It’s very easy, as we age to slip into a cushion of comfortability. Youth is for thrill-seeking adventure. Age should be more contemplative. But with age comes the realization that there is so much we haven’t done. And I’m not just talking about reading Proust.
So when I retired, I tried saying yes to things I might normally say no to. And so it was that I found myself hurtling through the air at 80 kmh, suspended on a harness linked to a pulley clamped on to a cable strung hundreds of metres above the forested flanks of the Spearhead Range near Whistler. Did I mention that I’m terrified of heights? I imagined the cable snapping, sending me plummeting to my death, impaled on one of the towering snags below.
My wife, Laurie, was partly to blame for me being so far out of my comfort zone. Despite being from the prairies, she’s not bothered by heights. She used to paint grain elevators, dangling on a little swing seat high above the wheat fields. So last year she thought nothing of climbing up a five-storey tower, clipping onto a zipline and flying over Robson Square during the Olympics. One ride and she was hooked. If the lineup hadn’t been so long, she would have gone again and again. Instead, she decided to check out the zip lines around Whistler. She reminded me that I’d vowed to try new things as I entered geezerhood, and because I love her, I went along for the ride.
Soon we were being kitted up with ropes and harnesses and carabiners until it looked like we were going to jump out of an airplane. All that was missing was the airplane. And the parachute.
Our guides were young, fit and from all over the world. They herded a group of us, clanking like a chain gang, into a van that took us up a gravel road running beside and then ducking under the Olympic luge track. We stopped and piled out beside a trail leading to a series of stairs and wooden walkways built around trees. I expected Ewoks to come gabbling along any moment.
We climbed more stairs until we were all standing on a high platform built around a particularly sturdy tree. Above our heads, a cable no thicker than my thumb was lashed to the tree in a sustainable way. The cable swooped down through the forest canopy to another little platform a little bit lower than ours and just visible, clinging to another tree several hundred metres away.
Our guides talked a bit about the ecology of the area, perhaps to take our minds off what we were about to do. Then they explained how we would be hooked onto the cable and glide down to the next platform. One of the guides hooked herself on and showed us just how easy it is. She turned around and waved to us as gravity whisked her away. In the time it takes to tell, she was standing on the second platform, and giving us the all clear through a walkie talkie carried by one of the guides beside us. See, they said, safe as houses.
I knew that if I didn’t do it right away, I would never do it at all. Unable to face the prospect of trudging back down the steps to the trail below, I offered to go first. After all, kids and grannies do this. I’d seen the pictures.
One of the guides deftly attached my harness to a sort of pulley that clipped over the cable. Once I was hooked up, they led me like a man to the gallows across the platform to three little stairs. I was meant to go down those stairs and step into space. In case I needed steadying, they’d thoughtfully put in a handrail. It was literally a leap of faith to take that fourth step that sent me zinging down the cable through what suddenly seemed to be a rather narrow swath cut through the trees.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes. But much of the forest did in a 360-degree blur as I twirled around dizzyingly. I wondered how I’d possibly be able to stop spinning long enough to clamber up onto the wooden platform rapidly approaching me through the forest. The twirling stopped abruptly when, about 20 metres out from the platform, a cable brake caught my rig and slowed me down with a jerk, allowing me to glide gently to the platform stairs, up which I scrambled gratefully but not too gracefully.
In no time at all the rest of the crew had joined us on the platform, eager for the next part of the trip. We went off backwards from the second platform, so that a photographer could snap us in mid-flight. There’s Laurie, with a big grin, waving with her camera in one hand while casually holding on with the other. There’s me, hanging on like grim death with both hands while trying unsuccessfully to smile.
I’d like to say it got easier as we went along. I’d like to say I joined the others in getting hooked up to the cable in such a way that I could stand on my head in mid-air while I zipped high above Fitzsimmons Creek, and that I begged to go again when we were finished. I will say that it’s a spectacular way to see a forest, and I’m glad I never have to do it again.