Something Scary: The Heights of St. Paul's Cathedral

Truthfully, there isn't much that is frightening about St. Paul's Cathedral. The marble is bright and there doesn't seem to be a dark corner anywhere inside. Artwork meant to commemorate and inspire fills every space, from floor to ceiling.

But let's take a look at the statistics, shall we? See the stone balustrade (the fancy word for railing I learned just today) that curves along the base of the dome? That's called the Stone Gallery--it sits 170 feet above the cathedral floor and you have to climb 376 steps to get there.

Now can you see where the top of the dome meets the square piece on the very top? That's another walkway called the Golden Gallery. It is approximately 279 feet above the cathedral floor and requires an additional 152 steps to reach it.

When you're there, you are 26 stories from the ground, looking out over London.

Granted, the Golden Gallery at St. Paul's Cathedral is only a fraction of the height of buildings like the Empire State Building, and therefore should only be a fraction as frightening, but you would have had a very difficult time convincing me of that when I found myself 528 steps above the floor, gripping that balustrade.

Before The Heights of St. Paul's, I might have told you that I am "uncomfortable with heights" or that I don't like ladders and I really don't like the first drop of a roller coaster. The sensation of falling--real or imagined--doesn't sit well with me. Even so, I didn't think twice about climbing to the top of the cathedral because there were no ladders or sudden drops involved, only stairs.

What I didn't know was that the stairs become steeper and compressed into a tight spiral the closer you get to the top. Oh yeah, and the last several flights are made out of wrought iron, which means they have holes in them as part of the pattern. Have you heard of the advice commonly given to people afraid of heights? Don't look down? Impossible. There was nowhere safe to look--up revealed the heights we were about to climb; down, the heights we were at. And looking out? That was as bad as looking down because the staircase was surrounded by open space.

(In case you were wondering, this is what fear looks like.)

Did I conquer my fear by climbing to the top? No, I was just as nervous walking down the stairs as up, and I would be just as scared if I had to do it again. There was a moment when I saw a landing with a door and thought we had reached the top, so I sat down on the small bench (probably put there for people like me) and took a breath. Then I saw the last staircase right above us. I cried while we let the fifteen people who had been stuck behind me pass by. Did I confront my fear? Not exactly. "Confront" implies a sense of determination and gusto that I did not feel during the climb--I mostly went up the last flight of stairs because it was the only way to get down was to go all the way up.

Did I control my fear? Mostly. I didn't sit down in the middle of the staircase, although I seriously considered it. I kept myself climbing by exhaling loudly with every step, much to the amusement of the older ladies behind me (remember, there were 152 additional steps to get all the way to the top). And I made it to the top.

However ridiculous my methods (I also kept at least one hand on the walls, railings, or my best friends, the balustrades for the entire time), I was rewarded just the same: great views and a sense of accomplishment tempered just enough by the knowledge that there were 528 stairs left to get back down.

For a bit of perspective:

On the left is where we ate breakfast beforehand, looking up to the top of the dome. On the right, the view of where we ate breakfast from the top.

On the left, a view of the clock tower from the ground. On the right, a view of the clock tower from above.

Are you clutching a balustrade yet? Me too.