10 Minutes Of Terror On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq, Samarra

I’m in Samarra, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the birthplace of the insurgency and a hotspot for sectarian tension in war-torn Iraq. My heart is racing and my mouth is dry. This is the most frightened I’ve been in months.

But I’m not scared of the Sunnis, I’m scared of plummeting to my death.

I’m climbing one of the famous spiral minarets of Samarra, a pair of towers with a narrow staircase snaking up the exterior. They were built in the ninth century. The taller one is 52 meters (171 feet) and the shorter one is 34 meters (112 feet). I’m on the shorter one. It doesn’t feel short to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a fear of heights, a phobia that years of rock climbing never cured. That doesn’t stop me from going up one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture, though. I’m a sucker for medieval buildings.

Up I go, step by step. They’re steep, a bit uneven, and they relentlessly narrow as they rise higher. You can see just how little room there was between me and the abyss in the above photo. That’s my foot at the lower right, and beyond the step you can see our bus, which comfortably seats 20 people.

The stairs are wide enough, I tell myself. I’ve climbed narrow spiral staircases hundreds of times and have never fallen off.

But there was no risk of death on those, a little voice tells me.

“Shut up,” I reply, and keep climbing.

%Gallery-170252%They tell me the muezzin who ascended this minaret five times a day to give to call to prayer was blind. He’d keep one hand on the wall and climb without seeing how high up he was. I can’t decide if that’s a good hiring decision or a bad one.

I keep both my hands gripped on the aging, crumbly brick. I’ve been climbing for what seems like hours. Surely I must almost be there?

“Go back!” someone shouts from below.

You’re kidding me, right?

“Go back, there’s no room!”

From around the corner comes another member of our group, a Norwegian sailor who has no fear of heights. When he sees me he stops.

“Go back,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pass you,” he replies.

“That’s a really bad idea. Go back.”

He comes close. I flatten myself on the wall as he reaches around me, grabs the edge of the brick, and eases past. You can see his brave/foolish move in the photo gallery, as well as the beautiful panorama that awaited me when, a few steps later, I reached the top.

It was worth the climb. Even more rewarding was that sharp-edged feeling I had the entire time going up and the adrenaline rush of the even more hazardous trip down. Colors and sounds were vivid, every step a crucial moment – every moment a lifetime of excitement.

Want to get high? Skip the drugs and grab your fear by the balls.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Sneak Peak At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum of Iraq!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Iraq, Samarra

Photo Of The Day: Standing On The Cliffs

Look out! It’s a long way down in today’s photo, brought to us by Flickr user Buck Forester. Similar to the shot Alex selected this past Friday, today’s photo was also taken along the gorgeous beaches of Kauai in Hawaii, just from an entirely different perspective. Instead of walking along this rugged island’s eye-popping shoreline, Buck takes us to another view high above the waves below, providing this colorful, vertigo-inducing look at the view from the top.

Taken any great Hawaii photos of your own recently? Or perhaps at a beach near you? Add them to our Gadling group on Flickr. We might just pick one of your shots as our Photo of the Day.

Hawaii’s very own “Stairway to Heaven,” the Ha’iku Stairs

Daredevils the world over have found numerous ways to conquer their fear of heights. There’s Sydney’s Harbor Bridge or the terrifying El Caminito del Rey in Spain. But for sheer vertical height or astounding views, there may be no more perilous set of steps than the Ha’iku Stairs on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.

Currently off-limits to the public, the Ha’iku Stairs is a series of nearly 4,000 steps rising 2,800 feet to a peak in the Ha’iku Valley. Originally constructed in 1943 to help the Navy install and maintain a series of radio antennae, the climb has long been an underground hiker favorite for its ridiculous heights and amazing views. Take a look at these photos and you’ll understand why the stairs were nicknamed the “Stairway to Heaven.”

Don’t dust off your climbing shoes just yet. The area has been closed to visitors since 1987 and trespassers risk serious injury or death on the poorly maintained trail. Thankfully, groups like the Friends of Ha’iku Stairs have been lobbying for the site’s eventual reopening. You can sign a petition on the site to help voice your support and help renew public access to this unique place. Let’s hope this one-of-a-kind attraction will once again see the light of day.