Blog: Clipped in and Freaking Out

I am at the Banff Film Festival in Santa Cruz, watching the pre-show ad reel and wishing I’d bought a beer, when an image flashes onto the screen. It shows a lush, sun-dappled redwood forest. Strung between ancient, mighty trunks is a maze of bridges, ropes and cables. And testing the limits of those bridges, ropes and cables are happy-looking people strapped into harnesses and wearing helmets.

I’ve been feeling cranky lately. A few hours spent playing in a sun-dappled redwood forest with happy-looking people just might boost my spirits.

I jot down the name at the bottom of the movie screen: Mount Herman Adventures. Later that night, I book two Sierra Aerial Adventure tours for the coming weekend.

My consistently happy-looking friend and co-adventurer, Rebecca, is delighted at the prospect of scampering like squirrels among the redwoods. Plus, she claims to have prior experience on a ropes course, so essentially I’ll be accompanied by my own personal guide.

Sunday dawns sunny and cold. By 10 a.m., together with ten other would-be squirrels, we are cinched into harnesses, our clip-on carabineers and zip-line trolleys dangling from our waists. I’m feeling ready to solo Half Dome.

“Before we get started,” says Josh, one of our guides, “I need to ask if any of you have the following conditions.” The list included diabetes, heart conditions, allergies, pregnancy. No hands were raised, so we waddle en masse through a redwood gate to the first course.

The next thing I know, I’m standing on a small wood platform encircling the four-foot waist of a giant sequoia. It’s then I make the mistake of looking down. I am perched atop a yawning ravine. The ground is 80 feet below me.

Here’s the thing: I have vertigo. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect “vertigo” with “aerial adventure” but I didn’t, and I’m now hugging the tree’s waist with both arms.

The other members of the group edge around me and clip into the cable anchored to the tree. One by one, they set off across a bridge composed of individual two-by fours loosely connected by ropes. From my tree-hugging stance, I watch them. The boards seesaw beneath their feet. They’re not exactly scampering like squirrels; rather, they’re lurching like drunks toward the nearest bar.

Naturally, Rebecca crosses the bridge with ease. “You can do it,” she calls encouragingly across the gaping, deadly divide separating us.

I may be safely and securely tethered to a cable, but my brain isn’t buying it, and so it immediately begins to dispatch emergency signals. “GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!” is one such signal. “DO NOT LET GO OF THE TREE!” is another.

I must have suffered a mini-stroke, because seconds later I find myself navigating my way across the seesawing boards. My hands grip the canvas lanyard attached to my carabineers; as I totter forward, they slide in short, jerking motions along the cable suspended over my head.

It takes maybe forty seconds to wobble across to the next platform. Or maybe it was forty minutes. Due to the mini-stroke, my sense of time and space has become warped.

It is only because Rebecca is standing on the other side of each course that I am able to continue. I fix her in my sights. “This one isn’t bad at all,” she calls out on one. “Grab the ropes on either side of you,” she instructs me on another.

“Not gonna pass out. Not gonna throw up,” I chant. I practice yoga breathing. I pretend I’m back at the Banff Film Festival, watching a film about aerial canopy tours. Not once do I look down.

Finally, we are done. My hands are cramped from gripping the lanyard. My legs are shaking, and I’m woozy and exhausted. Surely, a bigger, deadlier stroke is imminent.

“That was amazing!” Rebecca says. “Can we do it again?”

I look at her blearily. “How about we head back to the house for a nap instead?”

Now, a week later, the adrenaline has finally subsided and my hands have uncramped. And I’m realizing just how exhilarating and gratifying the whole adventure was. For 90 minutes, I managed to work through my fear of heights. I completed every course. I did not have to be rescued by a guide, frozen, mid-way across a thin cable tightrope.

Maybe I really can solo Half Dome …

A couple days ago, I sent the link to Mount Herman Adventures to my sister in Portland. “Check this out! We should totally do this the next time you visit,” I texted her.

I’m ready. This time, I might even look down


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