I am afraid of heights. Unreasonably afraid. My nightmares are of rickety railings and endless falls. Sometimes I get lucky and become lucid and I remember to fly. But most times, it’s just that drop in my stomach that I get, imagining the fall. I just hate that feeling. It’s not so much a mental fear, I just loathe that physical sensation in my stomach.
Needless to say I generally avoid jumping off of high things, like the 5m diving platforms, or go on free-fall towers.
However, I don’t avoid heights. I love going up towers for the view, I love hanging bridges, mountains are my friends, and in my spare time I go rock climbing (although on difficult routes I hang on like hell to avoid a fall).
Yet nothing feels as terrible as looking down 80 stories through a glass floor, or going up 80 stories in a glass elevator. Just generally having very little between you and… well, nothing.
(Weirdly, I’m totally fine with planes and helicopters)
So that Tuesday, I travelled from La Fortuna to Monteverde.
When driving into town one cannot avoid seeing billboards everywhere advertising canopy tours with zip lines, rappels, superman cables and tarzan swings.
Being touted as the home of the world’s first zip line, the place where it all began, Monteverde boasts quite a number of zip line parks.
All of them had promotional flyers and all of those were lying on my bed.
For three days now I had studied and compared them and for three days I had almost signed up for one of the canopy tours.
Only instead of signing up, I was finding excuses not to: Oh, it’s already so late. Oh, I’ve been walking all day, I’m tired now. Oh, look it’s wednesday.
“I’m really afraid of horses” said Inga, a Dutch girl who I met on Cerro Amigos, one of the few free hiking paths in the area.
We were pushing up the probably steepest hill in the world and chatting between heavy breaths.
“I’m afraid, but I booked some horseback riding for this afternoon.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I have the same thing with zip lines and heights” I told her. “But everyone says this is the place to do it, you know. It being the first zip line and all.”
“So are you doing it?” she asked.
“I really should, shouldn’t I?”
It was my last afternoon in Monteverde. It was now or never.
When I returned from the hike, I poked my head into Emmanuel’s office at my hotel’s reception.
“Am I too late for the last zip line tour?”
I knew the answer. Somehow I had walked back very slowly to avoid being back in time for the last tour that I had looked up. Stopped for lunch, had a locally grown coffee, bought some more snacks and drinks at the supermarket.
He glanced at the canopy tour leaflets on the wall.
“You’re too late for the Original Tour, but Aventura is running in 20 minutes.”
Ah crap, I thought.
“Fantastic,” I said. “Let’s book it.”
Why am I doing this to myself, you ask? I have no idea. For three days I managed to avoid facing that I was running away from something as banal as a zip line. But somehow the thought that horse-scared Inga was out there doing a thing she wasn’t comfortable with made me want to do the same.
So I waited for the shuttle to pick me up. My stomach wasn’t feeling too great.
It was feeling even worse by the time we were being suited up in the prep area of Aventura park. It was real now, there was no turning back.
“I really don’t wanna do this” the girl next to me whispered to her boyfriend.
“It’s okay” I whispered over to her. “I don’t want to do this either.”
We shared a silent look of suffering. Then the tour lead jumped up on the stage in front of us and started explaining how everything worked – showing us the ropes so to speak.
There was so much information to remember! Cross your legs, dominant hand out, non-dominant hand on the ropes. Never let go of the cable or you’ll twist. Never grip the cable in front or you’ll squish your fingers. Break like this, accelerate like that. Don’t grip the cable, pull up instead. Hand signals. What to do if you get stuck. How will I remember all of this?!
And then it was time for the first zip line. Only about 8 meters long and not much higher, it felt totally doable. The queue ahead of me got shorter and shorter and then it was my turn.
“Hands on the cable, jump up!” the guide instructed. I did as told and he clipped me in. “Remember: hand out, cross your legs, break when you see the hand signal.”
And then he pushed me off.
It was absolutely non-frightening. The harness felt incredibly secure, breaking and steering was super intuitive. The ride was not even that fast. Three seconds later I was on the other side.
From there every cable got a little longer and a little higher. It didn’t matter.
After a short rappel with one of those self-belaying belts and an unpleasant but short drop before it caught me, it was time for the first long cable. All the way across the valley, around 600 meters.
It didn’t feel that long. The fresh air was blowing in my face and the whiz of the clip on the cable ringing in my ears. The view was fantastic! Open fields and farm houses to my left, the canopy of the Monteverde cloud forest to my right. Birds flying next to me, probably wondering what the heck was going on.
And then I was already on the other side.
A short buggy ride and a literally breathtaking hill climb later, it was time for the Superman cable. But not just any Superman, but the longest in the Latin America!
Looking at the 1590 meters long cable the drop in my stomach was suddenly back. I wouldn’t be sitting through this one, I would be lying on my stomach, going in face first.
It didn’t help that most of the girls ahead of me in the queue squealed as they departed.
When it was my turn I was clipped in in the back and instructed to lift my feet to get them clipped in as well.
“Arms together, keep your legs straight” the guide instructed and off I went.
Just like the regular zip line, this was by far not as terrifying as I had anticipated. But while once again the view was great and there was nothing scary about the experience, I felt almost my entire weight resting on the straps against my rib cage. Hitting the break block at the end of the cable was not the most pleasant affair, either.
Another Superman followed, this one a little shorter.
Then came the Tarzan swing. Oh boy.
What I had thought was an oversized pendulum swing was primarily a bungee jump in a harness.
As I walked out onto the undulating metal platform, I knew I wasn’t gonna do this. I saw myself stepping off the grid and plummeting roughly 30 meters down before the rope would start to catch me and my nightmares of falling off of towers came back in a blink. Flashbacks to free-fall towers in amusement parks and holding my breath to survive the seconds that it takes to get to the breaking point. The memory of a particularly nasty drop in one of the climbing gyms I used to go to.
“Next!” the guide at the end of the platform called out.
“Do I have to do this?” I asked.
“It’s just one step” he said.
“It’s not the step that I have a problem with.”
“I can also push you if you like.”
That’s not making this better!
“Can I not do it?”
He shrugged, clearly not impressed by my lack of enthusiasm. “Then you just walk back to the reception. This is the last one.”
I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I had held.
I turned around and walked back to the path. I felt a slight twinge of annoyance with myself. I had managed to come here, do all the zip lines, even the Superman, and yet I couldn’t muster the courage to face a few seconds of dropping? I thought back to how the platform was swinging, how it had felt seeing the girl in front of me drop and scream.
No, I had made the right decision. I suddenly realized that I didn’t need to do something just because others were doing it. And that it was okay for me to not enjoy a free fall and it was okay that probably I never would.
So I walked out to reception, gave back my harness, bought myself an ice cream to celebrate my achievement and enjoyed the fact that I had had a great day and that I had discovered a little more about myself.