The bark is rough on my cheek. I stretch my arms further around the tree, my hands digging into its grooves with my fingers. I am trying in vain to stabilize my precarious perch on the wooden platform that is swaying in the breeze at the top of the tree. I am literally a tree-hugger at this point, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is the conservation of me, not the tree, with which I am concerned…
My husband and I were staying at a camp in the southern mountains of the Sierra Nevadas for a couple of weeks of rest and relaxation. We decided to sign up for the ropes course at the camp we were staying near. “How fun!” I thought. “This will be just like the Amazing Race.”
In all my excitement there is one thing I forgot: I am terrified of heights.
They call it “High Adventure”. You’d think that the name itself would have been enough to tip me off as to what was involved. It wasn’t exactly subtle. It is a ropes course designed to help you overcome your fear of heights and learn to trust your ability to succeed when challenging yourself in the face of fear. Unfortunately for me, I read the course description after I completed the ropes course.
It all began with the parasailing debacle years before in Florida. I was vacationing in Naples with my boyfriend at the time. We were up on a cable about a thousand feet, maybe more, dangling from a canvas sling under a striped parachute flapping in the gusty Floridian wind as it was being dragged behind a motorboat.
My boyfriend was swinging back and forth with his hands off the safety chains, head thrown back in wild abandon joyously shouting “Isn’t this great?”
I didn't answer him, terror rendering my power of speech useless. But I was thinking at him really hard “No. Stop swinging. Not at all… Please stop swinging.”
Of course, he took my white-knuckled grip on the chains and grim silence to mean that I was overcome with delight at our perilous perch high above the blue-green waters below. His lack of perception is one of the many reasons why he is not my boyfriend anymore.
So it was when I was clinging to the parasail dangling over the Gulf coast mentally preparing my last will and testament when I realized for the first time that I was not good with heights.
I seem, however, to have selective memory when it comes to my fear of heights. It’s always after I’m committed to the horrifying situation that I remember how frightened I am in high places. This includes airplanes, but not because I have a fear of flying because I don’t. I have a fear of crashing.
Regular old smooth, uneventful flights are no big deal to me. But once you hit the Rockies and bounce a little, my illusion of safety is shattered and I am in full-scale crisis mode, albeit internally (mostly). You probably do not want to sit next to me on a turbulent flight. That is, unless we are on Southwest airlines because I have enough drink tickets to make us forget our names.
So because of my fear-of-heights amnesia and poor reading skills, I was halfway up the climbing wall on the High Adventure course when I remembered my fear. I froze with panic bubbling up in my belly and radiating off me in waves.
Luckily, my husband, far more perceptive than the aforementioned boyfriend, came to my aid by climbing up next to me and encouraging me up to the top of the wall. I was relieved. But since the rock wall was considered the warm-up for the course, I knew I was in trouble.
In the High Adventure course you progress through four challenges. The first challenge was the rock- climbing wall. Next, you put on a safety harness and attach two safety lines with carabineers to the various cables strung throughout the pines and firs of the otherwise serene forest. These lines keep you "safe" while you walk across more cables, balance beams, and other ridiculously high obstacles. After that you move on to the third phase where you climb a telephone pole, hoist yourself onto the top of it, then leap off the pole to grab a trapeze swinging a few feet in front of you. The final phase culminates in an exercise called the screamer, aptly named for the reaction it induces as participants plunge in a free fall from the highest platform until safety gear jerks you back from a game of chicken you are playing with the force of gravity.
Inching across a cable umpteen-something feet from the forest floor in the second phase of the course, I was in full-blown terror mode. Tears streamed down my face unabashedly while my hands shook violently on the cable above. Instructors half my age had to coax me from station to station employing their best positive reinforcement training to keep me from descending into a panic attack. Or should I say, further into a panic attack.
I was balanced on a cable beneath my feet like a tightrope that I was supposed to walk across while my hands were on another cable above my head when I had my epiphany.
From my vantage point, I could see that the instructors gathering below to discuss the blubbering idiot woman on the second phase. They were all but rock-paper-scissoring to see who would come save my ridiculous heiny from the contraption.
There was no reason why I couldn't do this. Little kids sometimes do the ropes course. Plus, I was harnessed in by not one, but two safety lines. And all this shaking and crying and freaking out were just plain embarrassing. I got mad. I decided that I could not let this course beat me.
Adrenaline coursed through my limbs. My arms shook from the exertion. I looked a lot like a fly caught in a web struggling to free itself with jerky desperate moves. My fingers and forearms ached from gripping the overhead cables with all my strength. But I finished the second phase without hurting myself, falling, or peeing in my pants.
Next was the telephone pole/trapeze snatch. Many people had attempted it by the time I got there and few had succeeded in grabbing the trapeze. With my newfound determination, however, I was confident that I would not only climb to the top but that I would snatch that trapeze like a circus performer.
The time for tears was behind me. All that was left of the doubt and fear that paralyzed me in the trees was an ache in my muscles. I balanced myself on the telephone pole and focused on the rhythm of the trapeze swaying just out of reach in front of me. I waited until the right moment and then leaped.
I don’t think I realized I grabbed it until I heard the uproarious cheer from my fellow participants who had gathered to below to watch. I was elated. I couldn’t smile any bigger or swagger any prouder after they lowered me down. But I still had one last phase to complete: the Screamer.
I was one of the first ones to drop in a free fall off the super tall platform. Not first, mind you. I had to make sure that I wouldn’t scream louder than the other people and embarrass myself. When I was sufficiently satisfied that I wouldn’t shame anyone I knew, I harnessed up.
I stepped out to the edge of the weathered planks, staring down at the wood chips sprinkled below to give us the illusion of a softer landing should anything go awry. The point of the exercise was to surrender to your fear. I had done that back on phase two, so I knew I could handle it. As instructed, I crossed my arms and fell back into the abyss.
The free fall was exhilarating. I could still feel my stomach drop and my panic rise, but I could also feel the sunshine and the wind surrounding me. As the safety gear yanked me up in an arcing bounce, my High Adventure was complete. As the course had intended, I had overcome my fear.
But it did more than that. I also felt confident and proud that no matter what challenge life threw at me, I could survive it. It might not be pretty or executed exactly how I imagined but I would manage, perhaps even triumph.
I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m not afraid of heights anymore, but I can tell you that I accept my fear for what it is, an obstacle to overcome. Because of that I wouldn’t change my High Adventure experience.
That being said, I probably wouldn't sign up to do it again either.
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