So I did an 18-story rappel down the side of a building yesterday.
I wasn’t expecting to. I knew that the Easter Seals Drop Zone was happening, and I knew that Coyote Rock Gym supplied volunteers to man the ropes. I’d thought about volunteering, but with the overwhelmingly busy weekend I’ve had, it just wasn’t feasible to fit in the training.
But, people rappelling off a building is a pretty cool thing, and it happened to be taking place in the neighbourhood covered by the newspaper I edit. So I got a media invite out of the Drop Zone publicity person, Stephanie, and armed with my camera and voice recorder, I headed down there in the morning to do some interviews and hopefully get a photo or two from the top of the building.
I got there, signed in as media, talked to Stephanie, and she said she’d look into getting me onto the roof. Meanwhile, I grabbed a coffee and went outside to watch as the first rappellers came down.
These are mostly people who’ve raised funds for Easter Seals (an organization that helps families that have kids with disabilities). They raise $1500 or more, then dress up as superheroes and rap off a skyscraper. They’ve all had a training session or two with the staff at Coyote, ahead of time, and they all get a recertification run-through on site. Many of them have never done anything like this before. Most of them are somewhere on the spectrum between nervous and terrified.
While I was roaming around getting interviews and taking photos, I saw Jody Miall, from Coyote. He said hey, and I said hey, and I asked how it was going, and he said he was hugely shorthanded because a bunch of his volunteers had flaked out on him. So I said, “You need me to volunteer? I know I haven’t done the training but . . .”
“Yeah, sure, if you’re willing,” he said, “Laura’s going up to the roof to take over from someone at lunch and you can take over down here. All you have to do is pull the ropes out so they clear the ledge when they get to the bottom, untie the figure 8 knot, totally unweighted, and unload the ID, I’ll show you how to do that.”
So I waited around till after lunch. It was chilly – there was a cold wind blowing from the west around the high buildings – and I ducked inside to pull on my freebie T-shirt. Stephanie found me and took me up to the roof eventually, and I got to take a bunch of pictures while people were set up and took that step backwards off the building. (Jody said later that every time he helps someone who’s scared and doing this for the first time – either something like this or when he’s giving someone the belay test at Coyote – he remembers when he started and he was scared as shit too. “There’s nothing like the way they look at you up there,” he said. “You’ve never seen so much fear and trust and hope in someone’s face as when they’re about to go over the edge and you’re getting them set up and telling them it’s going to be fine.”)
The rappellers were tied in to the rope with a figure 8 knot and rappelling on a Petzl ID clipped to a full body harness. The ID’s like a grigri - the rope stays locked until you open a lever out to the left, letting up friction on the rope and allowing it to slide through, which lowers you. It was perfect for this kind of thing, though, because unlike a grigri, if you open it too far it locks up. So you can’t open it way too far by accident and wind up falling too fast. If you let go, it locks up, if you start falling and freeze with the lever open it also locks up. If you go over 17 feet a second it locks up. It’s as close to drop proof as it gets. The trick is that the zone in which the ID lets go and allows the rope to slide is really small – a tiny touch left or right on that lever and it stops you.
Jody certifying someone on the mini rappel station.
The first two to come down after I got on duty at the bottom were going really slowly. Jody and I watched them for a while and then he was called away to certify someone on the mini rappel station. “They’re going slow enough I bet I can certify her and get back in time,” he said, “race you,” and he headed over to the station. But, the two women did make it to the bottom before he got back. Somehow I managed to pull both of them out and away from the wall at the same time to clear the wide ledge at the top of the ground floor and the edge of the planter around the base. When they got to the bottom, one of them was clearly freaking out. She had barely gotten her feet on the ground – and was still weighting the rope – when her friend grabbed her and gave her a hug. She was shaking so hard I thought she might not be able to stand if the rope wasn’t holding her up. All of her limbs were shaking violently, and she was near tears. Her friend grabbed her and hugged her and said things like “You made it, you did it, you’re okay, you made it,” and she just shook and cried. When they separated she was saying “Get this off me, get this off me,” over and over, as though she was terrified of the rope. I stepped in. Sadly, I didn’t know about not opening the ID all the way, and so I was stuck fighting with a rope that wouldn’t let go, with a panicking woman who was weighting the rope, couldn’t listen to anything I was saying to her, and very possibly actually going into shock. I fought with it for a while, trying to reassure her while she started practically hyperventilating and repeating “get it off me!”
Not the most auspicious first run. Someone else appeared and freed up the ID, and untied the woman, who was promptly surrounded by her friends. My saviour gave me a quick run through finding the “sweet spot” where the ID would unlock, and I got it after that. The last I saw of the terrified woman, she had someone’s coat around her and she was being supported by a couple of friends and heading for the hotel.
Jody said later that he’d flagged her during training as one to watch, in case she had a serious problem and froze up entirely on the rappel (which would have stranded her halfway down and necessitated a rescue). And I was actually totally impressed by her. She was absolutely deathly afraid. A couple of other people who saw her said they worried about her going into real shock. And yet she got herself through it. She didn’t freeze. She got herself over that edge, and down that 200 feet of sheer drop, fighting a terror I’m not sure I would have fought. It was extremely brave of her.
Once I had the ID worked out, it got a lot easier. I waited around at the base for people to come down. When they got to about the second floor, I would pull the rope away from the building and get them to come down along it to me, and then when they got to me I would grab the back of their harness, help them onto their feet, undo the ID and the knot and the carabiner on their right side, and let the people up above pull the end of the rope back up. Sometimes they needed more encouragement, sometimes they were old hands. I brought down a bus driver, a day trader, a retired window washer (he was pretty comfortable on the ropes and having a grand time). I helped a guy with muscular dystrophy get out off the rope when he rapped down in tandem with a fireman, and held him sitting up on the pavement with a hand on his shoulder till his guide was clear, he was clear, and he could roll over and get to his feet, with his family’s help.
Kyle coming down. He had to turn sideways and push off the wall with an arm because he couldn’t push off with his legs. Beside him is the fireman who came down with him.
And I lowered one man, Kyle, down into his wheelchair (aimed him right for it, then got the ropes off). That one was moving: his family were all crowded around. He was wearing a cape and hat that said “No such thing as ‘can’t',” and while he was pretty cool about the whole thing, his mom was standing by and started crying as he touched down. Clearly they were all extremely happy for him. Another woman, who might have been a sister, asked one of the other men manning the ropes if he was one of the organizers, and when he said yes, she wordlessly gave him a huge hug.
Toward the end of the afternoon, I got another person helping me with the ropes, and Jody came by to tell us there was some space in the schedule, and did we want to go down? Of course I said yes. Sure, I rappel regularly, but this is longer than I’ve ever done on one rope before, and besides, gear is cool. So I went back up to the roof, with one of the other organizers. “If anyone asks if you’ve been trained on the ID,” Jody said, “just tell them yes.” I admit to being pleased that the Coyote staff knew me and trusted my skills.
So for the second time I got to step out onto the roof of the hotel. It’s right downtown, with a great view of the river and the Parliament buildings off to the right. The wind was still cold but the sun was warm.
Coyote crew and one of the RAT guys on the roof.
The RAT guy that brought me up got out of his harness and handed it to me, and I climbed in and started snugging up the straps. A full body harness is so darn comforting, especially when it’s tightened up around you like a big hug. There were a couple more people to go down ahead of me, so I watched them get set up and head down.
Then it was my turn – me and Mac, one of the Coyote staff. He was still getting into his harness when I went to go stand near the edge of the roof and get clipped in to the ID. “Have you rappelled before?” the RAT guy asked. “Oh yeah,” I said.
“You’ve used an ID?”
“Yeah,” I said, “briefly.”
I think the strangest moment for me was stepping up backward onto the edge of the roof, a ledge about a foot and a half wide. I think it was odd because I just stepped up onto it and stood up with a hand on the rigging, and only then thought of every scene in every movie or TV show I’ve seen where someone steps onto the ledge. Isn’t this supposed to be scarier? I thought, and I looked down at the street below. Henry, who was setting me up, got me to lean back onto the harness, and it took my weight, and then I was trying to get used to the ID and leaning out over the roof and trying to get the rope to go through the device. The ropes are so long, and so static, that it’s really hard to get them going at first. The weight locks up the device. But first I was pushing with my feet, and then I was lowering, and then I was focusing on trying to keep the ID open at the right spot so I could get some speed going. I didn’t succeed so much at that part. But I did sort of get the hang of it partway down. And I also took a moment to look around: I was hanging halfway down the side of a 200-foot building in the middle of downtown Ottawa. I didn’t want to miss that part.
I got down, unhooked myself, and Mac came zinging down next to me – apparently he’d been going as fast as he could to try and beat me to the bottom (he’d started way after me – like I said, it took me a while to get the hang of the ID, which is really touchy and locks up if it’s even a fraction off its “sweet spot.”) He was hyper when he got down, bouncing up and down like a puppy, even though he’s probably rappelled just as much as I have. But then I wasn’t going anywhere near as fast as he was. He bounded off to get his picture taken at the “I Did It!” poster before running my harness back up to the roof, bringing the other rope volunteer with him so she could rap down too.
We were among the last to come down. After us, there were a few more – the last two to come down were Jeff Mauler, the DJ from HOT 89.9 FM, and another guy. And then it was time to pack up. I tossed the extra helmets in the van, went inside, and collected my bags from the registration room, and I was on my way home.