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Just don't look down

Posted: April 1, 2012 - 8:02pm

I’ve never liked heights. So I was thrilled when my wife signed us up for a zipline adventure tour during our recent spring break getaway to Hawaii.

The description on the website makes it sound like fun: “Soar over a quarter of a mile above wild forest canopy for more than 90 seconds of thrilling flight.”

I thought I might substitute “thrilling” with a different description — perhaps “frightening,” or maybe “scare-the-pants-off-you.”

My discomfort in high places goes way back. When I was a kid, helping my dad build a tree fort, my sisters discovered that a piece of plywood propped between a couple of rocks made for a great springboard, particularly if you jumped from the tree fort’s platform, about 5 or 6 feet off the ground and at the time, way over my head. I did not jump, and even suggested that jumping did not look safe to me.

That didn’t stop my sisters, though, and they even talked my little brother into giving it a try. He didn’t want to jump, so they talked him into rolling off the tree fort — which he did (it was not the first time, nor was it the last time my little brother was talked into something by his older siblings; it’s a wonder he’s still with us).

By rolling, however, he landed at the edge of the plywood, right over the rock it was propped up on. The plywood didn’t flex there, but he sure bounced — realizing my worst fears.

To make matters worse, my sisters told my mom that rolling off was my idea. It’s only recently that I was exonerated of that charge.

I’ve made attempts to overcome my fear of heights. One summer at Boy Scout camp, I gave the ropes course a try. They had just installed a new challenge, which involved climbing to the top of a telephone pole, then jumping from a small platform to a trapeze bar.

I remember getting into the safety harness and starting the climb. I remember getting to the top, and feeling the pole shaking, amplifying the shaking in my legs. I remember taking a deep breath and jumping. And I remember everyone asking me why I didn’t grab the trapeze — it wasn’t a big leap.

It’s much harder when you close your eyes, I remember explaining.
While I suppose facing your fear is one of those invaluable learning experiences, it certainly didn’t cure it, and I remain uncomfortable in high places. Heck, even when I’m cross-country skiing or mountain biking at Tsalteshi Trails, I pause at the top of every hill, not so much to catch my breath from the climb, but to offer a small prayer to the gods of gravity before my descent. Truth be told, the ski lift is probably the biggest reason I’ve never really liked downhill skiing. And the reason we don’t have even more Christmas lights up has more to do with time spent on a ladder, rather than the fact that we’re already pushing the bounds of good taste.

So if a ski lift isn’t fun, how on earth would I possibly enjoy ziplining above the forest canopy?

My wife told me I could do the other parts of the tour — kayaking up a river, hiking, and swinging on a rope swing into a stream — and skip the zipline. But when we got to the zipline part, it became pretty clear that there wasn’t going to be any graceful way to bow out. And with much goading from my children, I harnessed up.

For this tour, the guides had us put on our own harnesses. I made sure mine was good and tight, and then I cinched it even tighter. No way my pants were going to be scared off.
To the harness, the guides clipped a 3-foot rope (doubled up, thankfully) with a trolley at the end (two wheels on the trolley, too).

“Don’t grab the carabiner,” they told us, “that’s what holds everything together. If you need to hang on to something grab the rope.”

After harnessing up, they sent us across a commando bridge, just to see who was going to get squirrelly. That was the point of no return for me, and looking around at the other folks in our tour group, I decided that if this assortment of people could do this, I’d better go through with it, too.

At the first zipline platform, the guide suggested that anyone who was really nervous should go first. As I worked my way to the front of the line, I heard my wife explaining to someone that “we didn’t tell him that we signed him up for this part” while my kids cackled at me.

Once up on the platform, I was happy to see the guide check all of my gear twice. I invited her to check it one more time, took a deep breath and stepped into thin air. I hung on to the rope so tight, the harness probably wasn’t even necessary.

On the last zipline — the one that involved soaring above the wild forest canopy — the guides showed us how to go upside-down, which my kids and my wife decided to try.
Wasn’t I going to try it, they asked. No, um, I’m holding the camera, I said — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

My kids thought ziplining was the most awesome thing ever. I’m not sure whether it was because they loved the rush of 90 seconds of thrilling flight, or if it was because they were deriving great pleasure from doing something they know terrifies their dad.

As for me, I won’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I did keep my eyes open to take in the view. I even let go of the rope long enough to snap a few photos (with one hand — I’m not crazy).

But don’t tell my wife — she’ll just want me to get more Christmas lights.

Clarion editor Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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