I am afraid of heights. However, my husband is not, we both like adventure, and I attempt to embrace personal growth. So, I often find myself … up.
We climb buildings and bridges, zipline and peer down into canyons. It’s good for me. And I like to think it’s good for him to share these things with a partner who is noticeably clinging to the rail, squat-walking, or awkwardly crawling along the most ground-like surface.
A few years back we went abseiling in New Zealand. For those of you who don’t know, abseiling is basically lowering yourself into a massive cavern or crevasse on a very, very thin rope (like insanely, unnecessarily thin).
On the big day, we arrived at the site, put on our assigned helmets, harnesses, and jumpsuits (which had recklessly little padding and a noticeable lack of parachutes). Then we traveled to the crevasse. It was a great, gaping black hole in the ground, surrounded by barren rocky outcroppings. It was daunting to be sure but with only 50 feet from top to bottom, not nearly as bad as I had imagined.
Things rarely are, right?
The guides escorted us out onto a wooden platform, where they helped us hook onto a metal structure. Then, they showed us how to lean backward over the edge and rest our weight entirely on the rope and carabiner.
Know what’s worse than falling off a cliff?
Falling off a cliff backward.
Still, I managed to do it with almost all my composure intact. Success!
As I sat there, dangling over the abyss, the guides congratulated us on passing this first hurdle.
“This is the testing location,” one explained. “It’s a good place to test everything out and make sure no one’s going to freak out when we get to the real thing.
Real thing? And how did he figure that not freaking out at one point meant a person wouldn’t freak out at another? Excuse me sir, I can freak out at any time, anywhere. My ability to panic is not limited by you, circumstance or God above.
After a quick five minute hike, I discovered what he meant by the real thing.
If I had been walking through that forest alone, I could easily have died. Where there were trees, bushes, and ground, there were suddenly not. The earth just sort of ended, swallowed into a massive, gaping black maw.
I couldn’t even see the bottom which, the guide informed me, was some 300 feet below.
Three Hundred Feet.
As in down.
And I with no parachute.
The guides escorted us out onto a metal platform suspended over the crevasse (no risky wooden structures here) and hooked us onto our respective carabiners in groups of four per guide. Then, they instructed us to lean back.
It did not feel the same.
It felt like The Shining, Rockin’ Rollercoaster, 30 cups of coffee and (I’m assuming) meth.
So I did what I always do when I’m locked in panic – I shut up. Forget fight or flight – I go full possum.
The guide double checked my harness and asked, “Have you done this before?”
I shook my head no.
“Huh,” he said. “You’re so calm. Usually people are freaking out by now.”
Clearly, he’d never seen a deer in his headlights.
When our group was all hooked up and successfully leaning backward over the ledge, our guide instructed us to push off the platform with our feet, so we could begin lowering ourselves, hand under hand, into the depths.
I didn’t push off the platform so much as I melted, oozing slowly downward until I was completely supported by a rope roughly the width of dental floss.
Abseiling is not fast. You are expecting it to be – like rappelling off a cliff – but it’s not. It’s like hoisting a ship’s anchor, except the anchor is you and you’re hoisting yourself down, not up. Inch by inch, we dipped lower and lower into the darkness, stopping every now and then to try and maintain the same altitude as everyone else in our small group.
Plus, like I imagine a frozen possum feels while being prodded by a hungry bear, time moves much more slowly.
The funny thing about fear is that it’s all encompassing and paralyzing, until it’s not. Eventually fear, like everything, loses its potency. If the bear plays with its supper long enough, even the supper can get bored.
That’s how dangling 250 feet above a rocky death started to feel … normal; which is when I actually started to comprehend where I was.
Descending into that crevasse was like dropping into Jurassic Park. As we withdrew further and further below the surface, the light shifted and changed. It took on substance, becoming somehow denser and softer. The humidity increased, casting dancing particles of moisture into the dusky darkness and casting a touch of coolness across my cheeks.
The cliff walls, which previously seemed nothing more than the backdrop of my own demise, exploded with life. Wild tangles of ferns and exotic plants burst forth from impossibly thin cracks, defying gravity with their vibrant persistence. The air tasted of cold stone.
There, dangling in the abyss, I forgot my fear and was lost in the mesmerizing otherworldliness that surrounded me.
At least for a moment. Maybe two. Then the fear came back. Then it went away again. This repeated as I remembered my precarious physical location, and was then distracted by the majesty around me. If I’d captured my inner monologue on the descent from surface to crevasse floor, it would have sounded something like this:
I’m going to die why the hell did I do this who are these sadistic people and why is the rope so thin and is that gear even attached properly this guide isn’t going to be able to stop a rope snapping he’s just more weight pulling us down and what if there’s an earthquake?
Oh wow… this is so magical… I can’t believe how incredibly beautiful this is… was that a bird or a butterfly?
Or was it a bat?! No one said anything about bats down here. What if they all take off at once and swarm us and we’re just hanging here like freaking bait – we’ll just be a bunch of skeletons on a rope because no one thought to bring freaking bat gear.
It’s so quiet down here… almost like it’s humming with silence… who would have thought no sound at all could be so lovely… Is that another cave branching off from this one… I wonder what’s back there?
Wait, once we’re down, how do we get back out again???
You get the idea
Eventually, my feet touched down on cold jagged stone. And besides wondering if my pelvis had cracked open on the long descent, I was elated. It was a real-world Pandora; bursting with emerald green life and jagged diamondesque stones dripping with moss and tiny rivulets of moisture.
I detached from my miniscule rope (seriously, why so thin? Why not a big, swarthy, seafaring rope that at least feels like it isn’t going to snap if you breathe too hard?) and scrambled over the boulders to explore my new surroundings. A few yards away a large tunnel opened up in the cliff wall. We turned on our headlamps and ventured inside. As the tunnel swallowed our small group, the light narrowed and a hush fell. There was something comforting about the scuffling, scrambling, and gusty breath of my fellow explorers echoing through the dark cavern. Our headlamps cast just enough light to see a few feet ahead, but the expanse was palpable.
Eventually, the guide signaled for us to stop and we grouped up on a small landing next to a thin chasm. We extinguished our headlamps and were plunged into complete and absolute blackness. When there is no light, the darkness is almost tangible, as if you can touch, smell and taste it. It has body and weight – at least initially. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, little pinpricks of light materialized and then expanded around me until I gazed up at a sea of stars in the midnight sky. But they weren’t stars. And it wasn’t sky.
“Glow worms,” our guide explained. “This is one of the larger colonies in the area. They create light using a chemical reaction called bioluminescence.”
This extraordinary sea of lights, seemingly millions of glimmering stars, was composed of individual insects. It was real-world magic.
Far too soon, it was time to move on. We reilluminated our headlamps and passed deeper and deeper through the tunnel until we reached the base of a tall ladder, the top completely swallowed by the dense blackness. One of the guides escorted the first group while the other hooked each person to the safety ropes below. After the first four had gone, the remaining guide turned to me.
“The other guide is going to take his group out of the cave, which means I need to go up and receive people. Can you hook everyone’s safety harnesses up down here?”
Now, I have good self esteem but this seemed like a bad plan. Still, I nodded and said, “Sure.”
The guide showed me how to attach the harness onto the rope system, which he would keep taut as each person scaled the ladder, ready to hold in case someone slipped and fell.
I tried to exude confidence as I hooked the first person onto the carabiner and sent them climbing. 10 minutes later, the empty rope lowered back down from above and I hooked it onto the next climber. My husband was the last one to ascend the ladder, leaving me alone at the base, in complete and utter silence.
I seized the opportunity to see the glow worms again. I extinguished my lamp and sat in silence as the insect heavens popped into view. They glimmered above me, breathtaking in their simple glory; magic come to life.
As the wonder and majesty of my surroundings slowly waned, I heard a scuffling sound in the distance and my brain went into hyperdrive, Oh no, it’s Golum! Clearly this was dumb, as Golum is a fictional character.
Still, I turned on my light.
There was no Golum.
But the rope was descending before me. I grabbed it, hooked it onto my harness and began to climb. I could practically feel Golum’s bony fingers grasping the air just below my rapidly evacuating feet.
The ladder was tall, over 98 feet in total. Even knowing this, there was nothing quite as humbling as having to stop and take not one but two breaks on the way up. Eventually my head broke the surface and I emerged into a smaller cavern where I found my husband, our guide and the two other members of our group waiting.
As we hiked out of the cave into an impossibly vibrant explosion of New Zealand jungle, it felt as if years rather than hours had passed. How quickly everything changes when you venture somewhere new and unexpected. Your entire perspective shifts. The person coming out is never the same as the person who went (unwillingly) in – and that is a beautiful thing indeed.