I'm hanging 90 feet above the ground, suspended by a piece of string little thicker than a rope of liquorice. My abseiling couture for this evening's drop was evidently pieced together by a chaffing-immune, aesthetically-challenged sadist: gym bag canvas, bolts and velcro in what I can only hope are all the right places.
I'm a little bit frightened of all the usual things - death, dentists and décolletage decorum - but I'm completely and utterly terrified of heights, especially those with me at the wrong end of them. It hasn't always been this way but it certainly is this way now; it's a small part of who I am as well as what I don't do. A few years ago acrophobia arrived to take top spot as my greatest fear and now, for some reason, I'm facing up to, or at least reversing onto it one vertical inch at a time...
Of all the embryonic urges - food, water, sleep, none gets as little recognition as climbing. As new-borns we humans rely on parents to provide the first three; the climbing we just know. No sooner has a baby received its first slap on the bum, than it's eyeing up footholds so it can clamber atop the hospital bed and survey the destruction it's just wreaked upon those gathered below.
I remember very little of my formative years. I'm sure there were parents, milk and potty boot-camp there somewhere. I remember a few baths, laughing so hard I cried, more crying without the laughter and a teddy bear with the mandatory missing eye. Mainly though I remember the climbing. As soon as I was tall enough to clamber up on to a chair, I'd use it to climb aboard the dining table, then pull said chair on to the table to build a tower. After that the ceiling was the limit.
It's not like I was a precocious child in this respect. Everywhere you look you'll see young climbers ascending restaurant furniture or setting out up a hapless father's legs. Sunday at brunching hour there are hordes of these intrepid adventurers limbering up for an assault on the north face of a café chair, and there is good reason for this. 'Up' seems full of possibilities. Every kid with a cartoon cloud's worth of imagination knows about imaginary worlds and 'up' is where many of these must be. We can't see them from sea level but once stood on a cup on a chair on a table on tiptoes, the heretofore invisible clouds part and all becomes clear.
My own early favourites were door frames or the bay windows of our living room. A little later one of those doors opened, leading out to a large Copper Beech tree which sat in the Southern corner of our back garden. I used to climb this until the branches were thinner than my six (and a half!) year old arms. Of course there was little fear of dropping in those days - at least on my part anyway. Some thing or things would probably break my fall a few times on my way to the lawn and I knew my young, supple joints could take a good dose of gravity. I'd seen baby spiders fall from their equivalent of outer space and just walk it off; if they could do it...
This particular brand of bravery/stupidity didn't last.
My fear of heights didn't arrive overnight; rather it snuck up on me an inch at a time. For some reason being less vertically challenged doesn't seem to help when it comes to challenging the vertical. A couple of flights with bad turbulence and another couple of falls from a ladder and I was a paid-up acrophobe. Of course by not doing anything about this, it just got worse. Without exaggeration, by this time last year I was weak-kneed just looking at a picture of someone in an airplane cabin; film shots which panned over the edges of skyscrapers had me hugging the cinema floor.
Finally, last June I went along to a fear-of-flying course. This consisted of sitting in a grounded plane with half a dozen other wimps and listening to an ex-pilot lecture us on how safe those flying machines are. Watching other people's passion about their fear made me see how easy, and rather pathetic, it is to let oneself be defined this way, and I was as guilty as any of them. I would bring up my new-found fear of heights at parties like it was a mesmerizing and attractive revelation, then wonder why the kitchen had emptied out so quickly. People who brag about things they can do might be tedious, but they're positively fascinating compared to those holding court about the things they can't.
A day in a grounded plane did the trick with regards to getting me in the sky. It still wasn't quite confronting my fear head-on though, so I decided an evening of rock climbing might do the trick.
It seems a huge part of the appeal for many rock climbers must be the desire to return to the recently discussed childhood state. Those hidden worlds may have gone, and we've embraced the real one, but I think we miss looking for them all the same.
A few weeks ago I booked in to do the 'taster plus' session at the Castle Climbing Centre in North London, and now the evening is here. For my palate the taster session tastes a lot like unbridled terror, with an unhealthy pinch of mortality (my own: the worst kind) thrown in for bad measure. L'odeur de mort is the opposite of flatulence: at best you only enjoy other people's.
I meet up with a fellow beginner, Jit, and our strapping instructor, in both senses of that term, whose name escapes me. He seems to have a dash of posh in him, so let's call him 'Hugo'.
We start with 'bouldering' - the low, rope-free walls, mostly used for practice. This largely involves keeping your balance, holding yourself up and being in reasonable shape. I can do this.
A quick scan of our fellow climbers and my suspicions are confirmed. I'd always thought of rock-climbing as something accountants took up in order to build an alter-ego that didn't involve logging in & donning medieval armour - salsa dancing on Tuesdays, rock-climbing on the weekends. Well, it turns out I was dead right. The climbing centre is teeming with number-crunching weekend warriors, work-hard-play-harders who spend 50 hours a week slaving over a hot spread-sheet, only to denounce it as not being 'the real them' while they shut down their desktops and fire up mini-laptops to get them through the evening's commute.
The rockountants are lounging and stretching around the bouldering areas - polo-shirted lions in a climate-controlled savannah. We approach with the same degree of apprehension one always employs nearing a pride of business analysts. The conversation lurches between shared loves of bumpy walls, spread-sheeting and hedge funding; nothing to distract from our first task, a smooth, easy amble along the beginners' wall. Easy-peasy.
Having mastered swapping my feet over while hovering a foot above the ground I'm now feeling rather cocky. Jit follows, slips off a couple of times, then admits to having a fear of heights. After my impressive showing on the toddlers' wall, I give a knowing glance towards Hugo and roll my eyes. 'What do we have here eh? Another little Mama's boy, scared of heights. pppfftttttt'. My mastery of beginners' bouldering assures me that I'll be teacher's pet for the proper climbing as well.
It's not to be. Next up is a real climbing wall.
The first thing we do is strap ourselves into canvas harnesses which are then attached to thick (but not nearly thick enough) ropes. Hugo assures me that these ropes could hold a Bentley. Not convinced. I'd like this Bentley brought in, suspended, then the rope to be strengthened further again, in case the exercise had taken anything out of it.
There was also an alarming amount of Velcro involved in proceedings. Isn't Velcro what you use when you want to make something easy to remove? Strippers wear Velcro, I wanted anti-Velcro. It should be welded to me like a medieval chastity belt - given how I looked and felt in that getup it was already fulfilling the function of one after all. What I needed was for the rope and myself to be liberally doused in Weetabix and warm milk before being left on a kitchen bench for the day.
Despite my apprehension about the Bentley-holding qualities of the rope and the baby spider-holding qualities of Velcro I feel fine going up. Nothing scary about the up. I remembered up. Up is good. It's the heading quickly back down that's the problem.
Once I reach the top Hugo calls for me to 'just relax, poke your bum out and let go of the wall'. Well none of those things are going to happen, especially not the 'relax' part. My Canvas-Velcro nappy is now all that sits between my nether regions and thirty feet of nothing. I cling on to the wall and refuse to budge. The sensible solution is obviously to start a new life in the rafters of the climbing centre, but eventually I do as I'm told, lean back and slowly return to earth. This is not quite as bad as I'd feared.
Worse is still to come.
My biggest fear where heights are concerned is just dropping. When it came to flying I was happy with take offs off and bumpy landings. It's cruising along at 40,000 feet that had me quivering - the thought that we might just drop at any second. Dropping with no chance of reprisal; no branches, bits of furniture or parent's noses to snag on or break my fall. Abseiling and skydiving would then probably top my list of least pleasant ways to pass a few minutes, or, worse, seconds.
Abseiling is the piece de resistance for the taster course. We're ushered through a side door leading to a tower (which they thoughtfully keep 20 degrees colder than the rest of England), climb a couple of hundred steps and sit waiting while Hugo sorts out the ropes for our descent. Being dropped to my death by a lapsed member of the aristocracy wasn't a fear before, but it quickly becomes one.
Jit is first through the trapdoor. He's almost too eager to get dropping and then giggles all the way down. I'm no longer head of the class and am utterly convinced I won't go through with this. I've bailed at the last second in the face of any adversity before and certainly don't have too much pride to do so again.
Hugo allows a couple of minutes gentle sobbing, then informs me that he isn't taking 'no' for an answer. He has an 'it's your own time you're wasting' air about him which is exactly what is needed. The next mental baby step is to replace the smooth, sensible tenor 'what if?' voice with an unconvincing soprano 'you'll be ok' one.
Another couple of minutes of ineffectual pleading and here I am, dangling just below the top of one of the castle's towers. Supporting me is a rope much thinner than my old 6 (and a half!) year old arms and winching me down is a descendant of nobility who used to throw my peasant ancestors down these towers for sport. I can only hope he doesn't get nostalgic for his roots in the next minute. I would pray for this, but of course if I look up now the higher power is Hugo.
Sixty ever-decreasingly scary seconds later it's over and I'm ecstatic. I'm writing this as a wide-eyed, wet-eyed convert - one of those dreadful people who have been through something which changed them - but I'm struggling to find my inner (and usually outer) cynic.
I don't wish to sound mawkish, but I'm probably going to. Confronting my greatest fear head-on has had the wonderful effect of reducing all other fears. Death is still there, but he's no longer a scythe-wielding Waldo, lurking in the corner of every frame of my life. Dentists no longer have me in their thrall - they still smell a bit funny but they're nowhere near as scary as gravity. And décolletage decorum? Cleavage convention? Well, that's a whole other column...