HomeTravelDestinationsTrapped 2000m above terra firma

Trapped 2000m above terra firma

Dianne Motton’s crippling fear of heights almost became justified in this holiday mishap for the ages.


I had always been scared of heights, ever since being an undergraduate standing on the top floor of the Ming Wing at Monash University and feeling the building sway slightly in the wind. How I managed to be stuck in a cable car, 2000m above ground in Spain, is still a mystery.

In 2001, I had dragged the daughters to Bilbao, on the northern Spanish coastline, to see the soaring titanium building of the Guggenheim museum, intent on sharing modern art with the family. This proved to be the only redeeming feature in the vast industrial sprawl along the northern coastline of Spain.

Looking for the next adventure, the guidebook listed Fuente De, a cable car ride in the Picos de Europa, as an interesting side trip to make. Mmmm … This could keep the culturally over-nourished children amused, I thought, in the Disneyland style of entertainment, suitable for a seven and a nine-year-old.

But when we arrived at the site, watching the red cable cars swing their way up into the mist-shrouded peaks, my old fears returned and I pleaded to bail out, abandoning the family to adventurous husband.

The children egged me on, “Come on, mum, don’t be a chicken! It’ll be fun!”

Going up was fine, freezing cold at the summit, but 10 seconds into the return downward trip, a loud bang emanated from above and we stopped, swaying in mid-air.

Mild interest at first turned to major panic attacks, as a technician climbed on the roof of the car and banged and thumped, trying to unjam the brakes. Coldness began to seep through the aluminium floor. I have indelibly printed on my mind the shape and texture of the handrail that I frantically gripped. Fellow passengers turned assorted shades of grey, some swayed back and forth clutching crucifixes and no-one spoke English!

Husband tried to point out the eagles floating on an updraft near the cable car, attempting to distract me from my fears.

“More like bloody vultures,” I tersely replied, not at all convinced about husband’s ornithological knowledge. Images of the family lying on the ground amid the twisted wreckage, our flesh torn from our bodies by wild birds, came to mind.

Just the week before I had read one of those gripping fiction books whose main character is a forensic pathologist. The opening chapter focused on identifying bodies after a plane crash. With a macabre sense of reassurance, I patted my pockets to feel for our passports, aware that if we crashed to the ground at least our bodies would be identifiable.

The technician continued to thump and bang on the roof of the cable car, the reverberations jangling on the nerves. Wave after wave of panic attacks assaulted me, especially if I dared to look down at the ground, the buildings and roads mere dots and lines on the brown and green canvas below. 

“Will we be on television?” my seven-year-old asked naively, succinctly capturing my worst imaginings.

I burst into tears, sure that my obsession with travel had killed my children. I absurdly prayed to any god out there who would listen, to at least spare them. Husband, meanwhile, videotaped my wailing, in the sure and certain faith that nothing really was wrong, and all would resolve itself.

And damn it, he was right. Eventually, an hour later, the brake was freed, and we descended, to, thankfully, kiss terra firma.

Elation followed. Then came the negotiations with husband and a promise to never show our family video to anyone.

Have you taken this cable car ride? Are you afraid of heights? What sort of bucket-list attractions would your fear of heights prevent you from experiencing? What would you give to see Dianne’s holiday video?

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