I had seen high-ropes courses before. This one didn't really look any different at first. I knew that this time I had to actually go up on it, but, sure, I could do that. It wasn't until the instructors had shown us how to use all the safety equipment and the first person was heading up that I realized, "damn, that's high!"
As I watched the first daring participant on the high-ropes I really got an idea how high ten metres really is: about ten metres if you're on the ground, but a thousand times that if you're standing on a thin wire with just a rope to hold on to.
But I didn't have to go up for maybe ten more minutes. Still plenty of time to build up my nerves and, sure enough, by the time it was my turn I was plenty nervous.
"Just wait for this person to jump and then you can go on up," Richard tells me. I wait for Samantha to jump. That's the last element on the course: jumping from ten metres up and being safely lowered down by the belay. There's no other way down. Samantha jumps and I start climbing up the ladder, knowing that there won't be any avoiding the final jump. I don't care; I'm too busy worrying about the first element: a simple walk across a log.
I've walked across logs like this many times. I can easily make it without falling. Or I can easily fall.
I have a cord attached to my safety harness, which goes through the pulley above me and back down to Richard. If I slip, the ropes will keep me from falling. I'm only slightly reassured; ropes can break.
I take a step onto the log and then just keep going. I know it's harder to keep from falling if I'm standing still plus I want to get off that element as soon as possible. I make it across without falling but I hold on to the belay cord for mental support. Never mind that it's attached to my harness. I don't trust that.
Once I make it across the log I get to climb another ladder another three metres or so. It's only about five metres high but I'll be going even higher soon.
Once I'm up the ladder I start walking across a cord. This time I have a rope to hold on to, but I'm also a lot higher up and the cord I'm walking on wobbles a lot more than the log did. It's also a lot thinner.
I get across the cord and climb up the tree a bit to attach the "lobster claws" that will hopefully keep me from falling once I remove the belay. "Permission to attach first lobster claw?"
"Great, now how do these things work again?"
I manage to get both lobster claws attached without any trouble, aside from getting one looped around my neck for a moment, and then I try to unhook the belay. It won't come off.
I look ahead. After this I climb a little higher, go across a net, climb higher, go across a log, climb higher, go across two cords, then go onto a little platform, switch back onto belay, and jump. I decide to concentrate on what I'm doing right now.
After eternity passes about three times I finally manage to get the belay cord unhooked and lowered back down to Richard.
The next element is easy: just a net I have to climb across. Plenty of handholds and footholds. Which isn't to say I'm not terrified. I look down and see the onlookers watching ("onlooking", I should say). My first thought is that they don't look like ants. Everybody says that people look like ants from high enough up, and I sure feel like I should be high enough by now, but they just look like people to me. They're all expecting me to make it through the course without any problems. Nobody else had any trouble, and I have the advantage of being taller than any of them.
My older brother has wandered away. He probably doesn't even like to watch other people do this. Last summer when my dad was working on the eaves on our house I was the one who had to climb up on wobbly scaffolding to help him because my brother "really doesn't like heights." Apparently I don't really not like them. I'm just pretending.
I get across the net safely and head out onto the log. "Hey, Luca! How's your fear of heights doing?"
My fear of heights? It's doing just great. Now ask how I'm doing.
"You know, you guys should really add a way for wimps (like me) to decide to come down whenever we want. You know, add a ladder every two feet or something."
"Aw, come on! You're doing great!"
Uh, huh. Actually, if I really felt like "wimping out" I could just let go and hang from the safety ropes for a few minutes. Once I'd done that I wouldn't really have to worry about falling 'cause I would've done it without getting hurt. But I didn't come up here to hang from safety ropes; I came up here to make it through the entire course without falling.
I transfer the lobster claws to the next cord and start across the log. It's higher than the first one and twice as long. Again I hold onto the safety ropes as I cross. After a long ten seconds I make it across the log and step up onto one of the staples in the tree to switch the lobster claws onto the next element. I have to support myself with just one leg on the staple and my right arm wrapped around the trunk of the tree. By the time I get the first lobster claw switched my leg's tired and the arm around the tree trunk feels like it's about to disconnect from my shoulder. I just want to let go and hang from the cables to rest but I'm too scared. Not only might I fall to my untimely death (did I attach the safety ropes correctly or did I screw them all up so they'll come unattached as soon as I put any weight on them?), but there are about twenty people watching too. Gotta keep going.
One wire, about two centimetres thick, and three ropes hanging down from above. You Tarzan, me scared. Glancing down at the people on the ground, I notice most of them aren't even watching. My dad's standing around talking to some guy I don't know and my mom's casually chatting with Karen Firebaugh. Here I am risking my life and they're calmly discussing the weather. Well, with any luck, I will be too in a few minutes.
Grabbing the first rope, I start across the wire. I'm reminded of the ending of a song I had heard earlier:
Ladies and gentlemen: The Flying Fritz Brothers! Oooh! Ahhh! Oops. AAAAAAA! I had found it tremendously amusing at the time. It seems less so now. Some music just wasn't designed to be listened to right before going on the high-ropes course.
The first two ropes are close enough together that I can use the first one for support until I get to the second. It's just like standing on the ground and hanging onto a rope while leaning forward. The problem with that is that when you lean forward you could also swing to the side. Of course, anything that can go wrong will. Luckily, I'm holding the first rope high enough up that it can't swing too far over. Had I been holding onto the end I'd be almost horizontal, like a bridge between the wire and the rope.
I use both hands to pull myself up straight again and try it again. This time I get it safely and, releasing the first rope, I continue onwards. There's a much bigger space between this rope and the next. There will be about a metre where I won't be able to use either rope for support.
As I reach the end of the second rope's range I glance down (oh, good, the ground's still visible) and then ahead. I can hold onto the second rope the whole time but it won't help keep my feet on the wire. I walk as fast as I can without falling and make it all the way across without falling.
I made it: no more logs to cross, no more wires to traverse. I'm done!
Except for that big-ass jump from the platform. They had told me this was the best part of the course. "They" being experts who had done it thousands of times.
"You have two choices," John tells me as he helps me switch back to belay. "You can 'Do the Dew' and just lean over backwards, or you can jump and try to get the rope."
"The rope" is a little rope hanging about two metres away from me and about ten metres above the ground.
I look up at the pulley the belay is attached to. Then I look down at the person holding the other end of the belay. She's probably 40 kilograms. I'm 63 kilograms. Hmmm...
"If I manage to grab the rope, I won't be able to hold on."
"You don't have to hold on. Just touch it," John says.
But I know that if I do manage to grab the rope then I'm going to hold on for all I'm worth. Hanging from that rope until I can't hold on any longer would not be fun.
And blindly falling over backwards would be?
I grab the belay cord for reassurance and jump out towards the rope. I manage to grab it with one hand but can't hold on. As it slides out of my grasp my heart seems to stop. I feel myself falling and imagine what it would feel like to fall like this forever. Landing doesn't seem half as bad as the actual fall. But after a few seconds of free-fall I slow down. Everybody people cheers as I hang there from the belay, the first person to actually touch the rope. "Okay. That was fun. Can I come down now?" Even before I finish my sentence I feel myself being slowly lowered down to the ground.
My legs shake as I remove the belay and take off the harness. That was easily the most terrifying ten minutes of my life.
I hope I can do it again next spring.
But no sooner.