“Nobody else is pushing fifty,” my almost forty-nine-year old best friend whispered as we looked around. We sat on a wooden bench under an open-air pavilion, water shoes on our feet, shatterproof helmets on our heads, wearing heavy construction gloves, and harnesses around our thighs and waists. Deep in the Costa Rican rainforest we were surrounded by young, athletic looking families—no one was within ten years of us.
This should have been a clue.
Months earlier when, together with her daughter, she invited my daughter and me on a girls’ trip, I assured her that no activity was off limits. “Just tell where and when to show up,” I’d replied glibly. “I’m game.”
Famous last words.
Under the pavilion, there was a wooden ramp-like contraption set up with a thick rope attached to it. Our young (very fit) Costa Rican guide effortlessly demonstrated how to push/jump off this ramp and maneuver down the mock mountain. Note this board was angled at about 45 degrees and was approximately twelve feet in length—clearly a misrepresentation of what awaited us. Also note, we did not practice maneuvering this pitched wooden gizmo. We were to watch and vicariously learn.
I was getting suspicious. To arrive at this remote section of rain forest, we’d traversed narrow, winding dirt roads, climbed mountains, and survived a harrowing ride in the back of a pick-up truck. Excited adventure guides, with mischief in their eyes and passion in their voices, asked us where we were from and if we’d ever done this before. We joked and laughed as my brain refused to reconcile the breadth and scope of the mountain we’d ascended.
“What exactly are we doing?” I asked as we hiked through wet foliage and muddy trails. I was on the lookout for snakes and Zeeka mosquitoes, still more concerned with bug spray and sunscreen than anything else.
“Waterfall rappelling,” my friend said and I noticed a slight uncertainty in her voice. Still, I imagined a gentle sloping hill with a small waterfall—a wet version of the wooden apparatus back at the operations center. We busted through the lush rainforest and descended onto a platform.
A platform with nothing beyond its edge!
Nothing—as in the land was so far below that you could not see a hint of it.
“Don’t look down,” my friend said.
If I vomited, would it hit the people 170 feet below? Stuck on the precipice of a cliff with a ninety-degree drop-off, I began to silently curse my bestie. There was no gentle slope—this was a bona fide mountain with the sound of pounding water roaring from somewhere deep inside the earth, exploding and driving against its jagged, rocky veneer. My knees grew weak and heart pounded.
Once when I was eight, I got trapped on the high ropes at Sesame Place and the terror was so intense that I’ve been scarred by a fear of heights ever since.
I grew quiet.
“Just don’t look down,” my friend said. “Keep your eyes forward.”
“Trust me, I am not going to freaking look down!” I was about to scream, but the fear was so intense I was rendered mute.
My fifteen-year-old daughter went first without hesitation. A seven-year-old from Chicago smiled and threw himself off the side of the platform. My friend’s thirteen-year-old daughter whizzed by me.
“Senorita, you’re next,” an enthusiastic Costa Rican said and pulled me toward the edge.
How does 911 get back here? Where will the helicopter land?
If you ever find yourself tethered to a rope, flailing 150 feet above ground, hyperventilating with tears in your eyes, here is what you should do: close your mouth as not to knock out your front teeth as you bash against the rock, keep your feet in front of your body to hopefully push away from said rock, and take a deep breath. No kidding. I literally had to tell myself to breath. And pray.
No sooner had I been pulled to safety than I was instructed to scale a 90 degree wall on a log and rope ladder with no supervision (the guide had to turn his attention to the next crazy flinging himself off the ledge). Tethered, but woozy with despair and cowardice, I hugged that ladder like a salamander on warm glass. Again, I didn’t look up or down. Finally, I was on a solid ground again, albeit a thin strip of a mud path that jutted out three feet from the ridge.
“This way, Senorita,” the guide beckoned. “Do you want to go fast or slow?” he clipped a hook to harness and pushed.
Fast. Fast. Fast. Just end this torture.
I zoomed via a zip line away from the mountain and then plunged into a pool of water.
After enduring three more waterfalls rappels, I was never so relieved to walk through the muck and mire, my feet on solid ground. Let the mosquitoes eat me alive.
“We did it!” My friend protested. “Once I was off the platform, I was good.”
Me? No. The whole experience was terrifying.
What was the lesson? Feel the fear and do it anyway? I think my biggest take away is that I need to pay more attention to outdoor adventure intinaries. There will be no bungee jumping, parachuting, skydiving, hot air balloon rides or waterfall rappelling. I’m too old for this sort of outlandish fun.
We made some memories, for sure. Should my friend outlive me, I’m certain she’ll mention our water rappelling trip in my eulogy. I can guarantee you it was a once in a lifetime experience for me. Next time, I’m going to the spa.
“It’s never too late in life to have a genuine adventure.”
—Robert Kurson (American author)
“A taut, compelling family tale.” Kirkus Reviews
Till next time,