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Defying death, 116 stories above Toronto

Well, it's official. I am completely unafraid of heights.

The first thing I said when I stepped outside onto the narrow metal platform 1,168 feet above the ground wasn't, "Oh my God. What was I thinking?" It was, "It's raining!"

I'd waited two months for this day, ever since my inspired husband handed me an envelope for my birthday and said, "I just want to say, this is the best birthday present I've ever given you. Ever."

Inside the envelope was a slim folder and gift certificate to the CN Tower Edge Walk. Locals know all about the CN Tower, the must-see tourist attraction in downtown Toronto that gives visitors an awe-inspiring, 360-degree view of the Toronto skyline and features a partial glass floor.

A couple of years ago, we'd brought our two boys to visit the CN Tower. That's when I learned the tower had added a 5-foot metal platform that ringed the outside of the main observation pod. Thrill seekers willing to shell out $225 Canadian could don special red jumpsuits and walk around outside of the tower, even do some stunts.

Many have. More than 120,000 people have become Edge Walkers since the attraction first opened in 2011.

"I want to do that," I wistfully said to my husband. "Maybe for my 50th birthday."

For the record, I am younger than 50. I just happen to be married to a guy who saw a birthday idea land into his lap and grasped that little bird with both hands.

So one weekend last month, off we went to Toronto for my Edge Walk experience. I checked in and signed the waiver, which I expected to be much thicker. But it soon became evident why a longer waiver wasn't necessary. CN Tower operators had guarded against every imaginable liability.

The CN Tower Edge Walk experience opened in 2011. Thrill seekers walk around the CN Tower 116 stories up. (Courtesy of CN Tower)

After being ushered into a prep room alongside three young Frenchmen and another friendly young man from England, the first thing we had to do was blow into a little black box. My first breathalyzer test! After that, every piece of metal on our bodies had to come off and be stored with the rest of our personal belongings in individual lockers. Goodbye, wedding ring and jewelry.

One of my compatriots, David, was wearing a string bracelet with a permanent metal closure that couldn't be removed. Out came the medical tape. A staffer taped the bracelet to his skin. No metal objects were going to fly off the CN Tower.

I was given my choice of colored hair bands and asked to sport a ponytail.

Thus started a lengthy prep and check process that resulted in pat downs and body checks by multiple people. In all my travels, I don't think I've been so physically handled by so many strangers in such a short period of time. After stepping into a cool red jumpsuit, I was snugly belted into a heavy yellow harness with big metal rings on the front and back.

The first time they fitted the harness, it was snug. The second time, they pulled the straps so tight I felt kind of bad for the men.

By this time, my family, which got to watch me put on the Edge Walk gear through a glass wall, headed up the tower. They bought regular observation deck tickets, but because they came with me to witness my walk, they were given VIP access to the front of the long, long line and were able to head straight up the elevator. From the observation deck, they would watch me live on a series of monitors.

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After our Edge Walk guide, Romina, showed up, she checked us over again and took pictures of our group. Then up we went in an elevator called just for us.

We stepped out into a control room where a yellow retractable belt was attached to the back of our harness, and a thick black cable was attached to the front. To make sure no one was dumb enough to try and unhook themselves outside, the control room monitor affixed zip ties over the latch.

The outside doors opened. Wind and raindrops started to pelt us. The platform, as wide as a standard sidewalk, resembled the kind of steam grate you'd periodically find on a sidewalk.

Our moment had arrived.

"If you can walk down there, you can walk up here," our guide, Romina, cheerfully informed us. "You're just a little higher up, right?"

A couple of our five-member group seemed to lose their enthusiasm. CN Tower employees later told me it's common for many participants to believe they aren't afraid of heights, only to discover that they really are when they're looking down from a ledge 116 stories up.

As Romina led us around the four sides of the CN Tower, she did the tour guide thing and offered a short spiel about the buildings we were looking out – or down – on. Then she turned on her video camera and cheerleaded us into several daring poses. The first, "Toes over Toronto" simply asked each of us to step close to the edge of the platform and let go of our black cable of life.

This posed no difficulty for me. But I reserved my admiration for David, who initially shook his head, but then reached deep within and shuffled his feet close to the edge, a half inch at a time.

Next was a "lean back" pose, which required us to face in toward the tower, sink down into our harness "like you're sitting in a chair"  and slowly walk our feet back to the outer edge of the platform. Romina instructed us to straighten our legs so our butts hung out past the platform, then spread out our arms.

Dominic, the group's Englishman, was tapped to go first.

"Ooh, hello," he said, clearly nervous as he pushed his hips back and stretched his body beyond the platform.

Romina invited him to stay right where he was before turning to me.

I wasn't as nervous, mainly because I was facing in toward the walls of the tower while I pushed my hips and upper body out. After I gave Romina a two-handed high five and stretched out my arms, Dominic used his black cable to pull himself back onto the platform. I hung out, literally, while Romina encouraged the other three to follow suit.

The CN Tower Edge Walk experience is the ultimate attraction for thrill seekers. (Courtesy of CN Tower)

"How are you so chill about this?" Dominic asked me from the safety of the platform.

I was less "chill" when we were asked to do a similar stunt, but in reverse. Instead of leaning out while facing in, we were leaning out and facing out.

Each of us was asked to walk toward the platform's edge, then, facing forward, lean our bodies along our black cable of life and stretch out beyond the platform while extending our arms. At this point, my body started sending up signals of rebellion. Sure, that black cable is supposed to support 15,500 pounds, but my body says they're totally lying.

David, who had been waging an ongoing battle with fear, took minutes to lean out and stretch his arms.

"Un petit peu," Romina repeated encouragingly in French as David inched forward a little at a time.

When he finally mastered the stunt, he curled his hands into fists and yelled, "THIS IS SPARTA!" (If you don't get that reference, look up the movie "300.")

As he came back and whooped in excitement and relief, I took my turn doing the same stunt, enjoying the applause from my newfound friends as I leaned out with airplane arms and swiveled to look at them on my left and my right.

Meanwhile, my family was closely following my progress along with other tourists on the monitors inside the observation deck. When my husband pointed me out on the video feed, one woman asked if we were going to rappel down the sides of the tower. He shot her an "are-you-nuts look" and said no.

The CN Tower Edge Walk experience includes this "lean out" stunt, which feels much more frightening than it looks. (Courtesy of CN Tower)

By the time we were making our way back to the starting point, storm clouds were clearly heading our way. It's a truly novel experience to watch a storm front move in when you feel like you're actually standing closer to the clouds than to the ground.

As Romina took time out to shoot another set of individual photos of us in different poses, Dominic and I – the last to be photographed – watched the rain clouds approach. From this vantage point, raindrops fell like a dark gray curtain sweeping ever closer as more city blocks were cast from sunlight to darkness.

As a new group stepped out onto the platform and we waited to return to the control room after nearly 30 minutes outside, our group huddled together with our backs to the storm as rain descended. Hey, was that HAIL? (Oh yes, it was.)

Once inside, we were unclipped from our two lifelines and hopped onto an elevator, this time picking up more visiting tourists from the main observation desk before heading to ground level.

When the first few tourists glimpsed us inside the elevator car, one woman shook her head at us and said, "I am so jealous."

It's not too late, we told her. Though I had signed up days earlier, many choose to do the Edge Walk after learning about it after they arrive at the CN Tower. The attraction runs mid-April through October.

Once back on the ground and out of my heavy gear, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the three handsome Frenchmen who joined me on the walk. One had passed on most of the stunts. Another, Farrad, did them all with the same limited fearlessness that I did. And then there was David, whose battle for courage garnered admiration from all.

"What do you do for a living?" they asked. "Are you a pilot?"

"Do you do these kinds of things all the time? We're heading to New York next. What can you recommend for us?"

"I'm from Buffalo, which is just across the border," I said. "I'm a journalist."


"I write for a newspaper," I clarified, wondering if there was some sort of language barrier.

"Have you been to Paris, to France?" David asked.

"No," I said. "I'd like to go but I'm a little intimidated. I heard the French can be mean to tourists."

The idea that I could walk around the CN Tower 116 stories up with relative ease but be afraid to visit France seemed to boggle their minds.

"No one will be mean," David assured me. "Look at us!"

We waited to receive a DVD video of our walk, as well as a photo of ourselves on the Edge Walk and a second photo of the entire group and a certificate of accomplishment as a Guinness World Record "Edge Walker." The walk apparently holds the world record for the "highest, external hands-free walk around a building."

These were included in our $225 fee, as was a free skip-the-line ticket to tour the rest of the CN Tower. A few of us paid more money for additional photos that were saved to a flash drive.

Not me. I just admired my one solo picture and posted it on Facebook during the short wait for an elevator to be reunited with my family.

Some things you don't need help to remember.

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