Notes on rappelling

Note to self:
Make sure Spiderman costume is back from the cleaners before rappelling.


1. It was for a good cause: creating a national organization to reduce the damage created by substance use disorders. Nonetheless, I decided not to shake my friends down with direct requests. The only appeals went out over this blog, Twitter, and my Facebook account. Nonetheless, a satisfactory number of friends, and several strangers, came through, for which I’m duly grateful.

2. As I discovered when I first posted my intention of climbing down a building, the very prospect terrifies lots of people. I take it that’s the point of rappelling as a fund-raising enteprise: it combines a high “shiver factor” that encourages people to give (“If he’s prepared to do that, I really ought to help out”) with virtually zero objective risk. As it happens, height isn’t something that especially scares me, so the prospect didn’t cause me any stress.

3. When you sign up, you get a note from the sponsoring organization explaining how completely safe the activity is and how much you’re going to enjoy it. When you show up – after your friends have put up the cash and you’re completely committed – the commercial outfit that actually runs the event gives you a release form telling you it’s dangerous as all get-out. You then have to initial in eight places, promising among other thants that you will pay for their legal defense, and any judgement, if someone else sues them as a result of your climb.

Note: doing things like that is what makes people hate lawyers and the institutions they work for. If participants have to sign release forms, the forms should be sent out well in advance, so people who want it can get legal advice before signing a contract. (I once walked out on a TV interview when they tried to pull that sort of Stupid Lawyer Trick on me: that wasn’t an option in this case.)

4. As far as I can tell, the note from Shatterproof was accurate and the drafters of the release form were full of it. You’re wearing a body harness and suspended from two ropes, independently shacked to that harness, either of them (as one of the pros running the operation said to me) strong enough to support the weight of a car. Despite my best efforts, I still weigh somewhat less than that. You’re wearing gloves and a bicycle helmet. One rope has a control device operated by the victim; pushing the lever to the left allows the rope to pay out faster, moving it to the right slows or stops it. No strength or skill is called for at this or any other point in the operation. The control on the other rope works on the principle of an automobile chest seat-belt; it pays out without resistance up to some speed, but locks tight if the speed exceeds that threshhold. I couldn’t describe how the mechanism works, but it looked reassuringly low-tech.

5. It was also reassuring that I was rigged by one expert, who double-checked his work, and re-checked by two more experts. By now I was absolutely convinced that there was no risk. On the other hand, all the precaution had the perverse effect of making me nervous. But at no point was it nearly as bad as the roller-coaster rides I recall from my childhood.

6. Once harnessed and roped, the climber gets a chance to practice, with a metal frame to anchor the ropes and a single step. (As a first-timer, I would have preferred a little bit more practice.) What’s not obvious is how you start. When you’re actually heading down, your legs are pretty much straight out; you’re walking down the building. But you start by bending at the knees, “sitting down” in a chair that isn’t there and letting the ropes take your weight. Then you put your feet down, extend your legs, lean back, and take that first step “over the edge.” Then, if you’re me, you learn from the pro watching your descent that the safety rope dangling off to your left is really supposed to be between your feet, so you have to take one foot off the building to adjust it. Again, if you’re me, that move – although objectively perfectly safe – sends your heart rate up a little bit.

7. From there on the only trick is to coordinate the rate of descent controlled by the lever in your right hand with the rate at which your feet are walking down the building. Again, with a little bit of practice, this would have been an athletic feat about on a par with riding a Segway, but without that practice I found it tricky. And my knowledge that I had a brake rope couldn’t take away the feeling of falling when I payed out the control rope a little bit too fast. The lever isn’t calibrated, and the short descent didn’t give me time to find a comfortable steady pace. Despite the gloves, I got a tiny bit of rope-burn on the hand that was holding the trailing rope, because I was gripping it unnecessarily tightly, I suppose as a left-over impulse from rope-climbing in sixth grade gym class.

8. Just to keep it interesting, the Westin Pasadena does not have a completely smooth surface. Several feet from the start, the protuberance that your feet are on comes to an end, and you have to swing in a little to keep your feet in contact with the building. Somewhat later, there’s another protuberance, which of course you don’t know is there until your feet hit it. Somehow those details got left out of the briefing.

9. Fortunately, there is no need to keep moving. Twice, for perhaps ten seconds at a time, I simply moved the lever to the “stop” position,” took my hands off the lever and the trailing rope, extended my arms and legs, and rested, letting the rope take my whole weight. Stretching that way helped me untense my muscles.

10. One of the pros had mentioned the option of letting go with my feet as well, and just dangling. I never did that, partly because the whole event was over so quickly; I didn’t time it, but I’d guess I was under three minutes top to bottom. If I were to do it again, I think I’d try the free dangle at least once.

11. The only discomfort, other than my hand, came from my shoulders, which I kept too tight as I tried to concentrate on managing the rope.

12. Aside from that first maneuver of taking one foot off the building, my chief fears were social rather than physical; I wasn’t afraid of falling, but I was afraid of looking like a clumsy idiot. Brad Rowe, who was there to provide moral support and take pictures, told me afterward that I didn’t look nearly as clumsy as I felt, but I want to check the video.

13. Rappelling wasn’t on my “bucket list,” and if I never have another occasion to try it I won’t feel the lack. My chief emotion, once I had myself unshackled, was relief rather than joy. Still, if I had to do it again, I’d expect to enjoy it more a second time, and I think I’d choose a longer drop over a shorter one. (The Westin is only 21 stories, and we only went down to a third-floor balcony, so this climb was only about 200 feet.)

14. By contrast, another participant I saw just after she came down was glowingly euphoric, so your mileage may vary. AT the other extreme, what was mild nervousness for me would be sheer hell for anyone with a more robust fear of heights, though none of the people I saw semed to have suffered much.

15. Note to self: Next time, be sure to get Spiderman costume back from the cleaners before the climb.

Update I’ve checked the video. Neither Brad nor I was right about the clumsiness of my descent, but I was closer. In fact, I looked about 5x as stupid as I felt. Apparently a task that takes zero strength and skill still requires considerably more than I actually have. (The others I watched descended much more gracefully.) Least foolish-looking screengrab above, and that’s all you’re getting.