I don’t have a lot of fears, but heights do give me that sickening sensation in my stomach. You, too? I haven’t allowed this feeling to stop me from trying things, though, so I have parasailed in the Bahamas (but honestly, hated every minute), visited the Grand Canyon (both hands on the rail), and climbed the Eiffel Tower at night (left with stronger memories of that nauseous feeling than the sought-after views). Rollercoasters (some of them) are a yes for me, but the rest — skydiving, bungee jumping and zip lining – I’ve taken them completely off the table. There’s no joy for me, and that pit in the gut makes them just not worth it.
So, naturally all of this weighed on my mind during the planning of a Devine + Partners team-building day in May at the Philadelphia Outward Bound School in East Fairmount Park. D+P works with Outward Bound, assisting with public relations and brand building, so I knew of their high-in-the-sky challenges in the trees, but had mercifully managed to miss the previous office outing to their Wissahickon Valley Park High Ropes Course. It was not to be this year.
Gathered on the lawn, the day started easily enough. I stood in front of Brianna and believed she would catch me when I fell back, and she did.
We all worked together as a group to lift Jay high in the air and he trusted us not to drop him. We didn’t.
Already a team that, in my opinion, works very well together, we flew through these exercises brilliantly, and found ourselves suiting up in our harnesses for the high ropes.
I knew mind over matter would be in play for me, and felt confident that, like my colleagues, I would succeed at this challenge…until I saw the very tall pole in the middle of the forest. A ladder leaned against it, but that only got you halfway up. Staples for stepping followed, and then, at the top, a round standing platform that, by the way, rotated (to make it easier for you to turn around once you reached the summit).
The knot in my stomach was firmly in place and all of the positive self-talk, inside my own head and coming from my supportive teammates, was silenced by thoughts such as, “There’s no way.” I was pretty petrified.
The team tried their best to be helpful. “Go first so you don’t have to think about it. Don’t go last.” We settled on the middle, which gave me time to watch a few other first-timers be successful and learn from watching. I approached the task confidently, trying my best to trick the doubts in my head. As instructed by our amazing leader, Jen, I checked that my crew was ready with firm grasps on the ropes that would support me, and began the ascent.
I surprised myself by making it past the ladder onto the staples to climb the pole, and then surprised my crew, I think, by being completely frozen somewhere shy of the top. All of the encouragement being shouted from below could not make my leg leave the safety of the staple. I told myself to breathe, and I did deeply. I told myself to look around at the treetops. They were pretty, and I realized that it wasn’t the height that was bothering me here, it was the idea of letting go of the pole with my hands, and stepping away from the staple with my foot, in order to place my foot on the platform and stand up.
I was grateful when Jen understood that all of the well-intentioned coaching and cheering from the team below wouldn’t get me there. Coming down, I was not afraid to fall back, as I had earlier in the day, aware that the ropes held by the team would catch me and guide me down. They did and I was back on the ground.
I watched a few more takers and tried to take in their techniques. I noticed some legs shaking. “Breathe,” Jen said, to stop the shaking. I witnessed slow, cautious turning. Some held on to the harness, which I noted as a good idea. It wasn’t easy for any of them, but one by one they all did it.
Enter round two, when several in the group (John, Cassie, and later Molly) volunteered for a second pass – this time, blindfolded. Some felt this would be just the trick to get me over my height fear and to the top. Eyes covered, I wouldn’t see what was around me, they reasoned, and I would just go on feel. I knew the view wasn’t the issue. I had looked around when I was up there and was okay with it. It was the letting go.
Eyes open, I zipped up the ladder and the pole pretty quickly the second time, having at least gotten this far before. The talk in my head was more positive this time, and Jen had an important suggestion that made a huge difference. Step up with the left leg, using your stronger leg to push up.
“Can I put my hands on the harness?” I said, giving me a place for them to go. “Yes.” I made a decision to just go for it – and did. I put the weight on the right, stepped with the left, grabbed for the harness with both hands and stood up with all my might.
As soon as I did, I felt what I was perhaps supposed to the whole time. My team had me. I felt the tug of the ropes that they were holding on to below. From high up in the treetops, I felt secure. I looked around. Still pretty. On the rotating platform, I carefully turned. No problem. I suppose the feeling in my stomach was still there, but I wasn’t focused on it. It was joined by a feeling of not being in a terribly big hurry to get down.
The Outward Bound experience promises you will “see that you can achieve more than you ever thought possible.” That was indeed true on this day. I don’t foresee myself rappelling from a Center City skyscraper — as some D+Pers have done and more plan to do for Philadelphia Outward Bound School’s annual Building Adventure fundraiser. (A 29-story rappel from 2001 Market Street is planned for October 21.) But this year you will surely find me there cheering the D+P crew, and with my newly found courage, and the support of the team, back up on the high ropes course next year.
The D+P Team:
Photo Credit: Philadelphia Outward Bound School
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