forest” of stone pillars – all immersed in an ocean of clouds – the natural scenery in this far-flung corner of Hunan Province is nothing short of arresting. The region is so otherworldly, in fact, that it is said to have inspired the Hallelujah Mountains in the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar.
Tianmen Mountain – or, “Heaven’s Door” Mountain – is considered one of the most beautiful peaks in China. Located approximately 900 miles from Beijing near the city of Zhangjiajie, the 4,983-foot-high giant draws hikers, photographers and scores of visitors keen to take in its vistas and explore the surrounding countryside.
Getting to the Coiling Dragon Cliff means using the famous “Heaven-Linking Avenue” – a precarious access road leading up the slopes of the mountain. Considered by some to be one of the most dangerous roads in China, it features an astonishing 99 hairpin turns. This is a superb test of your driving skills as much as it is your ability to tolerate heights.
A safe and more attractive option is the cable car. Starting in Zhangjiajie city, the cableway runs for more than four miles and is considered the world’s longest. It takes a full 30 minutes to complete the ascent, which includes an acute incline of 37 degrees at its steepest point. Needless to say, the views are reportedly stunning.
At the top of the mountain you’ll then find a 100-foot-wide hole in the rocks – the eponymous “Heaven’s Door.” Also known as Tianmen Cave, the archway is a natural formation that was created with the collapse of a cliff face approximately 1,700 years ago. In fact, the structure is thought to be the highest such arch in the world
Incidentally, on September 25, 2011, Jeb Corliss became the first person to fly through Tianmen Cave in a wingsuit. In fact, Tianmen Mountain was chosen to host the first and second World Wingsuit Championships. Sadly, though, one contender, Viktor Kováts, met his end during the second event when his parachute failed to open.
Access to Tianmen Cave is via a footpath with a brutal 999 steps – with the number 9 being a symbol of eternity in Chinese culture. The good news is that by the time you finish your everlasting climb, you’ll probably have worn out your adrenal glands. In other words, you’ll be too tired to be afraid.
Interestingly, though, the Coiling Dragon Cliff walkway is actually only one of several terror-inducing skywalks in the region. Tianmen’s first and original glass walkway is called the “Walk of Faith.” Opened in November 2011, the walkway is 197 feet long and 5 feet wide. And, at an altitude of 4,600 feet, it boasts a similar elevation to that of the Coiling Dragon.
Also at Tianmen, the stomach-churning “Cliff-Hanging Walkway” runs for about a mile around the summit of the mountain. It doesn’t have a glass floor, but it does have an open handrail with vertiginous drops. Moreover, since it is many times longer than either of the glass skywalks, it is in some ways considerably scarier.
Also located in Hunan Province, the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge opened to visitors on August 20, 2016. Running for 1,410 feet across a 984-foot-deep canyon, it is the longest and highest glass bridge on the planet. And as if that weren’t enough to get the adrenaline pumping, visitors can bungee jump off of it. You know, if they really want to.
Naturally, the builders of the bridge understand that visitors may be skeptical about its safety. So, in June 2016, they decided to crack the glass in one section and drive a car full of people over it. The glass held and continues to hold, though daily visitor numbers are apparently restricted to 8,000.
Understandably, then, skywalks are becoming hugely popular in China. But there are plenty of other places around the world to get your high-altitude adrenalin fix. In Austria, for example, the “stairway to nothingness” overlooks a drop of 1,300 feet. Meanwhile, in Toronto the CN Tower offers an “EdgeWalk” around the country’s tallest structure; safety harnesses are obligatory.
Instinctively, vertigo sufferers may want to forgo such attractions, but according to behavioral psychologists, total exposure to our phobias can radically cure them. The technique is called “flooding,” and if you’re able to use your rational mind to withstand your irrational fear of heights, you’ll never again experience vertigo. Just remember to look down!