Manifesto: Walking On The Edge

I inch my toes, feeling for the edge with my shoes: first the right foot and then the left. Just because I can’t see, doesn’t mean I am going to be reckless and careless, stepping off suddenly and dangling over the side. That was their worry.
I hear the distant roar of surrounding highways, across the vast and sprawling city thousands of feet below, sensing the open space in all the wide-open airy emptiness all around me. I am free up here, freer than I have felt in a very long time.
***
The CN Tower’s Edge Walk experience has been one of the items on my bucket list for a while now. This attraction has been open (its fourth year now) and finally I decide I don’t want to wait any longer to check it off the list. It may not be quite as daring as skydiving, but for me it is still pretty risky and bold. Since turning thirty, I wanted to start here and take a chance on something unforgettable.
I was planning on trying it this summer when I heard how this CN Tower attraction has been operating for three years now and has never before had a blind person attempt it. I decided I was going to be that first blind person.
***
I can understand, I must understand where they are coming from. I try to check my righteous indignation. A lot goes into the preparation and they have no idea, on their end, what it will be like. On their website it lists blindness as one of the conditions unable to do Edge Walk, along with seizure disorders, heart conditions, and pregnant women. I wonder what their reasons could possibly be. Is their an insurance issue for them? What are they afraid could happen, that I’d walk right off the edge because I can’t see it?
They resist at first, but I let them know how important this is to me and that I am not going to simply let the matter drop. The girl over the phone takes down my info and I speak with her superior and finally, the Manager of Operations.
We have a very productive discussion. He lets me know his position and where he is coming from. I listen to what he has to say and explain my case. I apologize for the email I sent because I may have used the word “discrimination”; I can’t be certain. He doesn’t like that word and assures me it isn’t like that. He lets me know from the very beginning of our phone call that he is glad to work with me and to do whatever he can to make this happen. I do my best to reassure him that I am fully capable of taking part in this experience.
It hasn’t been easy to find someone willing to walk out onto the side of the CN Tower with me. For many people fear of heights is a top phobia. I think a lot of that has to do with being able to see how far off the ground you are. I don’t have that problem. I just want to try something thrilling: to test my limits and take a risk. This is the perfect metaphor for my life and how I want it to go from here on out. A lot about this is fear of the unknown, a whole lot scarier than any physical height. I wish to challenge my perceptions of myself and what I will and won’t do.
***
I have been up this tallest of free-standing structures (sticking straight up out of the sea of buildings in Toronto) several times in my life. My parents took my siblings and I up when visiting the city during the summers. I have been up and out onto the observation deck and on the glass floor with my friends as a teenage dare. That held no real fear for me. I knew logically that if the glass were to break out from the panelling I would plunge down to my death, but I realized the risk of that was remote. While my friend or my father wouldn’t even step foot onto it, I sat right in the middle, stretched out on it, and stared down to see what I could see. Also, I have looked out and down and seen very little, standing and peering out the window into the dark night and the scattered city lights.
I have been asked how much this matters to me, to spend the money (around $175) and put in the effort, all to step out there and possibly derive no pleasure or satisfaction whatsoever from the actual act of walking around the outside of the CN Tower. After all, if I can’t see (at least much less than in years past), what might be the point anyway? I could stand ten feet off the ground and get the same effect, right? This is untrue. I can’t truly know what it will be like, but I know I must try.
I have never experienced the same thrill, fear, or adrenaline rush from being up there as most people do. I know logically I am up hundreds of stories off Toronto city streets, but I feel no real nervous sense of butterflies in my stomach at the distant view down below. I want to test it out, to see if actually stepping foot outside with no railings or barriers in between myself and the drop over the edge will provide me with any real sense of adventure. I won’t know until I get up there.
Everyone keeps calling me crazy for doing it, saying they never ever could. I have found someone to do this with. I will see. Maybe I will chicken out and be unable, at the last minute, to go through with it. Who knows.
The manager reassures me over the pone that nothing but the strictest and most stringent safety measures and testing were put into this from when it was first developed all the way up to now, each and every time a group of tourists is taken out to walk around the tower. He explains how he has been involved since inception and how every last step is gone over and double, triple, and quadruple checked. I know this is no more of a risk than a roller coaster.
I am speaking with the man who has seen this through all the way. He has been working at the CN Tower since 1997 when he began working security. Instead of going to become a police officer, his life took him down a different path – he IS Edge Walk.
The harnesses and trolley are the only things keeping you secure. He traveled to countries all over the world, from Australia and New Zealand to China, to test this out on some of the world’s tallest buildings. It is an experience unlike any other you’re likely to have.
***
We sign a waver and are taken back and given a breathalyzer and drug test, screening for explosives or narcotic residue on our clothes. Groups of six people are generally taken out, but today I am one of only four. It’s me and my guide/friend and two gentlemen, who have both come all the way from London, England to Toronto, but who don’t know each other. It will be the four of us and our two guides. I was told they normally only have one for six people, but to make it easier they will have two. I like our small intimate group here today.
This is an outfit, not unlike an orange prison jump-suit. It zips up, with long sleeves and legs, just like overalls or a snowsuit. Some people must wear special shoes, supplied by Edge Walk, but I am glad I am able to keep mine on. It reminds me of going bowling. I have never been all that comfortable wearing assigned shoes. As long as the laces are tied up tight there isn’t a problem. I have just recently acquired a new pair of running shoes with excellent grips on the bottoms, hopefully perfect for detecting an edge and a drop.
My hair is tied back tight, out of my face, lessening the chance of it getting caught up in the harness. All jewelry is removed and the sensor is moved over my body, just like an airport scanner. I stand as the attendant slips the harness over both my legs and I put my arms through on each side, as they pull tight at each to make sure things are secure. They don’t just do these checks once or twice. Assuming that the previous check might have been wrong, it is done again and again, ensuring the utmost safety.
The guides are friendly, asking the four of us if we are nervous and where we are from. The worst part, for me, is going up in the elevator. I enjoy the subtle upward gliding movement, but not so much the popping and the closing up of my inner ears, just like if I were going up in an airplane.
We arrive at our level and are led out and into the final area with a floor, ceiling, and four walls around us before we will step out onto the ledge. This room, we are informed, is known as the Summit room. I remark that sounds just like we are mountain-climbers, and that, I say, would make you our sherpas. This elicits a round of nervous chuckling.
I am not going to go through this whole thing without saying two whole words. I may be known as the shy one in most circumstances, but I figure if I am going for this I might as well try opening myself up fully to the experience. My fear has been lower than I thought it would be, a slow building increase as it got closer to the time. Now I don’t have the urge to detach from the harness and run. There’s no turning back now.
We walk in single file, up the inclining, sloping ramp. We are all locked into our harnesses separately, yet all as part of one. The fear was that I would have to rely on only verbal instruction, even if I did come with a guide of my own. The weather now is perfect. It is a good thing that these orange outfits are long sleeves because the sun goes away and it is only twenty degrees or less up here. I concentrate hard on the Edge Walk guide’s instructions, yet I am able to place my left hand out in front of me and on the shoulder of my guide who walks a few steps ahead.
The pulley system slowly moves us all up the ramp and I hold tight, at first, to the rope directly in front of my face, attaching me to the apparatus running up above. Another rope runs up my aback. It is attached to my harness like a seatbelt. We are told to turn left and we are outside.
The walk will take approximately thirty minutes, to make it all the way around the tower. I am, admittedly, very apprehensive as I take my first few steps. The guide announces we are 316 stories high. I picture what that really means. I don’t know, haven’t exactly been able to imagine what it would be like out here, until this very moment. Now the reality strikes. I am nervous until I get a better grasp of the logistics of what I’ve got to work with. I take the tiniest little baby steps, shuffling more than walking really.
The fear slowly recedes from on top of me, like a giant wave of relief that I find myself up here and loving it. There is a great pressure on me to do this just as well as everyone else, to prove that my blindness won’t be a problem up here. I picture something going wrong and receiving a big old “We told you so”. Once I clarify how wide this ledge is and how far I am from the drop my body relaxes some and I loosen my death-grip on my rope. It’s hard to get a good idea of what it looks like up here, but once I start to put together a mental picture of what’s where I can begin to take in my surroundings.
The guide is outgoing and friendly and she promises to get all four of us to make the most of our Edge Walk experience. The older British man in line behind me seems to grow ever more terrified the more I grow to love it up and out here. He calls our guide by her code name, “Cobra”, and swears he’s good where he is. She reassures him he is doing better than some, of which are unable to even stand where he is, instead preferring to stick right against the side of the tower. For me what I envisioned before we came up here was much worse than the reality and so I am pleased with how this is going so far. I intend to get my $175 out of it while I’m here.
Cobra says it’s time for the “activities” and I hesitate ever so slightly. What does that mean? She is extremely helpful, letting me take her arm and giving me excellent verbal instructions. She has a video camera and a regular camera in her uniform and she warns she will be taking footage at different times during our walk, so we will never truly know when we’re being captured in all our nervous energy. I have my hair put up in an elastic, but up here the wind has picked up and strands still come loose and tickle my face.
“Keep going. You’re almost there. Take a few more steps, one more step with your left foot and you’re there, at the edge. Perfect.” Cobra talks me through this and I can do it. I am doing it.
The harness tightens around me when I move into a sitting position and spread my feet for better support. She has us all do this facing backward and out forwards. I’m not sure what I like best and what I like least. It’s time to do the “Titanic” pose.
I am sitting at the edge and I think to myself in that moment, what if this harness did break (my brother, later on seeing the video says my rope looks frayed). What if this harness did snap and I had nothing to hold me?
The thought of what it would be like to plunge off this tower and fall to my death on the Toronto street below does cross my mind now and I feel the fear slipping in.
I allow the fear to sit with me for a moment, to fully experience every emotion being up here causes, and then I stretch out my arms and enjoy the moment. I will make it back down off of this tower to tell my story.
***
I don’t want to leave when we make it back around to where we started from. I hear the next group of eager nervous participants waiting for their chance at all this and I know it’s time to go back inside, but I wish I could stay up here. I feel free and unencumbered. I can forget my everyday down-on-the-ground life and its problems and worries. Nothing else matters when you’re looking down on Toronto. I hear the descriptions of the city down below and I wish I could see it all. I do think I miss something of this whole experience without the benefit of sight. I believe my fear is less because of it. The others have a perspective I don’t have. All the leaning out over the edge can’t mean the same thing for me as it does for them, but I am smart enough to comprehend where I am and the situation I am in, a dangerous free fall directly below me.
I can see why these guides would love their jobs. Mine says she went to school to be a teacher, but this just seemed like fun and I can see why. She says there are benefits of being up on a clear day like ours and then there are those days when it’s so foggy you can’t see down or out, looking off the edge and into nothingness.
That half hour seemed to fly by and before I know it we are stepping back inside the summit room, going back down in the elevator, and removing our orange jump-suits and harnesses on the ground. We retrieve our pictures and certificates of achievement, while the video plays on a monitor. We take one last group shot of the four of us and then it is over.
All that build-up and swiftly the adrenaline evaporates from my body. I leave the tower and look up toward where I stood only a short time before. I am told tiny figures can be made out up there, a group of lucky adventure seekers and I wish I were one of them. Now I am back on the ground and life and reality have found me once more.
***
In the end this was no big deal and I am glad I was given the chance to prove it. I met with the Manager of Operations with whom I spoke on the phone and with whom I pushed for equality. He did all he could and he worked with me to tick this one important item off my bucket list. He couldn’t have been more gracious and welcoming, that day on the phone and in person afterward. I wanted to show him how much I had enjoyed myself and what it meant to me to be able to experience Edge Walk with my peers. It was important to be a blind person willing to step out on that ledge and to show them that I could do it and do it I did.
June 5, 2014
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