Of the many memorable moments of our Reinhart family reunion, none will leave me with quite the same symptoms of PTSD as when we were caught on the highest hardest part of a high ropes course when a freak thunderstorm changed course and went right over top of us. Literally. And not even “figuratively” literally like people tend to use “literally” these days. But literally literally it was terrifying.
The day started out innocently enough. It was my Cousin Charlie’s 11th birthday and he managed to talk a bunch of us into going to the Flagstaff Xtreme ropes course. It’s basically a series of five obstacle courses, starting 20 feet high through the trees and getting higher and harder as your progress through.
After a quick “how to not get killed” safety briefing, we embarked on the first set of ropes. It wasn't particularly difficult and not even really that scary. While I was up in one of the trees, one of the guides asked me if I was afraid of heights. I replied, “no, but I’m afraid of falling from heights”; which is not only incredibly witty, but also describes the emotion pretty well. When you’re going through the courses, you’re strapped into a harness and have a pair of carabiners that you use to attach yourself to safety lines on each obstacle. It’s designed so that at least one of the carabiners is hooked in at all times. So you can’t really fall. Unfortunately your body doesn't necessarily know that. Occasionally I’d look at the ground 40 feet below and get a little surge of fear mixed with adrenaline. Logically I’d be able to tell myself that it was totally safe, but there was a part of my body that was definitely questioning my sanity. Which I think is a good thing. No matter what our brains tell our bodies, a part of us will always react purely by instincts. And our instincts say that riding around on skateboards 50 feet in the air is batshit crazy. I probably learned that from watching Cosmos. Hashtag evolution.
We banged out the first four courses easy peazy. The last obstacle was maybe a little tough but more than anything we were all just tired from having been climbing between trees for a couple hours. So we decided to take a short rest, refuel and tackle the hardest and highest course – the BLACK course – after lunch. This would also allow my Cousin Tom, Charlie’s dad, to catch up. He’d spent the first half of the morning taking pictures from below since he’d already done the three of the courses earlier in the week. Unfortunately the guides decided to arbitrarily be sticklers about the “you have to complete the courses in order” rule and so Tom had to start from the very beginning before he could join us for the black course.
We climbed down, chowed down, drank some Gatorade and were ready to take on the black course. My mom decided to hold back and just watch us do it. She claimed her arms were tired and that she knew her limits, but I’m pretty sure she just didn't want the rest of us to feel bad when she smoked us on the hardest obstacles. Earlier in the day, whenever I warned her that one of the courses was pretty tough she’d always cruise right through it and say, “that wasn't too bad”. Badass. The rest of us (quick head count, partially to confirm that we all did in fact survive), Gharrett, Jenny, Tom, Charlie, and Uncle Dave began climbing the 60 feet to the start of the black course just as a couple rain drops started to fall. Foreshadow.
The black course starts with a super long rope bridge, similar to stuff we’d crossed a handful of times already, but this was easily four times longer than anything we’d tackled before. Gharrett went first, then Charlie, then Tom, then me, Jenny and finally Uncle Dave. One of the challenging things about the black course was that there’s a rule of “only two people on any one obstacle at the same time. For some of the obstacles, you only want to go one at a time so that you don’t mess each other up. Since we all started as a group, this meant a lot more time waiting and contemplating our predicament before beginning each obstacle. And as a rule of thumb, don’t hang out in a tree 60 feet high and contemplate your predicament. Especially when you start noticing really dark storm clouds in the not too distant distance.
We all made it across the rope bridge just fine. Then rope burned the crap out of our ankles on the next leg of the course. At the time we thought our rope burns would be our biggest war story of the day. They were serious business, even a week later I have three inch scabs on each ankle. But it was while we were comparing injuries and getting up the courage for the second to last obstacle that things started to go wrong.
Jenny and I were standing behind Charlie, helping him get up the courage to embark on what looked like the hardest part of the entire ropes course. It was a series of rings hanging from ropes that you had to step into and then swing to the next one all the way form one tree to another. Difficult because it relied on balance, strength, and not panicking. Oh, and because it started raining making everything slippery. While we were telling him what a badass he was and how we was going to dominate the last couple hurdles in this course, I saw a bolt of lightning in the distance. It was still a couple miles away but it was definitely lightning followed shortly by the distinctive roar of thunder.
“Okay Charlie, you have to go NOW”.
For all of us, the vague fear of heights was dwarfed by the immediate fear of being struck by lightning. It wasn't on top of us yet, but it felt like it could be at any minute. The guides said it was still far enough away that we didn't need to worry. And apparently it wasn't supposed to come any closer. Because thunderstorms are notorious for doing what they're "supposed to do".
Then it started hailing. Hard.
I didn't bother waiting for Charlie to finish the rings. I was swinging through them as soon as I had a few feet of space. There's a great series of pictures of me right behind Charlie on the rights and then way off in the distance, totally abandoning my entire family in order to save myself. In my defense, how am I supposed to protect them from lightning?
It was while I was in fleeing the group that things got real. The storm that was a few miles away all of a sudden was a few hundred feet away. Lightning flashed overhead and was immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder. If you were counting Mississippis to see how far away it was, you would've gotten about a third of the way through the M. It was on top of us.
Another flash. Another clap. Hail pelted our hands and faces. The guides were yelling at everyone, "get down NOW!" "You, jump onto the cargo net now, go go go."
There were probably 50 or 60 people spread throughout the five courses. We were the highest. There was no escape route down, the fastest way to safety was to complete the course. I don't even remember flying down the last zip-line. It should have been the coolest part of the entire day, a rewarding ride through the trees after completing the hardest obstacle course. Instead I was in survival mode. The series of steps to clip and un-clip from the zip-line became automatic.
When I finally got to the ground I turned to see the rest of the family making their way through the course to safety. It was probably five minutes but felt like 45 before everyone was out of the trees. We all had our war stories. Dave's hands had stopped working due to a combination of fatigue and numbness. He'd completed the cargo net by grabbing on with his elbows.
On the car ride home, we were all in a bit of shock. Even now, it feels a little surreal to think about how the events unfolded. It makes for a good story, but I think I'll probably retire from ropes courses. At least ropes courses in areas that get daily thunderstorms. That sort of seems like a recipe for disaster.