It was up to me when in the day to make the climb. Hell, it was up to me which day to do it, and I picked the last possible day of my visit. For some reason I had decided within myself that I only needed to do it once. Once, to prove I could do it, to not let myself or her, whom I’d watched do it AT LEAST twice a day, down (There were more climbs of hers I missed because I slept in while she was up at dawn.) Whether I wanted to do it or not seemed secondary. It was like having a pool to swim at that was a bit too cold. Sure it would be refreshing but procrastination still ruled. I did, of course, want to see the tower, her workplace for five months, how she had arranged it, how, cool as she is, she’d even gotten a stationary bike up there. I was, of course, scared, though it’s hard to say of what. I guess of heights, for I do have fear of heights, just one more aging-related phobia. But that comes and goes. The fear was vague but very physically present: trepidation.
The harness, she adjusted in advance for me, and the cable sleeve, she put in place. I postponed the climb until the late afternoon, mostly out of severe grogginess due to bad sleep the night before. And when I knew I could put it off no longer, I put the harness on, and gloves. Only when she recommended the gloves, a recommendation she yelled down from the top of the tower, a recommendation which had not been mentioned before, did it occur to me that this might not be quite as physically easy as I tried to tell myself it would be. I had thought I only have to get over the fear. Now I suddenly realised I was brimming with fresh-thought terror that I might not be physically strong enough to make it all the way up. It was, after all, a long way up: 110 ten feet, to be accurate. I am generally fit, but when was the last time I ever climbed something like that? Oh yeah. Never.
My friend assured me I could take as many breaks as I wanted, as there were cylinder rings I could put my foot on, on the way up. But under no circumstances, could I let go of the ladder, she joked. She joked a lot. She even strummed a made-up guitar song about getting mangled in a fall to tease me. Yes, I had a harness, but no, it would still not be ok to fall. The fear of the fall in the moment of falling seemed to me the scariest. Like, harness or not, I would die of a heart attack, if I slipped, even just a few feet. I mean, God, it was ridiculously high up, and God, it’s a bare ass ladder in the middle of nothingness. But of course, why would I fall? Climbing a ladder is a fairly straightforward task.
Happy to have had a motivating burst of energy after drinking a protein shake from a package in her cupboard I was curious to try, (she said I could), I went for it. I made sure the cable latch was locked, told my brain stop worrying despite what I thought was an overly simple mechanism. I wanted to start confidently but about three steps up, I realised putting one foot at a time on a thin ladder rung going up to ungodly heights, you do not go with confidence, you go with extreme caution and respect for the danger involved, the gravity of the situation, if you’ll pardon the pun.
When I did rest on the first chosen cylinder ring, I hooked my elbows around the sides of the ladder to give my hands a wee rest, and hugged the ladder for dear life, and my chest seemed to scream, though without sound, “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY F#$%ING GOD!!” The pounding was severe, and if any of it had to do with the physical exertion of climbing, it wasn’t the main reason. I was holding tight and shaking at the same time, my sweat and a soft breeze cooling me and the adrenaline coursing through me like I’ve never before experienced. A full-time performer, I am used to adrenaline. This was a thousand times more intense. I have never felt more physically small in my entire life, just me, as if hovering in mid-air, and the great expansive landscape all around me.
The thing that held me, and kept me going, more than fear of fumbling/plummeting, was the sheer beauty of what was in front of my very open eyes. For never have I slowly climbed up a ladder parallel to a range of very tall trees in the middle of a forest in the middle of Nowhere, Alberta. Coming to look tree tops in the eye was magnificently exhilarating. And unlike some small plane or helicopter ride, neither of which I’ve been on, the fact that I could, for a few moments, stand still (minus the shaking and pounding chest), and take it in was absolutely amazing.
But I didn’t rest for long, and the climb continued, up, up, for even if I needed rest, I just wanted to get to the bloody top, expecting to feel extreme relief, and wishing the intensity of the fear to be over. And then, when I climbed past the tree line, wind began to blow past my body and more specifically, ears, which made me laugh a nervous laugh. An, “oh, she didn’t mention there’d be wind’. And again, ‘OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY F#$%%ING GOD, I SHOULD NOT BE UP HERE!!! ”. I wondered if I should just climb back down instead of keep going. The consideration was fleeting, but serious.
I’m not sure what the rationale was but despite the increasing pressure in my chest and my eyes, which I’m sure were bulging with bewilderment and astonishment, I just kept going: me against the ladder, friend and foe. I passed the second rubber obstacle, a piece intended to fit around the cable, but was right beside it, to keep the cable in a straight line, I figured. Around the rubber you kind of have to nudge your cable sleeve past it by pushing your waist to the side a bit, coaxing it around. She had instructed me that only at the third and last rubber would the cable have to be pulled out of it, that I would have to climb above it, and then push the cable back into place. Of course any extra instruction made me nervous, because it meant that the simple but terrifying act of the climb alone would require a complicated additional step to remember, and more so, one that involved letting go of the ladder with one hand. Now, if I was close to the ground, with two feet on a ladder rung and one arm grasping a rung above me, the prospect of using my loose arm to do something would not seem difficult or scary. But 70 feet above ground, the nervous mind cannot visualise the task without envisioning worst case scenarios, as if there is logic behind the notion that if you let go with one hand the other one will forget its task and let go as well, which is crazy. But hey, a fearful mind does not always logic find. I pushed away the thought. I also knew that once I got to the third rubber piece, it meant that the ladder would go from a slight slant to straight up, and though that meant I was very close to the destination, it also meant it would be physically harder and scarier. But eyes ahead, eyes ahead, I instructed myself, don’t look up, just keep going, don’t look down, heart pounding, OH MY F#$%ING GOD.
What a strange and sublime combination, fear and exquisite surroundings. I can't begin to describe how dazzling the light was over the trees. Starting the climb at four-thirty in the afternoon, (and I have no idea whatsoever how long it took me to get up there, not long probably, though it seemed like a mini-lifetime) the sun was already beginning to sink and glimmer and dance over the tree tops, the sky was a perfect blue with a few white wisps of cloud, and to my left the lake shimmered, almost blindingly, but beautifully. I rested not for need of rest but for need to take it in. OH MY F#$%ING GOD.
I arrived at the third rubber thing, my left foot rested on a cylinder ring, my left hand let go of the ladder and pulled the cable out as gently as possible so as not to cause me to lurch. I pushed the cable sleeve past the rubber, climbed another rung, and pushed the cable back into place just as I had been instructed. I had to look down to do that, but I did not let my eyes go past the close focal point of the latch, there was no way in hell I was going to look down, as if the act itself of seeing the ground would make me lose sight completely of all instructions and logic and free fall, surrendering myself to gravity. The compulsion to jump, they say, is what most fears of height are actually about. One envisions leaping. I heard my friend's encouragement, “alright, bud, last one, almost there!” and I both liked it for the support and, irrationally, didn’t like it as if being watched might jinx the success of the climb. I believe I quickened my pace a notch. I cannot explain how badly I wanted to be up in that little room, off of that ladder, and in safety!
But the sense of relief I thought I would feel, I did not feel. The level of anxiety did not come down, perhaps because it would have been too drastic an internal transition. First, the floor didn’t seem thick enough to me. I couldn’t bring myself to walk where the hatch was, the way I tend to avoid stepping over grates in side-walks, and if I have to, I always grimace: It shouldn’t give way, but you never know. Second, even when not looking fully down out the window to where the house lay below, the expanse of the forest all around us, despite its beauty, kept me jittery, our sheer height above it all so terrifyingly unnatural. The fear of heights, I should have known, would not end with the end of the climb, but linger so long as I was in a tiny wooden flimsy cubicle in the middle of the bloody sky. Third, the wind that blew shook the tower head making it feel even flimsier, but perhaps more than anything, my forearms and hands seemed to have atrophied, either from the exertion or the terror, and it occurred to me rather gravely that the only way out was back down the ladder only now my arms and hands might not work anymore. Thank goodness for pride, I kept these thoughts to myself and tried to converse. I wanted more than anything to sit down on the floor curled up against the side, and when I did so, my friend laughed, “Don’t you want to see the view?” She offered the chair and took the stationary bike as her seat. She was right, I was kind of missing the point there on the floor. I accepted, and realizing my thirst, I asked for water. I tried to converse more, and we did, but it was a little bit hampered. My thoughts were racing, the adrenaline still pumping.
But I could not help but be impressed by the beauty. I asked to look through the binoculars, I had my picture taken, I conversed through the weird manic and unstable state I felt myself in. (This split, I am used to). My stomach did its little twitchy thing which made me worry it would set off an anxiety attack, or stomach cramps, and the last thing I needed, and the last thing she needed, was for me to have either up there. I don’t know how long I stayed up with her for. She played some music, we chatted about both tower and non-tower related things, I looked and asked questions, I remarked, “That’s sooo cool,” way too many times. I wanted to stay longer and play the banjo she had up there and keep her company, anything to fulfill the concept of visiting her at work, but I could not settle myself down because I knew I would only be calm again once I was safely back on firm ground, be there lynxes, bears, and lyme disease carrying ticks or bogeymen out there lurking, I longed for the ground, and at the same time tried to prolong my stay up there, knowing the poor woman was stuck in there alone all the time, and knowing I would never bloody go up there ever again, EVER again. Like a person running late trying to listen politely but always checking their watch, I did my best to be present, but it was difficult.
I announced my intention to leave soon and she pouted and made sweet ‘already?” noises, but I think she understood. I disclosed my concern over my arms cramping and ceasing to work on the way down, and she said, ‘shake ‘em out,’. She validated the physical difficulty of the climb, and either jokingly or not, told me about her own fears, which was not altogether comforting, (like, ‘you’re right to be terrified this is a crazy thing to do), and she told me about a guy who had left his hatch open and who fell through it. He didn’t die, but broke a lot of bones. OH MY F#$%!ING GOD!!! I laughed out of discomfort, but also because it was legitimately funny that she was telling me this a little bit tauntingly given the situation, but I managed, through my laughter and nervousness a, ‘shut up.. please, shut up,’ and we both giggled.
And then she did me the favour by saying I could go. I remembered she had told me a few days before, when she was explaining the harness, that on the descent you had to stay above the latch at all times, or it locks. Of course it does – that is its safety mechanism, if you drop below it, it immediately stops sliding down the cable so as to save your ass from splattering on the ground, but if you remain above it, it slides and glides for a smooth and controlled descent. If you lower yourself before it does, it locks, and you have to jiggle it. I asked to practice jiggling it and before opening the hatch we connected me back onto the cable and I practiced. “Ok.. I think I’m ready.”
Ah, but when she opened the hatch I immediately froze in sheer panic, there was no way in hell I was going to get back on the ladder, my body and brain and heart told me firmly. Immediately chest was pounding again, and sweat cooled my face. So immediate was the panic it was kind of amazing. OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD. She suggested I sit down at the edge of the hatch first, and then get on the ladder, and all I could picture was hands and feet fumbling and twisting in and out of metal and I said I wasn’t ready, and she sat patiently, but that wasn’t enough, and I begged her to close the hatch again and told her I needed more time. She closed the hatch. I took a while to catch my breath. OH MY F#$%ING GOD!
And my inner voice said to myself, “Orit, you have to just get a grip,” (no pun intended) And I decided to calm down and ready myself, I just needed to ready myself, and I thought of all the Rick Mercer episodes I had ever seen (just a few) where he peers at the jump he has to make, and backs away ashen faced but then readies himself and then goes. I understood now. But I still needed more time.
And then my friend and I had one of the best four minute conversations I have ever had.
Sputtering nervously, I managed a kind of investigation of my fear. I said, “I’m not really afraid of the ladder, or of falling, not rationally. I’m afraid of my own fear.” I said, “I’m afraid I’m gonna start to cry,” and she said, beautifully, “why don’t you cry now? Get it out.” And I said, “I’m not gonna cry.” I didn’t need to cry, but articulating the fear was a help. I was afraid of my panic, I was afraid of anxiety taking over, of freezing, and of the power of my mind to envision only the worst possible fall. It was like I was not really afraid but annoyed at the fear-in-spite-of-myself being so powerful. I said I was angry at myself for putting myself into a situation I might to be able to handle, and I didn’t mean physically, I meant mentally, or both, and she repeated, like a trained and kind therapist, “you are angry at yourself.”
And then, as if it was a now or never situation, as if I had to do this on a courage and readiness upswing, because there was no other choice but down, (though I did jokingly ask if I could just stay up there forever, and I did secretly try to imagine other rescue options), there came a point where there was no point in procrastination any further, and I knew the anxiety would only fade if I went through it. I decided it was time. There were lots of cylinder rungs to rest on she assured me, and I could hug the sides, using my arms and elbows, if my hands were tired. And though my heart skipped a few getting from the platform onto the ladder, by far the most terrifying step, once I was in position I immediately knew I would be alright, and even managed to look up and smile for a photo. I even had space in my brain for the vanity question of wondering if I would come out looking terrified in the photo.
My left elbow kept bumping the ladder screws that were present every few rungs, and though it hurt, being on that bony part, it made me laugh that there were extra little challenges and tests on the way down. The cable latch only needed jiggling a few times, snd it was easy to do it, and the tie from my yoga pants (the bottoms of which were tucked into my socks so as not to get caught) did got caught a few times, and I laughed at that too, because, by then, releasing one hand to fix it did not seem ridiculously dangerous anymore, and for some reason, I found it funny that we hadn’t thought of that scenario. There was a sadness too, in the descent. As I passed the line of treetops I said goodbye to their beauty and the beauty of the light upon them.
The funniest part of the sensation was that when I got just below that dividing line of sky to treetops, I felt like I could just jump the rest of the way, like when I was a kid coming down the little ladder of a slide, I’d skip the last few rungs and jump into the sandbox. It was the relative proportion that made me think, f#$% it, just jump the rest of the way, but I was still a good 30 feet in the air. So despite the strange urge, (and of course, it would be impossible, what with the harness), I did not abandon the ladder, and kept hugging my way down, marveling at the strangeness of the brain trying to understand its surroundings, until thank God almighty, step by careful step, and arms embracing and re-embracing the ladder, I was free at last.
I unhooked the harness from the cable and yelled a great big ‘woohooooo!” threw my arms up like a gymnast completing a competitive routine, and heard her from above, “you did it, bud, you made it, yaaaay”. I was so full of exhilaration; I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I wanted to keep the harness on forever, as if it were a medal of courage. (I took it off pretty quickly though, so I could go relieve myself in the outhouse.) I threw the ball to the dog a few times, though my arms felt like they might never work properly again. And my only regret was that I hadn’t done it on the first day, so I could do it again before leaving until next summer’s possible visit.
And though this might be a story of doing the physically scariest thing I’ve ever put myself through, I could not help but revel at the metaphors. A ladder, of course, is so symbolically potent. Facing my fears by keeping my eyes open and going one rung at a time, not looking up at the future, or down at my past, but keeping focused on the task at hand and allowing myself to be exhilarated by it, that was a lesson I can carry over to so many other aspects of my life. Or rather, that was a physical manifestation of something I had reflected about theoretically several times. Pushing yourself past your comfort zone, trusting your body and mind by listening to it carefully as you go, kicking procrastination in the ass and getting up to do what you're supposed to do, and realizing how much beauty there is to take in when you do it – now I have very real and visual memories to go with those truisms.
Having a friend challenge and support you through the challenge, and be proud of you upon completion, that too is a valuable thing to look for in friends. I am so blessed to have had this experience, and she, who has made this climb hundreds of times, though she had my respect before, most definitely has it even more now.
Today I watched a TED talk about how stress is not necessarily unhealthy if you embrace the fact that it prepares your body for the task. Now to that, I can now thoroughly and physically relate, and that might be the best lesson of all. For that same feeling I get when I have to take on work-related and life related tasks that terrify me, is that same feeling of climbing the ladder – pounding chest, and all. Learning to love that feeling rather than loathe it, might just be the perspective-changing kick I`ve been waiting for. For all my fears that too much adrenaline might be slowly killing me, it sure as hell is making for one awesome and thoroughly experienced life!
Find friends you can trust. Keep your eyes on the task, don`t forget to take in the beauty, and never let go!