Heart Pounds, Eyes Close on the Tallest Waterslide
Halfway up the 264 stairs leading to the top of the world's tallest waterslide, it was clear this was the most breathtaking ride I'd ever encountered.
And that was before I ever stepped foot in the raft.
Two-thirds of the way up the circular stairs is a sign that says I've reached the height of the Statue of Liberty. A few dozen more steps and I've reached the level of Niagara Falls - and the relief that despite being a little light-headed, this 50-year-old former smoker was going to make it to the top of the ride called "Verruckt" - German for "insane."
From a distance, the waterslide at the edge of Schlitterbahn Waterpark, about 15 miles west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, doesn't look so scary.
Even from just below the 168-foot-tall structure, it's easy to dismiss the steepness of the first plunge if you've not been to the top and watched nervously as the gate opens and your raft starts creeping to the edge.
But the steady screams of grown men and women clinging to their rafts as they nosedive through bursts of water are proof this ride is anything but tame.
Before being allowed to climb the stairs to Verruckt, two or three riders at a time step onto a scale to make sure their combined weight isn't over 550 pounds. A park worker then reads a two-page list that's as much a warning as it is a disclaimer that Verruckt isn't for the faint of heart (or anyone who is overweight, has a history of back problems or is pregnant).
At 250 pounds and a frequent patron of the chiropractic arts, at least I'm not pregnant.
Among the warnings delivered to riders before they start their ascent is that one of the possible hazards of going down the waterslide is ... death.
Once riders reach the top platform where we will climb aboard the raft, each team of riders steps onto another scale and is weighed again. A green light indicates that neither I nor the woman who volunteered to ride with me gained another 120 pounds on the way up.
It wasn't until I stood on the platform waiting for my heart to stop pounding that I began to get a little anxious about boarding the raft - the same kind that during testing just weeks earlier had lifted up and flown over the edge, destroying upon its impact with the ground both the vessel and the sandbag people it was carrying.
Verruckt's designer, Jeff Henry, told me earlier in the day that he wore cowboy boots his first time down because if he was going to die, he wanted to go with his boots on.
The raft inches into position, and all I see is the sky. It's the scariest part so far, the feeling of moving closer to the drop.
That plunge goes fast, up to 70 mph. So fast that water shoots up over the sides of the raft and my eyes close by instinct. By the time I open them - a matter of seconds - I've reached the bottom and my mind gropes for an explanation of what just happened.
In some ways the trip down was the anticlimactic conclusion to a journey I had been waiting weeks to experience. In other ways, I felt I had accomplished something important - not just for me, but for any other overweight middle-age guy who questions his ability to conquer what Henry called the "baddest ride ever built."