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Height of folly

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By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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TORONTO - Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I am no thrill seeker.

I have never been sky diving or bungee jumping or helicopter skiing. I don’t even like roller coasters. In fact, I am perfectly happy to keep my feet on the ground, or propped up on an ottoman, preferably wearing fuzzy socks. So I was more than a little freaked out when I found myself almost 1,200 feet above the city with my heels hanging off the edge of one of the tallest structures in the Western hemisphere.

The EdgeWalk, which opened in August, offers otherwise completely sane people the chance to walk around the outside of Toronto’s CN Tower for 30 minutes with nothing but a harness connected to an overhead rail keeping them from the abyss. The walk is modeled after similar - but lower - tower edge walks in Auckland, New Zealand, and Macau, and it is not for the faint of heart.

It is definitely not for the faint of stomach.

I joined seven other EdgeWalkers on a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, intending to observe them from a safe distance and talk to them about their experience afterward. But somehow I ended up out on the ledge.

The overhead rail and 5-foot ledge encircling the tower cost $3.2 million to construct, said Jack Robinson, the tower’s chief operating officer.

“You do these things to differentiate yourself,’’ he said.

And it seems to be working. The number of people who have shelled out $175 Canadian for the experience - an estimated 7,000 visitors in the first three months - has equaled the number that officials expected to attract in an entire April-to-October season.

The adventure began in an equipment room on the ground floor, where we took off all of our jewelry, emptied our pockets, and donned red jumpsuits. The staff administered a breathalyzer to make sure we weren’t under the influence of something more powerful than adrenaline - or in my case, stupidity - and strapped each of us into a harness, which they checked multiple times without actually reassuring me.

There have been few fright meltdowns, they told us, save for the woman whose husband didn’t realize she was afraid of heights before surprising her with a trip to the top. “I think they went straight to the [divorce] lawyer,’’ one staff member said.

Before I knew it we were in the elevator, zipping 116 stories up the communications tower. After a little pumping-up music - “The Final Countdown’’ and Van Halen’s “Jump’’ (a song the staff didn’t mean to play, apparently; “Don’t do that,’’ one of them said, quickly switching it off) - we hooked onto the ropes attached to the overhead rail and headed out the door.

They made me go first, and I let out a yelp - actually more of a groan - when I stepped out onto the platform. The distance down to the ground, and the fact that there was no barrier between me and it, was dizzying.

Everything was going on below me: the Blue Jays warming up to play the Red Sox at the Rogers Centre, Lake Ontario stretching out to Niagara Falls, planes taking off at the airport across the channel, my knees trembling violently.

It was a stunning view, one that I might have enjoyed more from behind the safety of a glass wall on the observation deck.

Our guide, Brian Lidster, who previously worked at the tower walk in Auckland, coaxed us out to the edge one at a time - having each of us back toward it, then hang our heels off it, and extend our posteriors. Everyone else seemed so calm, but I was seriously stressed, and I told Lidster I couldn’t do it. He had seen my kind before, however, and had me practice on the inner ledge. I finally managed to inch my way backward to the edge, counting on the harness to hold me - but I wanted to throw up.

Then Lidster got even more sadistic. It was time to lean off the edge facing forward. And I had to go first. “One more tiny step,’’ Lidster called out. I moved a centimeter. “And one more tiny step.’’ I advanced a millimeter. “And one more tiny step.’’ I froze. “Nice work,’’ he said, even though I was a full foot from the edge.

Looking down was terrifying, but looking up was almost worse. The clouds moving past the tip of the building made it look like the building was swaying.

Thirty minutes after we started, we had circled the tower once, the most frightening, exhilarating 500-foot walk of my life. The other people in my group seemed remarkably sanguine.

Self-professed adrenaline junkie Ashley Chircop, 23, a Canadian police officer who patted my back reassuringly as I was panicking out on the ledge, said afterward that she wasn’t as nervous as she thought she was going to be. But her boyfriend and fellow police officer, Adam Witts, 28, was not so cool. He e-mailed me a few days later and confessed: “Honestly I have had a knife-wielding maniac come at me with bad intentions, and I was actually more comfortable with that than when I first extended my rump over the tower.’’

Ahmed Almaidan, 22, a student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, started out as the cockiest member of the group but was visibly scared out on the edge. “It’s worse than skydiving,’’ he said afterward. “Maybe in 10 years I will try it again.’’

Not me. An hour after we returned to earth, my stomach was still in knots, and I walked back to my hotel room, relieved that my feet were on the ground and the highest thing I had to climb was onto my bed.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

If You Go

EdgeWalk at the CN Tower
855-553-3833
www.cntower.ca
edgewalkinfo@cntower.ca
The EdgeWalk is at 1,168 feet high, lasting an hour, including safety instruction time.
Up to 30 walks per day, depending on weather and light, from April to October; about $166.