As long as I can remember I have had a fear of heights, or to be more specific, a fear of falling. I recall when I was in grade two I had to climb a massive wooden structure, which I was sure, rose hundreds of metres in the air (or so it seemed). Slowly I climbed, palms soaked with sweat, and when I reached the top I had to maneuver through a small opening and come down the other side.
I froze, with absolutely no intention of moving, staring timidly down to the ant-sized classmates below. My teacher, a Christian Brother (this was after all in the Netherlands, and Brothers were in the same category as drill sergeants), was coaxing me to descend. After a few minutes of terrifying torture, he ended up climbing the massive contraption and helping me down. I still recall the embarrassment, especially when I stared at the wooden lattice, which was actually only three or four metres high.
Since then, I have always tried to avoid climbing anything; however, it seems there is always something trying to challenge my fear. When we first moved to Canada, the thing to do was head to Niagara Falls and climb the 200+ steps of Brock’s Monument. I remember doing it, but I certainly wasn’t overly thrilled at the prospect. Outdoor Christmas lights were always at eyelevel and painting would only go six or so feet (that’s why they invented borders).
Then, one day I found myself in Australia with the task of climbing Ayers Rock (also known as Uluru). You may be familiar with the massive monolith, which from a distance appears quite flat across the top. The climb up was extremely steep, and quite slippery. I discovered after my descent, that each year about 20 people are blown off the rock to their death.
After a strenuous 90 minute adventure to the top, I was only halfway there. Surprisingly it was not a smooth walk across the top. There were valleys about three metres deep so you have to run down one side to make it up the other.
Getting down was even more treacherous. Once you return to the edge, you have to turn and crawl with your palms flat behind you. It takes another hour to get down, which is a long time for me to go without breathing.
A few years ago we decided to do the CN Tower Edge Walk. For someone with a fear of heights, this is mind blowing. The anticipation made me tremble and the sheer thought of what I was about to undertake sent my pulse from a calm 65 or so, to well over a hundred. Sure it was safe, but that didn’t matter. It was the most terrifying half hour I have ever spent.
Last year, while in Sri Lanka, I found myself on a path to Sigarya Rock, a 200 metre outcrop which is climbed regularly by tourists. A series of metal steps were bolted to the side of the rock, however, once you are underway you quickly realize that many of the bolts are missing, and the stairs are very wobbly.
I would have been happy hugging the wall, eyes closed, inching my way to the top, except it was also the way down and no one wanted the outside of the meter wide step. There were many unsavory comments shared between climbers. Fortunately it was only a four hour trek (up and down), which to me seemed to last a few days.
Quite often I am able to boast about my climbing ability, like the time I ascended Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. I only went up about 3 metres, but usually leave that part of the story out.
The Great Wall of China was another treacherous climb, as parts of it are so steep you have to crawl on your hands and knees. Richard Nixon did it, so there was no way I was going to be outdone by him.
I think my scariest moment during my climbing career was zip lining in Costa Rica. It was my first experience at swinging through trees, other than playing Tarzan in the ravine where I grew up as a kid.
The zip lines stopped and started from small wooden platforms, the size of a postage stamp, but the frightening part was climbing up 20 or 30 rung ladders to the next platform. The ladders were fastened to the trees with wire or rope and the zip lines were about 150 metres above the rain forest. There were eleven lines, the longest being 200 metres, and I only recall seeing three guides on the entire trek.
At one point a woman was coming in from a zip and did not break in time. I stood on the platform and watched her zoom in and flip over the pulley system. I knelt to help her and saw her shoulder had been torn quite badly. Her husband came in, seconds later and there was not enough room for the three of us. Fortunately I saw a guide at the next platform and told him what had happened. It certainly added to the nervousness of the remainder of my trek.
People who have no fear of heights will never be able to appreciate the anxiety one feels when ascending anything higher than a kitchen step stool. For those of us who are inflicted with this terrifying infirmity I will always remember the famous words of Sheldon Cooper who said “It’s not the fear of heights that bothers me as much as the fear of falling.”