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There are times in my travels that I've spent hanging upside down on a bungy cord above a river, or buffeted on a chairlift in a blizzard. I've been terrified on treetop rope walks, on rickety tramways inching up cliff sides, even on narrow medieval staircases up claustrophobic towers. Every sensible molecule in my body shrieks that I'm in imminent danger. Then comes the rush and exhilaration and even – sometimes, anyway – the urge to do it all over again.
We all like getting high. Adrenaline makes you feel more alive than ever, and there's always the challenge of unnervingly high activities, whether you're daring yourself or someone else. Another reward for dizzy terror is the view. The landscape looks like a Google map from on high, and mountain vistas admired from rack railways and cable cars never fail to induce a surge of admiration in me for our beautiful planet.
There's something of a conqueror's attitude in wanting to get above things, too. Why else do we pound up cathedral towers, take to the tops of skyscrapers and hills? From above we feel in control. We get a better idea of orientation and layout, and may even feel a certain irrational sense of ownership.
If you're keen to conquer, admire and be terrified simultaneously, here are 10 top places to get the pulse pumping.
WHERE Ulm, Germany.
HEIGHT 161.5-metre spire with access to 143 metres.
VERTIGO FACTOR Before the Eiffel Tower was completed, this was the world's tallest building, and it still boasts the world's tallest church spire.
GET HIGH The 768 steep steps up this ornate, gothic church tower aren't for those with vertigo or claustrophobia, especially the final corkscrewing flight, which can barely accommodate one person at a time. From the top, splendid views unfold over Bavaria as far as the Alps. (Squint eastwards and you also see a nuclear power plant.) The old town below, badly bombed in World War II, is pitted with 1960s concrete buildings.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Tower open 9am-6pm weekdays and 10am-6pm weekends between April and September, shorter hours in winter. Entry €5 ($7.50) for adults, €3.50 ($5.30) for children. See tourismus.ulm.de
SKYRIDE SURF ADVENTURE
WHERE Grouse Mountain, Vancouver, Canada.
HEIGHT The gondola ride is 1610 metres long, the summit station 1097 metres above sea level.
VERTIGO FACTOR There are many longer and more dramatic gondolas but, on this one, you can elect to stand in the open on the roof as you glide up the mountainside.
GET HIGH Six people at a time can clamber on to the cable car roof, where they're harnessed to the railing of a viewing platform and stand for the ascent of Grouse Mountain high above Douglas fir forest. As the gondola rises, a stunning panorama of Vancouver, its harbour and surrounding ocean and mountains emerges. Rooftop passengers are also given a look at the behind-the-scenes workings of the gondola, which may or may not be reassuring.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Regular ascents from 8am daily, descents until 8pm daily during summer. Tickets $C25 ($25). See grousemountain.com
WALK OF FAITH
WHERE Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park, Hunan Province, China.
HEIGHT 1400 metres above sea level.
VERTIGO FACTOR This infamous 60-metre walkway is made from see-through glass panels stapled to the cliff face. You can barely see the valley bottom below your feet.
GET HIGH One of the world's longest and steepest cable cars hoists you to the mountain top. The Walk of Faith starts near the summit station and isn't for the weak-hearted; most walkers hug the cliff, facing inwards. Check out YouTube for hilarious videos of the terror that grips some people. There are two other glass walkways on Tianmen Mountain, as well as a regular walking path on the sheer cliff edge.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open all year, weather permitting. Park entry ¥258 ($50), children half price or free if under 1.2 metres tall. See enghunan.gov.cn
IMPERIAL EXPRESS SUPERCHAIR
WHERE Breckenridge, Colorado, US
HEIGHT The chairlift reaches 3914 metres, just shy of the summit of Peak 8.
VERTIGO FACTOR This is the highest chairlift in North America and often subject to wind in a ski resort renowned for being cold and windy.
GET HIGH This chairlift is short – just a three-minute ride – but brings you to a sweeping panorama of Rocky Mountains and to ski terrain that resembles out-of-bounds slopes. The skiing is tough (most runs are double-black diamonds) and the altitude will make you pant. Wind often blows in snow, supplying fresh powder even on sunny days. At times, it feels as if you're trapped in a giant, swirling snow dome.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open 8.30am-4pm in winter, wind conditions permitting. One-day lift passes from $US86 ($108), season pass $US729 ($917), half price for children. See breckenridge.com
GRAND CANYON SKYWALK
WHERE Grand Canyon West, Arizona, US
HEIGHT 1450 metres above sea level, with a vertical drop beneath the Skywalk of between 150 and 240 metres.
VERTIGO FACTOR This horseshoe-shaped walkway isn't just cantilevered up to 21 metres over the edge of the Grand Canyon, but has a glass floor and railings.
GET HIGH Most visitors to the Grand Canyon just admire the views from clifftop paths and platforms, but the Skywalk allows those who dare to be suspended over the canyon itself, far out from the reassuring clifftop. The opposite side of this mighty chasm is more than four kilometres away. Look down (if you dare) and the canyon floor and river are a stomach-churning drop below.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open 7am-6pm daily. Entry $US79 ($99) including entry fees to Hualapai land. See nps.gov
WHERE Florli, Lysefjord, Norway.
HEIGHT You climb 740 metres above the fiord on steps that run for 4.8 heart-banging kilometres.
VERTIGO FACTOR This is reputedly the world's longest wooden staircase (4444 steps), and should only be ascended, as going down is considered too hazardous, as the steps are too narrow to easily pass other walkers.
GET HIGH The steps follow the water pipes that supply a hydro-electric power station and present a four-hour slog for the fit. In places, they're so steep they may cause vertigo. The short of breath can bail out along a track at step 1000, which takes about an hour. From about halfway up, the views improve, finishing above the tree line with splendid outlooks over the fiord and eroded massif beyond.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open year-round. Free entry. See florli.no
STAIRWAY TO NOTHINGNESS
WHERE Dachstein, Styria, Austria.
HEIGHT 2700 metres above sea level, with 369 metres of sheer cliff below your feet.
VERTIGO FACTOR Clamber down 14 metal mesh stairs that are well out over the cliff edge and into a small glass box that seems about to slide into the valley.
GET HIGH A glass gondola hoists you 1000 metres in six minutes, practically scraping the side of Dachstein's south face. Dizzying thrills at the summit include the Skywalk (a large, multi-person viewing platform jutting out over a sheer rock face) and a suspension bridge strung between peaks with a 400-metre drop. However, the Stairway to Nothingness is scariest, designed for just one or two people at a time.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open 8.30am-4.15pm. Entry free until May 2018. Gondola €23 ($35) one way, €38 ($58) return, discounts for children and families. See derdachstein.at
WHERE Mount Pilatus, Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.
HEIGHT The train runs from Lake Lucerne to an altitude of 2073 metres atop Mount Pilatus.
VERTIGO FACTOR The world's steepest rack railway has a maximum gradient of 48 per cent and an average gradient of 35 per cent.
GET HIGH This 4.6-kilometre railway takes you up 1635 metres from lake shore through alpine meadows and soaring rock faces to a mountain summit. The descent is even scarier than the ascent. For an added thrill, sit in the driver's cab, with nothing between you and oblivion expect a window pane. Incidentally, the railway is still using its original tracks, which are more than a century old.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open daily from 8.10am mid-May to mid-November, last descent at 6.45pm. Tickets CHF57.60 ($75) for adults, CHF28.80 ($37) for children. Cab ride CHF170 ($221). See pilatus.ch
CAMINITO DEL REY
WHERE Gaitanes Gorge, Malaga Province, Spain.
HEIGHT The gorge is 700 metres high and only 10 metres wide in places. The walkway is about 100 metres above the river.
VERTIGO FACTOR A notorious 1500-metre section of the walk consists of wooden boardwalks fixed to the gorge face, with a wire safety rail and a hair-raising drop below.
GET HIGH The "King's Little Path" was originally constructed for hydro-electric workers and makes its way through rugged terrain of mountains, gorges and reservoirs. Although only 7.7 kilometres long, it might take hours to complete. The infrastructure has been upgraded, but some parts are still dizzying – your ticket comes with civil liability insurance.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Open year-round, but you must book a specific departure time. Entry €10 ($15), guided visits €18 ($27). See caminitodelrey.info
MERIDA CABLE CAR
WHERE Merida, Merida State, Venezuela.
HEIGHT The cable car runs for 12.5 kilometres from Merida (at 1640 metres) to Pico Espejo (4756 metres).
VERTIGO FACTOR This is the world's highest and second longest cable car. The final section travels 3.5 kilometres between support towers, another world record.
GET HIGH As this series of four cable cars rises, you see an astounding view of the Merida Valley and Pico Bolivar, Venezuela's highest peak (4978 metres), as well as numerous other impressive mountains. At the summit, a viewing platform sits under a statue of the Virgin of the Snows. You're higher than almost anywhere accessible to ordinary travellers, and you'll feel the cold and thinness of the air. Fog is frequent; early mornings and December-February are usually clearest.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Operates 8am-1pm from Wednesday to Sunday. Tickets $US50 ($63) return. See telefericodemerida.travel
FIVE CLASSIC HIGHS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
BURJ KHALIFA, DUBAI
In 2010, this 830-metre tower took out a swag of world records, which it still retains: not only tallest building, most floors (163) and highest occupied floors, but tallest free-standing structure. A newer observation deck at 555.7 metres on the 148th floor is the world's highest, too. There are 360-degree views from both inside and out over Dubai's mind-boggling skyscrapers, set in a windblown desert landscape. See burjkhalifa.ae
ORIENTAL PEARL TOWER, SHANGHAI
Thirty years ago, just a few farm buildings stood across the river from Shanghai's Bund. Today some of the world's tallest skyscrapers sprout, presided over by the glamorous silhouette of this tower, designed as a series of huge steel balls held in place by concrete strings. It's far from Shanghai's highest building, but its observation deck provides the classic outlook over Shanghai's ever-changing urban landscape. See orientalpearltower.com
STATUE OF LIBERTY, NEW YORK
You can visit various levels of the pedestal that supports this grand old lady, or clamber up into her crown for a rather claustrophobic experience and narrow outlook across the harbour to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. You'll feel the statue sway in strong winds, though you might be reassured to see the interior Eiffel-designed metalwork that supports it. Reserve well in advance. See nps.gov
HARBOUR BRIDGE, SYDNEY
Take a breath test, have a safety briefing and don unflattering grey overalls and a safety harness for the world's best bridge ascent. You have to clamber up ladders and hundreds of steps to reach the summit of the arch as traffic and trains thunder below, making the superstructure shudder. You're rewarded with views across Sydney Harbour and as far as the Blue Mountains. See bridgeclimb.com
EIFFEL TOWER, PARIS
When it was unveiled in 1889, the 317-metre Eiffel Tower was never meant to be permanent. It's now the world's most visited ticketed monument; more than 250 million visitors have made the ascent. The second level is best for photos and for picking out other city landmarks, while the top platform is marvellous before sunset. Walk up the 700-odd steps and you'll save money and queue time. See toureiffel.paris
REAL DOWNERS: LOWEST POINTS ON THE PLANET
DEAD SEA, ISRAEL
The surface of this salty lake, also bordered by Palestine and Jordan, lies 450 metres below sea level, the lowest elevation on Earth that isn't under the ocean. The Dead Sea has been a health retreat for thousands of years, and these days plenty of resorts cluster around Ein Bokek and its beach. You can also easily visit on a day trip from Jerusalem. The Dead Sea is famous for its density, allowing swimmers to float without effort on its surface. See new.goisrael.com
LAKE EYRE, AUSTRALIA
The lowest place you can be in Australia and still have dry feet is Lake Eyre (or Kati Thanda) in South Australia, about 700 kilometres north of Adelaide. The basin lies 15 metres below sea level and seems to merge with the sky, which can be very disorienting – in fact, it has caused several light aircraft crashes. Every eight years or so the lake fills with water, which sees the eruption of vast expanses of wildflower and huge colonies of migrating birds. See southaustralia.com
DANAKIL DEPRESSION, ETHIOPIA
Formed from the meeting of three tectonic plates, this plain lies 125 metres below sea level and is one of the Earth's hottest places. Volcanic vents spew brine and acids that give rise to lurid green pools amid a landscape of pink, yellow and white saltpans. Amazingly, the Afar people mine salt here, transporting it to markets in camel trains. Travelling to the depression from Mekele isn't easy and often dangerous, making this otherworldly destination a place for the truly adventurous. See ethiopia.travel
MAJLIS-AL-JINN CAVE, OMAN
One of the world's biggest caves can be accessed only by rappelling through one of three holes in its roof and descending 160 metres. (Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner BASE jumped into the cave in 2007, but the Omani government closed the cave to BASE jumpers the following year due to safety concerns.) Plans are now afoot to develop the caves for tourism, and many international companies have submitted proposals for lifts or staircases. Stay tuned for your chance to admire this vast underground space. See tourismoman.com.au
THRIHNUKAGIGUR VOLCANO, ICELAND
If you suffer from vertigo, getting low is still going to make you dizzy here. After hiking across a lava field, visitors are lowered into the crater of this dormant volcano in an open elevator similar to a window-cleaning lift. Harnesses and helmets are obligatory. You descend 120 metres and spend 30 minutes in the belly of the volcano, which is striped with purple, green and yellow rocks. It's the only place on Earth where you can descend into a volcano's magma chamber. See insidethevolcano.com