Ascending The Monument
The Challenge: Climb 311 steps to the top of the tower — or so I thought.
Standing 62 metres / 203 feet tall, the ‘Monument to the Great Fire of London’ is a fluted Doric column located in Central London, built between 1671 to 1677.
311 steps? No biggee. I climb the slopes of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve regularly. I paid the entrance fee of £5.80 and proceeded. (The date was Sunday, 1 May 2022.)
Little did I know what I had signed myself up for.
The stairwell was a narrow tube containing a spiral staircase, just wide enough for one other person to brush past you.
Very soon, I began to feel like I was walking up an endless curl, churning indefinitely.
How long more to the top? I began to wonder. Instinctively, I looked up: only to see stairs spiralling upwards with no endpoint in sight. Big mistake. Panic rattled the doorknob of my mind, trying to enter. I fought a desire to quit and turn back down.
I pressed on, but it seemed like I was climbing a forever spiral, walking up ascending circles indefinitely. It was surreal. It felt like I was looping a spiral version of the Penrose stairs. Claustrophobia was now nipping at my heels.
To escape claustrophobia, I eyed the walls, looking for a window to the sky. Instead, I saw elongated windows like slits in the cylinder walls, so narrow that it was hard to see the outside. Distorted windows that promised but obscured view of the outside, added a sense of desperation.
I stopped to catch my breath.
Dotting the spiral column were climbers like me making their way up, even as others were making their way down. The muted din of their chatter was a comforting white noise. I sought to breathe in the air of their enthusiasm.
A man a few steps below me on the opposite saw my hesitation. He caught my eye and said affirmatively, “You can do it!” His timely encouragement billowed my sails. Spurred, I determined to finish the climb. I had come this far. The only choice was to reach the top. I took a deep breath and then pounded up the remaining steps for the final assault.
Yes, I did reach the top — winded, dizzy and somewhat daunted.
I staggered to the parapet to wave to my husband and son who were on the ground looking out for me.
I felt no joy at topping the tower, but dread that I had to go back into the darn tube to get back to the ground.
To get myself down, I decided to count the 311 steps aloud to myself as I descended. I figured that doing a countdown would give me the mental assurance that the curl will end eventually. That was how I made it through the narrow tube back to the ground without panicking.
Who knew that the challenge was not about finishing a climb of 311 steps. The real challenge was to complete the journey of travelling up a high, mentally uncomfortable vertical tunnel. It was not a test of physical fitness but of mental fortitude.
When climbing 10 storeys of a building, you would walk up straight flights of stairs, going one way and then the opposite way, usually wide enough for three people to walk abreast. Not to mention, there will be exit doors at every floor. That is not the case when ascending a 60 metre spiral staircase inside a narrow tube.
Did I enjoy the experience? Nope, it was scary.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not!