Monday, March 18, 2013

The nature of vertiginous

ver·tig·i·nous  (adjective)
Causing vertigo, especially by being extremely high or steep.

Looking (a long way) down at Paul do Mer, Madeira
Who can forget the iconic shot of a terrified James Stewart dangling from one of San Francisco’s sky scrapers?

The opening scene of Vertigo, which last year toppled Citizen Kane from top rating in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound once-a-decade poll, brilliantly illustrates the debilitating effect that a fear of heights can have.

I’m not that keen on high places myself. I've ‘frozen’ at the top of several tall structures, most memorably Barcelona’s still unfinished Sagrada Familia and, closer to home, walking over the top of Newport’s Transporter Bridge (the 242 foot construction usually opens to the public on Bank Holidays).

On a trip to New York, a year or two before 9/11, I quashed my fears and ventured onto the Empire State Building’s observation deck, 86 floors up.  I was terrified and, as a result, later refused to scale the nearby Twin Towers, an opportunity now lost forever.

A hairy section of coast path on Gower
But my real, gut-wrenching, terror in the skies moment was on a roller-coaster ride in Las Vegas . This toe-curling monster was positioned on the very top of the Stratosphere Hotel Tower, which ‘juts 1,149 feet into the Vegas skyline’ (their words).  It took two margaritas before I could step onto the ride and I did the whole two loops with my eyes shut and my mouth open (screaming). It clearly wasn’t terrifying enough for other adrenaline seekers though because, seven years ago, the Stratosphere demolished it to make space for several new rides with names like Insanity and X-scream. I guess that about sums it up.

Hiking in Wales isn't completely without its nerve-wracking moments either, although the official Wales Coast Path does direct walkers away from the hairiest sections. 

Despite all these terror-filled experiences, I don't recall any memorable encounters with the adjective ‘vertiginous’ until our first trip to Madeira in 2007. Browsing through our collection of new holiday walking guides, it wasn’t exactly reassuring to note the frequent scattering of phrases like ‘the way becomes very dangerous [sic], ‘there is a sheer drop’ , ‘Hold on: watch you don’t fall!’ and ‘Some people might find this stretch vertiginous’.

The Madeira archipelago is basically a chain of big underwater mountains, some which rise above the ocean. Although it measures only 35 miles by 22 miles, Madeira’s highest peak – Pico Ruivo – stands at 1861 metres, more than twice as high as Pen y Fan (886 metres) in the Brecon Beacons. The island also boasts one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe – the sheer drop at Cabo Girão is 570 metres and it’s pretty frightening to stand on the viewing platform looking down at terraced fields and the ocean beyond.

You need a head for heights on the route to Pico Ruivo 
What's even more fascinating is realising there’s more than twice as much Madeira lurking underneath the waves as above them. The cliffs around the island apparently extend to a depth of around 4,000 metres. That’s one big drop.

I share all this because, if you’re looking for a bad attack of vertigo, Madeira’s as good as place as any to head for.
Our first full day’s walking back in December 2007 was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. We'd chosen a walk from Walk Madeira! (by David and Ros Brawn) and the authors judged there to be a vertigo risk of 3 (high) and warned about ‘an unprotected drop’. Hidden half-way through the instructions, one of them had noted ‘the water channel had left the cliff leaving a body-sized slit to drop where I thought the cliff might be’.
Our Sunflower Landscapes book advised readers who considered themselves ‘experts’: ‘ You should manage all the walks easily, provided that you are used to very sheer unprotected drops’.   
It was all there in black and white, the subliminal message being ‘Keep Well Clear’. Except... the concept of danger is cultural and, hailing from a safety-conscious country like the UK, it was impossible to conceive of a dangerous path being accessible to the public. At home, Harri and frequently encounter footpaths that have been diverted/closed due to 'hazards' such as bowing walls or construction work on canal towpaths (experience has taught us to use our own discretion in such circumstances) . The authors of these Madeira guidebooks must be overly-cautious souls, I decided.

By early afternoon, I’d changed my opinion. Madeira was a hairy place to walk; if anything, these Madeira-philes had understated the perils.

A head for heights is necessary on the Levada dos Piornais
As I clung to a cliff overhang on the precipitous Levada dos Piornais, I froze with terror. There was absolutely nothing between the narrow path and a long tumble into the valley below except a rail with a human-sized gap at the bottom. One false move and I’d be doing a bungee jump without the elastic cord. To make things worse, Alanna (then just 12) was hiking with us and, with her youthful exuberance, was bouncing along and relishing the hair-raising experience.  I was expecting her to vanish over the precipice at any moment.

I was right to be concerned. Six months after our holiday, a 61-year-old Belgian woman died on the same levada; two weeks earlier, a woman fell to her death on the Ribeiro Frio – Portela walk. In January 2012, two elderly Danish tourists (women) were found dead below Levada dos Piornais.  

It’s sobering truth that too many hikers die every year, mostly while trekking on high mountain routes. In Madeira, it’s the popular levada paths that people should be treating with trepidation.

At first glance, they look surprisingly easy: level paths weaving their way around the contours of wooded valleys, often with official sign-posting and cafes/bars en route. On the face of it, levada walking offers the opportunity for even the most sedentary of tourists to get close to the island’s natural beauty.

But maybe that’s the 'root' of the problem. The Levada dos Piornais is tantalisingly close to Funchal, to the heavily populated hotel region.  Ribeiro Frio is one of the most visited valleys in Madeira: people take photographs, have something to eat and then look around for something else to do. Too often, they set off for a stroll without considering their fitness levels, footwear and head for heights.

Harri walks one of  Levada Furado's less vertiginous sections
On our latest trip, we witnessed two separate incidents on the vertiginous Levada Furado where the female hiker looked down, ‘froze’ and turned back. They were probably wise to do so as there were considerably more hair-raising sections facing them ahead.

Following the meandering course of a levada is probably one of the best ways to experience the beauty of inland Madeira. Just remember to choose your levada carefully if you don't like heights! 

One last thing, I stumbled upon this brilliantly entertaining blog entry highlighting some of the real (and imaginary) perils one holiday-maker encountered on his levada walk.

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