High fear on Capilano

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The glass bridge in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China, I’m sure you have seen it. The video clip went viral on social media some time ago. They have a glass walkway too, the Sky Walk that curves around a cliff draped in mist. The two transparent paths offer stunning but vertiginous views. Look at the drop, it is terrifying. So terrifying that some visitors could be seen crawling on all fours, bawling like children. I know the feeling. I know it.

Heights scare the daylights out of me. My head spins, my palms become clammy. Oddly enough, I enjoy cable car rides. Flights too have never been a problem, although I worry every time I fly. But that has nothing to do with heights.

I have acrophobia, a fear of heights. As a child I was fearless, climbing cashew trees and slithering down tall mango trees with ease. I could scale smaller coconut and areca nut palms without a qualm. I don’t remember exactly when heights started to freak me out. It must have been after my school days; because that is when my tree-climbing came to a halt. When I found out that I was acrophobic, I tried to fight it. The results were disastrous. Not that it stopped me from trying. Well mostly. I’ve always avoided rollercoasters.

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Last year, while on a holiday in Vancouver, I had an opportunity to put my fears to test with an obligatory trip to see the Capilano Suspension Bridge. The Sea to Sky Gondola ride went well the previous day, but the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park held untold terrors for me. Not to begin with. Because the Cliff Walk gave me a lot of confidence: I had walked around the ledge, nonchalantly looked over the railing at the canyon and even took pictures. The suspension foot bridge, however, turned out to be a beast.

Built in 1889 with thick ropes tied to Douglas fir trees, it has been a favourite of adrenaline junkies, movie stars, rock stars and royalty. About 450 feet long, it rises 230 feet high above the Capilano River.

The bridge was packed when we got there. Children of all ages ran back and forth on the narrow path. The elderly too crossed it with slow but steady strides. That was enough motivation for me. I mustered enough courage to step on the bridge.

Fifty metres out I looked down at the canyon and the gurgling water below. That was a mistake. It reduced me to a quivering wreck. I stopped for a while, gathered my wits and bravely resumed my slow trek. And then the bridge started swaying. My heart leapt to my throat, sweat ran down my ankles.

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The swirling wind made the swaying worse. But I determinedly waved away my daughter who ran back to help and scowled at my wife who offered her arm. I wanted to conquer my fears. And I did not want any help to do it. I was certain the bridge would not collapse. There was no way I would fall off it. Yet I cowered in fear. That’s acrophobia and me.

With one hand firmly fastened on the steel cable on my right, and clutching my camera in my left hand, I stared at the finish and inched forward. I made it to the other side. That’s when my wife casually reminded me, “Now we’ve got to go back.”

Well then. It wasn’t going to be easy. But I would not let it stop me, not that I had a choice. Another challenge lay ahead. Extreme Forest Adventure: rope walkways that linked wooden platforms high up in the trees. If the suspension bridge couldn’t stop me, I was not going to miss this.

The return trip was uneventful; I seemed to have managed, if not overcome, my fears. But the soles of my feet still tingle when I look back at those moments on the bridge. Spine-chilling, yet thrilling, it was a walk to remember.

I’m still toying with the idea of riding a rollercoaster. Bungee-jumping, I certainly won’t do it. But skydiving, that is on my bucket list.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on July 1, 2017,
under the title Withering Heights. 
http://bit.ly/2vvQUAg

Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna

Chasing glaciers in Alaska

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The South Sawyer: out of bounds

Misty mountains, dense pine forests, floating icebergs, slithering seals, pods of whales, grizzly bears. That was what the Alaska cruise promised. We boarded the MS Volendam in Vancouver. A mid-sized ship that navigates the Inside Passage, it would take us to Tracy Arm Fjord, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.

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The North Sawyer: up close

THE SAWYERS

Alaska’s capital Juneau was our first stop. We hopped on a catamaran for a thrilling ride through Stephens Passage on our way to Tracy Arm Fjord. At the end of this inlet was the twin Sawyer Glaciers. First we sighted ice floes. Then icebergs. Pine forests filled the valleys. Silvery rivulets raced down great heights. There were thin waterfalls and cascades too. As St Peter cautiously motored into the fjord, hilltops became bare rocky outcrops; shrubs grew in patches. A snowy peak rose in the distance. A glacier stood at its base. The South Sawyer Glacier. We stood enchanted by the river of ice. Our enchantment abated when we found our path completely blocked by ice.

Our captain promised another glacier whisking us north. North Sawyer was not as majestic as South Sawyer. But it lent itself to closer examination. Jagged blue edges gleamed, ice and sand mixed to offer a rusty hue. We watched in silence, a silence only broken by falling camera shutters. The ice didn’t break. No calving. You have to be incredibly lucky to see that.

Skagway
Magical ride: Skagway to White Pass

THE TRAIN TO WHITE PASS

An elegant train waited when we docked in Skagway. Shiny black carriages drawn by a bright green and yellow diesel engine. Each of the beautifully restored coaches bore the name of a lake. Our train to White Pass Summit. What a ride. Green conifers lined the route along a fjord carved deep by a glacier long ago. The 172km railway line (built in 1898 over 26 months) is an engineering marvel with climbs of nearly 1,000 metres over 32km. Engineers, foremen and workers had blasted rocks and burrowed hills to build the narrow gauge rail line.

The Skagway community sprung from a gold rush. Stampeders, they called the prospectors. The mad dash for gold in the late 19th century sparked what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. At the peak of the search for yellow metal, Skagway boasted of a community of 10,000. Now there are around 3,000 people, mostly living off tourism and fishing.

The ride to White Pass was a journey into the past. Of desperate men and women braving Arctic cold, unforgiving terrain and ruthless criminals in search of fortune. As the train climbed higher we moved to the viewing platform; chilling winds lashing. A river canyon plunged down one side. A road wound its way on the other side of the river: a toll road that once brought riches to the builder who even charged dogs. Bridges and tunnels too. Soon a cantilever bridge (the highest when constructed in 1901) came into view. Of course, it’s no longer in use. The train took us to the summit, more than 2,750 metres high before heading back, its engines switching sides, seats flipped so we faced the other way.

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The Margerie: the queen of Glacier Bay

THE MIGHTY MARGERIE

Mist wreathed the mountains when our ship eased into Tarr Inlet. We were in Glacier Bay, a US national park 105km west of Juneau. Cruise ship services to the 25-million-acre world heritage area, one of the world’s largest protected areas, is tightly regulated; the prime season runs from June 1 to August 31. We had timed the holiday right. Picked the right ship and itinerary. The home of eight tidewater glaciers: this was to be the highlight of the trip.

It was early morning, dank and dark. A steady drizzle fell. Glacial winds tore into us as we reached the deck. We refused to budge. Wilderness, the Alaskan wilderness, unfolded before us. A stream of ice floes swept by. Snowy mountains inched past, mist swirling around. They had an ethereal quality, a lack of clarity. Squawking seagulls swooped for fish. A couple of glaciers broke the pattern. In the distance was the Margerie Glacier. Margerie was magnificent. A mammoth blue ice sculpture, rising majestically from the sea. As the mist began to clear, Volendam drew abreast. The fractured crystalline edges of the glacier stood out like splayed fingers. Only 76 metres of the 110-metre-high glacier is above the water level. Named after French geologist Emmanuel de Margerie, the 1.6km wide glacier flows 34km from Mount Root to the Tarr Inlet. We were gazing at a product of Little Ice Age. Time stood still: 4,000 years remained frozen

Ketchikan
Creek Street in Ketchikan

SALMON CITY

Welcome to Ketchikan, the first city of Alaska, said an arch on the street as we pulled into the port. Behind it a quaint town. The town that boasts itself as the salmon capital of the world sits in a valley of pines set against ubiquitous mountains. Flowers bloomed on the sidewalks of narrow streets beside bright coloured buildings; a long totem pole stood at the end of a road; rows of boats swayed on moorings, the air redolent with salmon.

We joined throngs of tourists hunting for souvenirs on Creek Street.  Among the stores was Dolly’s House welcoming visitors from across a rickety wooden bridge with a board that proclaims “Where men and salmon come upstream to spawn.” More souvenir shops crowd even more streets with pubs serving Alaskan beer and salmon jostling for attention.

A pretty town, that’s Ketchikan: our last port of call. A promise, little else. Disappointing it was. Particularly after the bewitching beauty of Alaska: magnificent glaciers, ancient fjords, lush green valleys, magical train rides.

THE FINAL FRONTIER

Alaska is the final frontier. Where the shadowy mass of whales casually slides into icy seascapes; white-headed American eagles feed chicks on ice floes; glistening seals sun on rocks; deep ravines frame thick pine forests. Only the bears were a no show. I was fine with that. For Alaska put on quite a show.


This was first published on gulfnews.com on June 12, 2017. http://bit.ly/2vwZgYE
Pictures: Shyam A. Krishna