In 2005, I decided to free-climb the steepest steps in the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Nicknamed the “stairway to heaven,” these 900-year old stone steps rise at a 70% gradient for maybe 50-60 feet to the upper temple terrace.
The steps were made so steep, it’s said, to remind ancient visitors of the difficulty of achieving enlightenment.
Many tourists free-climb the steps.
Not many get halfway up, freeze in terror, and stay that way for half an hour before moving again.
Just one, really. That was my contribution.
You don’t have to free-climb to get to the top; the upper temple is also accessible via the opposite side, where one can find modern steps and a handrail. But many people choose to do it the hard way—usually those without any fear of heights.
I have a low-grade fear of heights. It’s nothing extreme; I can go hiking and peer off the edge of cliffs without too much trouble—as long as my footing is secure. But my stomach will do flips if I think falling is a real concern.
This was my thinking as I stood at the base of the temple, pondering whether to take the modern steps with the handrail or be brave and free-climb the steep ones. I chose the hard way. They were real steps, after all—it’s not like I was about to climb the face of a cliff.
Let me set the scene with some images. Here is a pic I took of part of the steps at the central Angkor Wat temple:
Doesn’t seem that bad, right? It’s a trick of perspective—you can’t tell the gradient when looking straight at them. There’s a much better one here.
But you really need to see people free-climbing them. I couldn’t find any pics in the public domain, so I’ll have to link.
Here is a happy, confident, super-annoying couple looking totally unconcerned as they climb.
I like this woman better—she at least manages to look a little nervous while she smiles.
So there I was, standing at the bottom, feeling brave and Indiana Jones-ish. The idea of taking the easy route with the “normal” tourists did not appeal to me.
My guide, a nice Cambodian teenager training to be an official guide for the temple complex, was smarter. He warned me not to do it. I asked him why, and he said anytime a person stands there wondering if they should make the climb, it means they should not make the climb.
But there were already people on the way up. I could see them. It didn’t look hard.
I started up. My guide stayed at the bottom step, putting himself directly in line with me. Maybe he thought if I fell, his legs would stop my corpse from rolling into more tourists.
The first ten feet were fine. I leaned forward, took one step at a time, hands gripping the steps above me.
The second ten were harder. I lost my sense of scale. The gradient seemed steeper with every inch. Even though I was leaning forward, it began to feel like gravity was exerting more pull on my back than my front.
The next ten feet were horrible. By now, my brain was racing through the logistics of what a fall would actually mean. It was all stone below. If I slipped and went down, I’d have to curl up into a ball and use both arms to protect my head, leaving the rest of me at the mercy of rock and gravity. Multiple broken bones at the very least.
Even worse, I’m in the Cambodian jungle. There might be an amazing hospital right around the corner with a staff trained specifically to help idiots like me… but there might be nothing at all, too.
About forty feet up, I just stop.
It feels like I’m holding onto a vertical wall. I’m sure that even the tiniest movement will send me tumbling to the bottom. I keep my ear pressed against the steps, head facing sideways. I can’t look up or down.
My “low-grade” fear of heights is now a genuine pathology. I want to travel back in time, find the version of me that made this decision, and punch him.
After five minutes, my guide starts shouting encouragement to me. There isn’t much farther to go, he says. His words do not help. I don’t even respond; the vocal-cord vibration required for a shout back would dislodge my body.
Five more minutes pass. As I stand there frozen, a 70-year old Lao woman free-climbs past me with a perfectly bored expression on her face.
Next comes an eight-year-old girl. By herself. She is having so much fun that she turns full-body circles every few feet just to show she can.
I still don’t move. I can’t. My thoughts have moved past “what happens if I fall” to “what else should I have done with my life?”
I should have watched more movies. I should have ridden a horse (still haven’t).
More people pass. A German couple climbs by. They could be in their 70s, too; I wonder if the universe is sending me a sign.
About fifteen minutes have passed now. Down at the bottom, my guide decides to try a different motivational strategy to get me moving. He shouts “You are embarrassed! You are an embarrassed person. Everyone knows you are silly!” (His English was good, not perfect.)
I wonder if a crowd has gathered below to gawk at the silly Westerner who got himself trapped on the steps. But even that doesn’t get me moving. I don’t care who watches. These are the last minutes of my life (or possibly hours, depending on how long I can stand upright in one place), and I prefer to spend them hating myself.
Ten more minutes pass. I’ve probably seen thirty people go by me at this point. Not one of them asks if I’m ok or if I need help. Fine.
But there is a bigger problem brewing. I need to pee.
I had needed to pee even before I started climbing, but it was one of those “I’ll knock this out and find a bathroom after” situations. Because Indiana Jones, you know.
That was twenty-five minutes ago, and the persistent terror had advanced my pee-timeline considerably.
As it turns out, the only thing more powerful than my fear of death was imagining the next day’s newspaper headline.
“Western Tourist Wets Pants, Falls Down Steps, Dies”
I started climbing again. “Oozing” is more like it; I tried to melt into the rock. I wanted to be a vine. Or maybe a lichen, covering an inch of new territory every 24 hours.
It took another ten minutes for me to go up the next ten feet, but that got me to the top. I walked right to the modern stairs, grabbed the handrail, and hurried back down. A few evil tourists clapped when I reached the bottom.
What are the lessons to be learned from my proudest moment? I’ve worked up a short list:
1) Stay inside.
2) Never do things.
3) Write about temples instead of climbing them.
4) Use the handrail.
5) 70-year old Lao women will kick your ass.
6) Never put off going to the bathroom.
7) Treat 1% fear of heights as if it is 100% fear of heights.
8) Stay inside.
*I did some googling and found the Angkor Wat steps included in a CNN article called “The World’s Scariest Stairs.” I’m glad to see it included there.
**Re-reading this, I realize the first paragraph makes me sound like some kind of thrill-seeker who traveled around the world looking to “free-climb” crazy things. The opposite is true (in case the story didn’t make that clear). I went to Angkor Wat as a tourist, not specifically to tackle the steps. I didn’t even know about the steps until I got there. And “free-climb” is probably not the right term–that’s what extreme people do–I just couldn’t think of another term to indicate that I went up without use of a handrail or ropes.