Monday, February 29, 2016

Fear of ladders: The Mesa Verde experience


An easy climb at
Bandelier National Monument
in New Mexico
I’ve climbed ladders into Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings before. At Bandelier National Monument, not far from the Visitors Center, there are some fairly short ladders to climb. I climbed those without hesitation. So I figured I was ladder-proficient.

On a recent tour of the Four Corners area we traveled up a road to the high, looming mesa the Spanish named Mesa Verde.  When we arrived at Mesa Verde National Park, I had no concerns. I looked forward to seeing the famous cliff dwellings. I had yet to find out that ladders might be involved. I slept well that night on the top of the Mesa. The sunset was stunning. The dinner at the Far View Lodge dining room was excellent.

In the morning, we were told we’d be meeting a park ranger for a tour. In fact, we had scored the last tickets for the morning tour of Balcony House. Our leader seemed excited. (I should have taken this as a “red flag”)
Our destination for the morning.

Of course, I had yet to hear about the ladders at Balcony House. I soon found out that the tunnel, passageways, and 32-foot entrance ladder are what make Balcony House the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour in the park. Of course you have to go with a ranger on a guided tour. With 40 rooms, Balcony House is considered a medium size cliff dwelling. Only 10 sites in the park have more rooms. It is a place you’ll want to see. But be forewarned…. There is a huge ladder rising toward the sky, a 32-foot ladder. And, as you’ll find out, there are even more!

We arrived for a briefing. At some point I would guess the ranger would eye the participants and judge whether or not they were ladder-proficient. Perhaps my hiking boots and Columbia Sportswear jacket fooled her. I was allowed to remain with the tour. We walked down a path, through a locked gate and gathered. We were told that we could turn back at this point as our ranger was in radio contact with the ranger at the top of the hill. I took note but didn’t opt out.

32 feet, side by side.
Our group started discussing the ominous ladder serving to accelerate the anxiety among those of us susceptible to fear of heights and ladders. We rounded the corner and there it was. A huge ladder with rungs the diameter of small trees, and lying at an angle which could only be described as straight up, loomed before us. We were briefed and the first of the group (the braver among us) started to ascend the cliff face. My turn came. By then my palms were sweaty and I wondered if I could even grasp the rungs.

I was aware that there were people behind me so I had no choice but to go up… rung by rung. I worried that my legs would start shaking. As I put my weight on each rung, I felt a little movement. I maintained my focus on the cliff face in front of me. I didn’t look up and I didn’t look down (that would have been a big mistake!). I went slowly and all of a sudden the ranger grabbed my hand and guided it toward the chain. Ah… I had reached the top and the chain was much easier to grasp than the super-sized rungs.
Yeah, it was scary!

I made it to the top and crawled onto the floor of the Ancient Puebloan dwelling. Slowly I stood up and joined the group as we awaited the guided tour (and took a deep breath). The view was worth the climb. Unlike others, I stayed far back from the edge of the cliff and wondered how the ancient mothers kept their children from falling. We soon found out that they used cradleboards and, well, the kids eventually learned how to keep safe.

Our tour was informative and we crawled from section to section on our knees. We reached the end of our stay at Balcony House and were told to head out along the trail to …. (gulp) more ladders to climb. There were two shorter ladders, both straight up. I wasn’t prepared for any additional challenges but figured the designated route had to be better than trying to go back down the 32-foot ladder with tree-sized rungs. So up I went. It was scary too but I knew that once I reached the top, that would be it. The ladder challenge would be over.

The way out!
I finished the climb, stood up and started photographing some of my colleagues as they climbed and, with equal sighs of relief, reached the summit. We headed for the snack bar and enjoyed a lunch of Navajo tacos and soft drinks. Some among us might have preferred a Prickly Pear Margarita. It had been that kind of morning.

While I may have embellished the story a bit, I was, quiet honestly, scared even though the National Park makes it a safe climb. My desire to learn more about Balcony House and the ancient people that lived there, plus a little peer pressure, prodded me on.

More Information


The view from Balcony House and the opportunity to
tour the cliff dwellings was worth the climb.

This experience was part of a Grand Circle tour provided by Southwest Adventure Tours and hosted by the members of the Grand Circle Association. While this has not influenced this content, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.