Since I first began my foreign travels, I have had the following informal rule:
If I can pay to climb it, I will pay and climb it.
This was true in my first European city, Paris, in 1987, when I first climbed the towers of Notre Dame (226 feet tall, finished in 1250) to commune with the gargoyles. On that same trip, I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa…when there were no rails!
Probably my most memorable climb was in 1989 in Sienna, Italy. The beautiful main square of the town features the 289-feet-tall Torre del Mangia from 1348. It stands proudly over a red scalloped Piazza like a royal scepter. Per usual, I bought my ticket for the privilege of climbing it.
Like many towers, it gradually became slimmer as it got higher. Even at its widest, it was pretty narrow.
And there was just one staircase, of course, shared by climbers going up and climbers going down. This was not much problem near the bottom, but it got worse and worse as one approached the top.
For the last third it got very tight indeed. The only problem with this, I happened to remember about 300 steps up, was that I am highly, highly claustrophobic. Like, really, excrutiatingly bad.
At a certain point the tight space became so crowded I couldn’t budge. No way up, no way down. People crawling over me, pressing into me. Near darkness.
It was the worst claustrophobic incident I have had in my life. Yecchh.
Anyway, eventually made it to the top with my sanity battered and bruised but otherwise intact.
Cut to yesterday. On my Segway tour my first day in Copenhagen, I noticed this incredible steeple:
“What is that?” I asked Rainer, our adorable Estonian grad student tour guide.
Rainer explained that it was the famous Vor Frelsers Kirke, or Church of Our Savior.
“Can you climb that tower?”
Plans for next day made.
I took the bus to Christianhavn, the lovely district across the big canal from the old part of town. I was planning on going there anyway, as I wanted to people-watch while in Copenhagen, and I wanted to people-watch Danes, not just tourists. Christianhavn is a real neighborhood.
I made my way to the church and dutifully paid for my entry. And started up.
When I first climbed the towers of Notre Dame, I was twenty-seven and slim. As I began lumbering up the 380 steps of the steeple, I reflected upon the fact that I am now fifty-five and, well, not slim. No matter! As I have proven over and over again, I can climb anything if you let me go at my own pace. My recent successful scalings of Nob Hill and Pacific Heights in San Francisco attest to this fact. So bravely up I headed.
The Church of Our Savior was finished in 1752 and the corkscrew spire is 270 feet high.
Look at that steeple again. Notice anything odd about it?
That’s right. The upper portion of the climb is done on the outside of the tower. Yeah, you read that right. This is not an outing for the acutely acrophobic.
The first third of the way was just making our way up through the first levels of the church, and the steps were pretty normal.
Then I got to the middle portion, still inside, but narrow, very steep and very high steps. Really almost ladders. Ugh. But I did fine.
Finally, the steeple. The outside part. The good news was that the steps were very shallow on this portion. Almost a ramp. Easier, step-wise.
The bad news was… did I mention that at this point I was outside? Now, you’d think this would be no problem. I don’t have acrophobia. Heights rarely bother me. In fact, I have frequently found them exhilarating, I’ve frequently described myself as acrophilic.
So crawling up the outside of a skinny, brick, 600 year old tower shouldn’t be any problem for me, right?
That’s the bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark.
At first it wasn’t. But then the higher I got, and the narrower the tower got, and the more crowded it got, the less okay I became.
The railing to my right seemed nice and solid, but it was the only thing between me and a horrible fall. And I was frequently pushed up against it as other tourists heading down had to pass me on the left.
Then I began to think about how old the steeple was. Up here near the top, it was literally less than two yards wide. Had it been retrofitted lately, I wondered? How much strain does it put on a narrow brick tower when hundreds of tourists climb up and down each day? Wasn’t it designed for just one or two deranged curates to ascend and descend occasionally?
The first wind farm I’ve ever seen that’s in the water! Denmark produces more power than it uses.
What if this was the day, the hour, the minute, that all this tired fourteenth-century masonry, undermined by thousands of bitter winter days and millions of heavy-footed tourists, finally decided to call it a day? What if my desire to climb finally cost me everything?
My sense of unexpected and sudden acrophobia became sharper and sharper, but it was never quite debilitating. I even found the fortitude to switch lenses on my camera at one point, which I assure you was no small feat.
Something that helped was that there were plenty of fellow climbers around me having a much worse time than I was. I struck up a conversation with a nice but terrified British lady as she was heading up and I was heading down.
“If it’s any consolation,” I said gently, “It gets much narrower and scarier as you go up.” I’m a giver.
Nice View From the Top of the Steeple
Going down the steeple was scary because, since I was on the inside now, I couldn’t hang on the railing for dear life. The center core had nothing to hold onto. I hadn’t realized until I started down that I’d been depending on the outside railing so much. I was shaking a bit by the time I made it to the steep, middle, indoors portion of the climb.
This was the steep portion, and while it wasn’t scary, it was much more dangerous going down than going up had been. Falling was a real possibility.
I made it out alive and looked back up admiringly at the tall, skinny tower I had just conquered. I thought back to that harrowing 1989 brick tower climb in Sienna. Despite my fears today, I realized that I’d still take Tower Acrophobia over Tower Claustrophobia any day.
I’m glad I did it and I’ll continue climbing stuff as long as I am able to!