I am a huge fan of The Amazing Race and spin-offs like the Amazing Race Asia and Australia. I would totally be on them if I had the chance. One thing that ends up being at least one of the tasks is some form of facing a fear of heights.
I don’t have a terrible fear of heights – I don’t think I could live several dozen stories above the city if I did – but I do find that when I am up somewhere high without railings such as a rooftop even a couple of stories high, I get nervous.
And so it is that I find myself at the base of the CN Tower – Toronto’s tallest building at 553 metres high. I’ve registered for a relatively new experience: “Edge Walk”. While many tourists take the elevator every day to the observation deck and the even higher “Skypod”, much fewer do Edge Walk. While the cost might be a barrier for some ($195-225 depending on the day), there’s also a higher degree of perceived risk as we’ll be walking outside on a walkway just above the observation deck at 356 metres above the ground. (That’s 1168 feet for my American friends).
Working at serious heights requires a bit more than the average set of precautions. To get in to the building at all everyone must pass through metal detectors. I check in and am asked to wait until our time slot is called. Inside I see others getting briefed on what’s going to happen.
Meanwhile I read and sign a two page waiver. If I die it’s all my fault now.
I hand back the waiver and am told that I should use the washroom now. The experience takes about 90 minutes and there are no washrooms at the top. She hastens to add that I am not allowed to pee off the top of the tower. I suspect that this warning might be based on the attempts of previous guests.
A few minutes later, the door to the room where everyone’s getting ready opens and someone shouts “Edge Walkers Coming” and we all cheer as the group before ours goes inside the elevator to the platform.
And now it’s our turn to be briefed. First we are scanned with a wand-style metal detector. We are asked to turn over our belt buckles, to pull up our pantlegs and show the tops of our socks. We are then told to remove all jewelry including wedding bands, cell phones, keys, change, and wallets. Nothing is to be in our pockets when we go up because they can’t risk them becoming a projectile. I put my things in a locker and hang the key around my neck. One of the employees comes over with a lanyard for my glasses and tapes it securely to my frames.
Next comes something unexpected: a small piece of equipment is brought by and we’re told to blow in to it as if we are blowing out a birthday candle. It’s a breathalyzer and is there to ensure that we are not too drunk to be safe.
We all are issued identical red jumpsuits. Once these are on we’re given harnesses to wear and are helped in to them. The straps are very snug and it doesn’t seem like it will move. The person who put the harness on checks to make sure it’s secure, and a second person checks. Then they ask us to sit down and pull our shoes to make sure they’re securely on. Nobody wants a shoe hitting them from over 1,000 feet up.
Our “walkmaster” arrives from the top – she’ll be guiding us through the experience. She comes around and checks all of our harnesses front and back again and then clips my glasses lanyard and my locker key securely to a grommet in the back of my jumpsuit’s neck.
I take time to notice the people around me. One woman is about my age. Her husband isn’t up for the experience so he waits nearby. Another man a bit younger than me is also alone. He tells us his mom is at a Tim Hortons nearby and intends to run out and catch him if he falls. A couple from the US is there as well. She’s a little nervous, he’s not so much.
We all head out to the elevator to the sound of clapping and cheering and get in to the elevator. There are two glass windows in the bottom and we watch the ground rapidly disappear in to the distance.
At the top we meet another worker. She’ll be inside and watching us on closed circuit camera to make sure everything’s OK. We’re lined up and hooked this new person checks our harnesses again and then we start to be hooked up. In the front is a thick black nylon rope rated at 7,000 kilograms. In the back is a smaller rope but it is designed also as a motion restrictor – it locks just like a seat belt in the event of rapid movement in any direction. Both of these ropes are attached to a track that goes out the door, around the CN tower and back inside. This will permit us to walk around while remaining safely attached.
After we’ve done all that, a further precaution is taken. The carabiners attaching our ropes to our harnesses are securely locked closed with industrial strength zip ties. It isn’t until I’m safely on the ground later that I understand why – this is to prevent our removing our own or others ropes while we’re out there in preparation for…well let’s not discuss it, shall we? After all I’m about to go out.
Out we go and the view is stunning if not a little dizzying.
We step slowly out on to the ledge, a 5 foot (1.5 metre) wide metal platform. Five feet seems so narrow right now. It is a really interesting feeling. As I mentioned, I live several dozen stories above the city so heights aren’t a problem. And even high balconies aren’t a problem. But somehow the knowledge that there’s not a railing here puts my animal brain on high alert. My heart is pounding and I clutch at the rope like it is my best friend in the entire world.
Our first task is relatively easy in theory: One by one we walk to the edge of the platform and put our toes over the edge. Just our toes, nothing else. I shuffle forward like Tim Conway’s old man, not wanting to step even one inch too far. But I do it and even manage to let go of the rope.
That task was clearly a warm-up though. The next task is much harder. One by one we’re told to face the building and sit down in our harness – to let it take the weight. Then once we’re down, we walk our way back until our heels are hanging over the edge. Then we straighten our legs, lock our knees and enjoy the view.
I sit down, holding on to the rope with a death grip. I shuffle slowly backward and then when I’m where I need to be our guide encourages me to stand up. I know how safe we are. There have been multiple safety checks of my harness, the ropes are rated for tons more than I weigh – literally. Still, my animal brain isn’t listening. I can feel my conscious brain having to push through all that resistance and the result is that every move I make feels like it is pushing through thick gooey mud. She tells me to step back a bit further and then once I’ve nearly stood up, sees that I’m nervous and tells me to look at her. I do and feel a bit better. Until she then tells me to widen my stance. Sure, it’ll make me feel better but that involves lifting a foot up! Still, I try and I manage to get upright. Soon all of us are fully upright. Still, there’s a fight going on between my conscious and subconscious impulses and it’s reflected in how my legs feel. I’m just standing up, supporting my own weight but by the end of the minute or two I spend there I feel like I’m pedaling up the biggest hill. Before we come back she tells us to look up and wave at the people in the Skypod – another 33 stories above us. I try but not only can’t I let go of the rope, I find looking up far more dizzying than looking down. The tower goes up so much further than we are standing and it boggles my mind.
We walk a bit further around to the east side of the tower. Then we stop. It’s time for another activity! I’m excited and nervous. There’s no question I’ll do it but the question remains how much will I have to push myself. Seeing how she literally leaps around on the end of her rope, swinging from the building, I think that we could be in for something really beyond my comfort zone.
In this one we stand with our toes about a foot from the edge (OK, I can do that!), push the rope as far out as our arms can reach and then lean forward in to it, look down and then, while leaning against the rope, let go.
My turn comes and I step forward, push out the rope, lean forward and see a view like this:
My legs are still feeling the effort of the last task, but as I lean forward, I feel much more peaceful. It’s much easier for me to look down than it is to look up. This is just the confidence boost I need. I’m beginning to feel more confident up here.
I think we are all feeling confident because all of a sudden the woman in front of me starts to dance and walk forward and soon we all have let go of our ropes and are doing a conga line.
Now we’re at the final stop. it’s time for a few pictures, and that means leaning back again. This time for some reason it’s easier. as one by one we quickly make our way back, and then even have to scoot ourselves over to get fully in the shot. It’s no problem, we’re pros now.
I even manage to find the courage to look up at the Skypod far above us.
And then, just as we all seem to be getting used to the prospect of standing on the edge of a death-promising precipice, we work our way back inside. We take off our superhero costumes and go back out in to the world.
This is the first of these adventures that really inspired true physical fear. I found my limit as well: Standing at the edge is fine, but I’m certain that I could not have bungee jumped that far. And of course skydiving is out. So maybe The Amazing Race isn’t for me after all.
As I ride home I think about what fear did to me in that situation. Even as I was perfectly safe and was certain of it, I couldn’t stop it from having physical effects. I thought about those people who deal with fear and actual risk on a daily basis. What must it be like to be a soldier, a police officer, a refugee? My legs would barely move me in the direction when I thought that I might fall backward and be hanging by a very strong rope. How does one get their legs to move in a direction when it’s a real burning building you’re going in to or real bullets being fired at you or bombs exploding in your neighbourhood?
How lucky I feel to live a life where fear is something I pay money to experience as recreation instead of being given to me for free.