Our family of five was on a two week adventure trip of Costa Rica organised by The Adventure Company. There were eight adults and eight teenage children on the trip. The tour took us to Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and the next day on 17th August 2004 we went in to the forest. All the adults, except for me, elected to explore the forest by walking on suspension bridges above the forest. I showed solidarity with my children by joining all the teenagers on the zip wires. What a mistake!
Zip wires are very thick cables that are fixed between two trees. Participants wear a harness which has a wheel pulley system attached to it. The pulley system is attached to the cable which then permits one to move by means of gravity along the cable as the wheel turns. There is a safety line attached to your harness and to the cable by means of a karabiner. You wear a very thick glove which you clamp down on to the cable behind you to brake your movement. At the beginning of each leg a professional guide clips you on to the cable, gives you instructions and dispatches you. Another guide receives you at the end of the cable and unclips you from that cable. The cables are fixed to huge trees, high up in the tree and so one arrives at, and leaves from, a wooden platform high above the ground. We were transported by truck to a high point on the mountain and progressed downwards through fourteen cables or legs. There were three very long legs across valleys with the other legs being shorter positioning legs to move you from one valley to the next. There were about eight guides so about every fourth leg we would wait on the platform as the guides moved along the cables from behind us to ahead of us. We had joined other members of the public so there were about twenty participants in our party, almost all of whom were at least thirty years younger than me!
We were given instructions in how things worked and how to be safe and quicker than I wanted, we were ready for launching. Logically I could understand that it was safe but it felt very strange letting myself go and leaving the platform. I wasn’t comfortable swinging in the air. I realised that my growing fear of exposure to heights was real. I was not happy looking down. And then the first leg was over. The youngsters around me were bubbling with excitement. They didn’t seem to appreciate how much it was costing me emotionally to show solidarity with them. In fact they didn’t care!
My discomfort increased over the next few legs especially as we crossed the first valley. I was regretting doing this.
As we left each platform the dispatcher gave one of three commands. Either ‘Brake all the way’ or ‘Brake at the end’ or ‘Don’t brake at all’. I was initially fearful of the instruction to ‘Brake all the way’ because I feared that with my heavy weight I was in danger of arriving too fast at the platform and hitting the tree. But then I discovered that the instruction to fear was ‘Don’t brake at all’.
As I left the platform for the second valley the dispatcher said ‘Don’t brake at all’. It was a long leg and I was travelling fast when I suddenly realised that my daughter, Megan, was still on the line ahead of me and had come to a stop about two metres from the end. I didn’t want to hit into her so I braked hard. And again. And again. I slowed down quickly and came to a stop about six metres from the platform. I was now hanging in the air a long way from the ground! I was very uncomfortable. I realised that Megan had now reached the platform and that the receiver was calling to me. He told me to swing myself round so that I faced the direction I had come from and then to place both hands on the cable behind me and pull myself to the platform. As the cable approached the platform it was ascending. One didn’t really notice the angle of the cable as one zipped into a platform but pulling myself along the cable I knew all about it! My adrenaline was pumping. I was feeling very exposed. And now I had to take my hands off the cable, swing myself round and pull myself in. This was not a happy situation. And then I discovered that, in my agitated state, it was surprisingly difficult to pull myself along the ascending cable. I was out of condition. I huffed and puffed and pulled and sweated and eventually got there. I felt weak in my arms. I felt weak in my legs. In fact I felt very weak. I looked to escape but there was no way down from the platform. The only way out was on to the next cable. And even if I could have got down there was no path below.
I let a few people go ahead of me as I tried to regain my composure. And then I went back on to the cable and on to the next leg. I used all my mental strength to keep going. I was now hating it. I pushed myself through the next few legs and then desperately asked a dispatcher how much further we had to go. The cheery fellow told me that there were four legs to go and that they included the last valley which was the longest and highest cable. Oh what misery!
And so I came to the last valley. The dispatcher said the fateful words ‘Don’t brake at all’ and I feared that I would not get all the way. This cable was 770 metres long. That is three quarters of a kilometre or half a mile in the air! I was still in the trees when I felt the wind tugging at me. If I didn’t hold on to the cable it would swing me round. But I didn’t want to brake. I tried to keep the cable between my forefinger and thumb but inevitably I touched the cable and applied a little braking. I broke through the trees into the fresh air. Vaguely I was aware of people thirty metres below me on a suspension bridge. They were marvelling at what I was doing. I couldn’t think of a more stupid thing for me to be doing. The suspension bridge was above the trees. Very tall trees. I was 130 metres above the ground. I couldn’t look down. I was scared; very scared. The wind was now stronger. I was being pushed around by it and needed to keep hold of the cable to stop spinning. And so I braked more. And my speed slowed just a little bit more. I entered the trees on the other side and could see the platform. But I didn’t get to it. Horror of horrors I slowed to a stop twenty metres from the platform. I lost the will to live. I dropped my hands and collapsed into a pitiful wreak. My middle was supported by the harness and the pulley but my head and arms and legs hung down into the abyss below.
The receiver called to me. I knew what he was saying. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t go on. I was not strong enough to pull myself that distance. It finally struck the receiver that he had a problem on his hands. He had to deal with this hopeless case. So he clipped himself on to the cable and came out to me. He told me to cross my legs at my ankles. He then crossed his legs around mine. And then this young buck pulled both us along the ascending cable back to the platform! What strength! What composure! What lack of imagination!
I shamefacedly allowed him to unclip me from the cable. I sat down on the platform and shook. I desperately hoped for an escape but there was none. I could not go down. I had to finish the last two legs. They were short but were sheer hell for me. The happiest moment in my life was when I finished the last leg. Here was a metal staircase down to the blessed earth. I staggered along a beautiful forest path not seeing any of the beauty. I was very sorry for myself. I rounded a corner and there was the building where I was to rid myself of the harness and other equipment.
My children leapt up at the sight of me. There were cries of indignation. I focused on what they were saying. They complained that the brochure had advertised seventeen legs and we had only down fourteen. We had been short changed and they owed us three more legs. We should go back and demand three more legs. For once in my life I was grateful that I had been short changed. I never wanted to go on a zip line again!