Pride Cometh Before A Zip
December 23, 2008 | My Jottings
As promised yesterday, this is the article that my friend Diane Aro wrote about her recent zip-lining adventure in Alaska. She is my first guest blogger and I know you’ll love reading her work. Feel free to leave your comments about what Diane has written too. Thank you Diane!
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Pride Cometh Before A Zip by Diane Aro
“Whatever was I thinking?” The words weren’t mine, but the sentiments were. They came from a tall, pale faced attorney from Philadelphia whom I met in a tree last summer, on an unforgettable day doing something I hope never to do again in my life.
My daughter Sunny and I had planned our Alaskan cruise for several months. This was her second time in Alaska and my ninth or tenth. She expressed interest in seeing glaciers close-up, so I suggested a cruise of the Inland Passage, a route that meanders around pine-covered islands and deep into glacier territory. When the cruise brochures came, I looked through the optional list of shore excursions. My younger daughter, Lani, happened to be planning her own Alaskan cruise for her honeymoon later in the summer, so the two of us scrutinized the offerings together. “Helicopter to the top of a glacier and ride in a dog sled!” “Pan for gold at a real, working gold mine!” “Paddle a canoe on a pristine glacier lake” and then I read aloud, “Zipline over the forest canopy!’ What’s that mean?” Lani explained that it was just about the coolest thing a person could do. A zipline is a long cable to which a person is hooked, somehow, and they skim over the treetops, getting a bird’s eye view of the forest landscape. “Sunny would love it!” she said, and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that I would, too.
I used to have a major fear of heights. I was nervous on elevators, shaky while climbing ladders, and terrified of airplane travel. This condition began in childhood and got gradually worse, until something scarier befell me – breast cancer. After successful surgery and radiation, the cancer went into remission, and so, mysteriously, did my fear of just about everything. Not only was I not afraid to fly – I loved it and craved the sensation. I could go up ski lifts, trams, any sort of contraption dangling high in the sky and relax completely. It was a mysterious blessing, connected with a newfound faith in the idea that certain things – my life, for instance – were out of my hands, and that I might just as well relax and enjoy the ride.
And not only did I relish this newfound freedom, I pursued opportunities to exercise it during my summer vacations in Alaska. I traveled the state in float planes that sliced through the trees to land on isolated lakes. I traveled in tiny Piper cubs, sitting next to the pilots (who often looked about 15 years old) as they took off from unpaved runways, barely cleared the trees, and flew over various extremely cold-looking bodies of water. Then I got a little bit – shall we say – cocky, believing that I had conquered my phobia so completely that I could do anything. A climb up Denali, dangling over crevasses on ropes and ice hooks, didn’t seem entirely unfeasible.
So – at last, the day of the Ziplining Adventure dawned. Our ship pulled into the port of Ketchikan and we, and about 15 others – passengers from the cruise ship, including a doctor and his 13 year old daughter, the aforementioned attorney, and an elementary school teacher, took a bus several miles inland, into thicker and thicker forest until we reached our destination. I was not nervous. I was excited, and so was Sunny, and so were most of the others on the bus, until we got out, and looked out into the distance. And there we saw an impossibly thin wire, impossibly high in the sky, with impossibly tiny people sliding. And screaming.
And still, I was not afraid. Sunny asked, “Are you going to be okay with this, Mom?” in an anxious tone of voice, and I reassured her that I was looking forward to it. “I’ll know just how an eagle feels, soaring over the treetops,” I told her. “What an experience!”
We were loaded onto a 4 wheel drive truck with the hugest tires I’ve ever seen on any vehicle, and were driven up a steep, steep hill to a small chalet at the very top. Here we met our guides and were taken inside to don our equipment – hard hats, thick gloves, and a complicated harness with many ropes and belts and latches. After checking to see that we were securely encased, we were lined up and told to follow our guides out the door, and then, standing upon a wooden deck, looking down, down, down an endless length of cable, we were given instructions. And that’s when I realized that this was going to be very, very frightening.
I am not good at following directions under the best of circumstances. I get easily confused and need lots of clarification and coaching, and still I make mistakes. So imagine my horror upon realizing that this was not going to be a matter of turning myself over to forces beyond my control and letting gravity take over – I would actually have to operate this thing. “Everyone pay close attention now,” the guide said. “We don’t want anyone losing their fingers, so when you brake (brake????) make absolutely sure you put your hand on the cable behind the wheel….not in front of the wheel….got it?” Oh my God No. I didn’t get it. And then he went on. “In order to get all the way across to each platform on the way down, you’ll need to keep your momentum up. You do that by holding your body in an sort of crouch. Lean WAY back in your halter….you won’t fall out! And then to slow down, stretch your legs out all the way, and put your hand up on your cable wire – behind the wheel, remember, not in front! Remember those fingers!”
The platforms to which he referred were built around the tops of the trees at various intervals. Imagine a steep ski slope, with trees. And your job is to “ski” from one platform to the next. At each one, one of our two guides would go first and wait until the other guide sent us off across the great divide where guide number one would help us come in for a landing by making complicated hand signals meaning, “SLOW DOWN, for the love of God!” or “Faster! Faster!“ and then would reach out and haul us in when we got close. The worst worry was that we would not come in fast enough – that we’d lose momentum and end up stuck in between platforms….hanging by a wire. If that happened, the guides said, we’d have to turn ourselves around and pull hand over hand to the next station. This image truly horrified me. Would I have the presence of mind under such circumstances to do anything but cry? No.
So, we were on to our “practice run” – which was a short stretch of cable (not that I’m good at measurements, but I’d say about 50 feet) from the porch of the chalet to the first platform. Suddenly everyone in the group seemed calm, placid, and completely ready to go, and I wondered if I was the only one terrified. “How are you doing, Mom?” Sunny said, perhaps noting something in my demeanor that suggested I was on the brink of passing out. “Fine!” I said cheerfully. “Let’s do it!” Guide number one clipped himself to the cable and zipped across to the Practice platform. Guide number two began hooking us onto the cable, and then, one by one, we took turns stepping onto a little portable step, just about wide enough for both feet. It was right next to the edge of the porch. We were to stand there, balancing precariously on this tiny box, while our equipment was hooked and tightened and fastened in preparation for our practice run. “Now remember,” the guide said, “Make sure you look ahead to see what directions you’re getting as you zip to the next platform, so you’ll know whether to slow down or speed up.” I can’t remember who went first, but everyone ahead of me seemed to do marvelously….perfect crouch position….perfect landing as they reached the platform. And then it was my turn. First of all – it was terrifying stepping onto the tiny block. I was afraid of losing my balance and falling off before I was even fully hooked in, but the guide explained that I was (and would be the entire time) already hooked with an emergency cord, so if I fell, I’d just dangle there until someone came to get me. I did not find that reassuring. But I stared straight ahead, saw the guide ahead beckon for me to come, and I stepped off into nothingness. My only thought was to get across without stalling and, as a result, didn’t apply the “brake” with enough urgency, because somehow I shot past the frantically gesturing guide, and the tree, and found myself on a little side cable….probably known as “the idiot line” to professional zip liners. I was pulled back, and sent across a wooden bridge back to the chalet and told to try again – the only failure in the group. This did not do anything for my self-confidence. But the second time I did it right, managed to slow down, and was congratulated by my fellow adventurers who awaited me on the extremely small platform built around a very tall, but not terribly sturdy, tree. And this platform, as was the case with all to follow, had no railing. None. It was like something from a very bad dream…standing there, nothing to hold on to, and only one way down.
And then came a dreadful surprise. We were hooked to the cable in the order by which we had crossed. The first one across would be at the end of the line the next time, and the last one across would be the leader. That “leader” was me. I would be first for the next zip….the “real” one. And what a sight awaited me as I shakily mounted the tiny step (which I was beginning to think of as “the scaffold”.) The next length of cable went on and on and on, forever, and steeply. The next platform looked a mile away. Everyone in our previously cavalier group suddenly turned sober. The guide, onto whose shoulder I clung like a terrified cat, reassured me that I could do it….“Just remember how to brake.” he said, “because this time it’s straight into the tree if you forget.” I looked straight ahead. I said a tiny prayer. I thought about John Muir. I thought about eagles. And I stepped off the platform.
This time I felt a sort of “give” in the wire as my weight pulled it down, and off I went. I was scared, but only for a moment, and then, somehow, it became wonderful – fast and thrilling, and I smelled the trees and felt exhilarated and relieved and joyful. Then I started thinking about braking – stretched my legs out, placed my hand in the proper position, and, as the guide signaled to me, I slowed enough to alight on the platform without knocking either of us out. I heard cheering from the group far, far behind me….I heard Sunny shout “Wooohoooo, Mama!”
It wasn’t all wonderful after that. There were 4 or 5 more stretches of cable to conquer, and several suspension bridges that swayed above the treetops. I was nervous the whole time, but told myself that every new segment got me a little closer to the ground. Once I managed to get tangled up in the cables around a tree and the guide had to radio to hold back my fellow zippers until he untangled me. I was beginning to be fairly certain that they were going to be glad to see me go.
Finally we arrived at the very last platform and it was my turn to go last. I watched Sunny and the other zip liners as they shot down the cable. Sunny, who had loved every moment of the experience, held both hands over her head, as though she were on a roller coaster. I thanked the patient guide as he prepared to help me make the last crossing, and was surprised when he said, “You’ve been very brave. I know it wasn’t easy for you. So as a reward, look what you get to see.” He pointed below, to a fast moving river, and there on the banks was a black bear, fishing for salmon. I was the only one who saw it, and I felt that it really was a special gift for undergoing such an ordeal.
When I met Sunny at the bottom she asked me if my wish had come true and I’d felt like an eagle. I told her no. I felt more like a rodent in the talons of an eagle, thinking simultaneously “Let me go!” and “Please don’t drop me!” Yet I’m happy I did it. I learned that I do have limits – that I can still register a healthy amount of fear under the right circumstances, and that idea I had about climbing Denali on ropes? Forget it.
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