The harness was cinched snugly around my waist and each thigh. The rope attached to the back was the only thing between me, crushed bones and blood. I managed a quivering “On belay?” and received a strong confident “Belay on.” It was time to jump, or at least step, off the log suspended between two trees a thousand feet above ground – or maybe it was closer to twelve feet. This was supposedly challenge by choice. But now there was no choice, no going back down the tree I had climbed to get here – that was made clear before going up. Even terror and tears didn’t alter that rule.
I joined the Project Adventure class at a friend’s suggestion. She said it was fun and thought I would like it. I was looking for something different, a way to break away from the stress at home. I signed up without really exploring what it involved. I arrived at the park where it was held and met up with my friend, her friend, the instructors and a group of about 15 people. Most had taken the course before, but a few of us were new. We stood in a circle and played games to warm up and connect – like lining up according to month and day of birth, which required interacting with everyone to find out where my date fell in the pack. Fast and fun, it didn’t allow time to feel awkward. Then we moved towards the woods at the back of the park, to the low ropes course. All challenges required teamwork in order to complete the task – a seldom used concept for independent me. We walked along wires positioned a foot off the ground, using each other as human tethers to prevent falling. We crossed impossible looking obstacle courses constructed of rocks and logs. Brainstorming, cooperating, trying, failing, then trying a different approach until we accomplished the goal together was not only fun, but created a sense of camaraderie I had not expected. Each member of the team was important in the ultimate success – including me!
We moved deeper into the woods. Overhead were wires, platforms, and logs suspended between the trees. The high ropes course. The two instructors donned straps and helmets and hooks, then attached themselves to ropes. Then they taught us the procedure, including the safety calls of “On belay?” (are you ready for me to risk my life jumping into thin air from the top of a tree?), and “Belay on.” (yeah fool, go ahead!). One instructor climbed a tall tree and jump from it as the other held a rope that safely guided his speedy descent. Just like that. No problem. Then we all geared up. I watched the others climb and jump as I waited for my turn. I had never been afraid of heights so wasn’t worried about altitude. But as my turn drew closer tears began to flow unexpectedly. I began to sob – apologizing because I didn’t understand why I was crying. Everyone casually reassured me that it was OK, but no one suggested I back out – and no one else was crying. I tried to bury the sobs under laughter. My turn arrived. I slowly climbed the tree fitted with foot and hand holds, reached the spot where I needed to leave the security of the solid trunk, walk out onto the suspended log, and jump. And that’s where I froze. The only muscle moving was my heart. It thumped so hard I thought it was going to take its own leap – out of my chest. I wanted to retreat back down the tree but was reminded that was not a choice. Tears dripped off my chin as I finally moved – one step out and then one step back, over and over again. I feared the anger of those in line waiting for me to go, almost as much as I feared the jump itself. My reluctant feet inched out to the middle of the log, but remained unable to trade solid wood for thin air. No one laughed or made fun of my fear. I glanced at the waiting faces but did not see the anger I expected. The instructor kept repeating that it was OK, that I could wait until I was ready, that they had me safely in hand. Finally, knees deeply bent and eyes closed, I took the longest step of my life. The air in my lungs rushed past my vocal cords in a scream I hadn’t known was waiting. I was lowered slowly and landed on my feet. I sobbed and laughed as the others congratulated me and unhooked the rope.
I returned week after week. Each time I cried and shook and hesitated as I inched forward, then closed my eyes, held my breath and jumped – escorted by a scream no matter how hard I tried to suppress it. It never became easy. But the instructor’s calm steady encouragement, along with cheers and back pats from my fellow jumpers, allowed me to step past my fear. It would be years before I realized that the fear was the reason I continued. I needed to feel the fear and jump anyway. I needed to know I could overcome obstacles here on the course – and in my life. I needed to let my doubting heart believe and trust – in myself, and in those who held me safely in their caring grip.