Saturday, October 24, 2009


On Thursday, October 22nd, I climbed the CN tower, that ever-present Toronto skyline anchor.

As a life-long Toronto girl, the CN tower has meant different things over the years to me. In primary school, it meant a guaranteed field trip every year. It was always a visit fraught with nerves, as I will admit, I have always had a fear of heights. Not a crippling fear but a fear nonetheless. So, over the years, I have had no urge to visit the tower and look out on the vastness of the city from such a height. When you live your whole life in one city, you rarely have the urge to participate in things "touristy", in truth, you tend to scoff at them (well, I do, anyway).

However, as an interior designer and a person who has always loved the architecture of buildings in general, the tower represents something much more than concrete and metal.

It represents home.

When I drive back from my office north of the city, every weekday, I see it looming in the distance as I drive south on the DVP toward my downtown condo. It reminds me of all the reasons why I live in the city, and of all the choices I've made in my life to get me to the point I am now--the "where I'm supposed to be" of it all.

So when some co-workers decided to repeat the feat a small group had attempted last year--to climb the interior steps of the CN tower for the United Way, I gave in and said I would do it. Truth be told, I really didn't think about it too much. It was a good group activity, a 'team-building' type of exercise, and I regularly work out with the best of intentions.

Piece of cake, right?

I naively thought there were 100 flights of stairs. There are 144 flights. I found this out about 20 minutes prior to climbing them.

To begin, you clear security, and are given a card. The helpful staff punch in the card, and that is your starting time. GO.

And I did. For the first 40 flights I took a serious pace, not slowing. I did math in my head, dividing the flights up into fractions, as in 40 floors is just under one-third. It was daunting.

At 72 floors I was at the halfway point, gasping for breath as the air got thinner and thinner as I climbed higher and higher. It wasn't that crowded. As in life, you catch up to the people you are supposed to be with; the rest fall behind. Another smaller group is far, far ahead.

As I mentioned, this was a 'corporate' climb, so there were lots of serious teams of serious companies, much bigger than our little group. There were banks, investment groups, the CAMH, Enbridge (who sponsored the event), and many, many others. One company had a particularly artful group t-shirt, grey in colour (like the steps in the tower) with a beautiful white tree on the front of the shirt, down in the corner, a tree in white, laden with snow. The caption on the back of the shirt, scrolling down near the hem was "We like the winters here". The group of employees from this particular company was overwhelmingly male, young, and fit. They were in the same group of 100 climbers that my company and I were. I cannot possibly describe my jubilance as I sauntered by some of these young, fit men on my way up the tower. Some of them were doing what I wanted to--pausing on a landing, leaning onto the wall for support. I kept going--left foot, right foot.
The CN tower stairwell is not remotely glamourous. It is a metal cage, grey in colour, housing the seemingly-endless flights of grey metal stairs. Yes, metal. Not concrete like the tower itself. They are metal, grey like the fencing surrounding them, and unlike usual buildings, the stairs just keep going--because there are no floors of the building to get onto and off of. The stairs, being metal, have no risers, because that is how industrial stairs are constructed. It's more cost-effective. Each flight is approximately 11 steps, and you reach a landing. There are handrails on each side, grey metal, square, unforgiving. The walls are white, except for one small number on each landing--spray painted in orange is an industrial-type number of the stair flight you are on. As the numbers got higher and higher, I forced myself to not think about where I was, and how high up I was--that would have finished me. As it went, my lungs were having a hard enough time themselves, filled with cold, unconditioned air. The higher up I went, the harder I fought to breathe. The paramedics, grimly stationed every 5 flights or so up, began to make sense. At least 10 times during the climb I mentally pictured myself lying down on one of the landings.

For me, the first 40 floors were a scramble, a competitive way for me to put as much distance between myself and my coworkers as I could. By 60 I was worried. At 72, the half-way point, my breathing bordered on desparate. By 80 I could no longer imagine or calculate rationally the end of the stairs. Something happened between 90 and 95--I spotted a coworker beneath me in the open risers of the stairs, steadily gaining, and somehow, from somewhere, that competitive streak in me opened up, and I booted up the next few flights. 110. 120.
For the last 40 flights I was heavily walking, with two other girls, both from different companies, with whom I had been pacing myself with since my last spurt of energy. We didn't speak, just walked, quickly, determinedly, for those last 30, 20, then--as one of the girls announced at 134--the last 10. The three of us, without a word, started to move faster; when we got to the time-punch clock at the end of the final flight, flight 144, we high-fived. I had finished before everyone else in my office.
After the clock-in, there were still (unbelievably) some more short flights to get up to the observation deck where they were giving out water, and, in the late dusk of a Thursday night, you could look out onto the entire city, from any vantage point, north, east, west, south, and no other building would block your view. That's how high up it is.

Because the CN tower is the tallest building in the world.

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