Getting Over the Edge

Photo by  DiEGO MüLLER  on  Unsplash

Photo by DiEGO MüLLER on Unsplash

I’m not going to pretend that my goal that day was to learn valuable life lessons. In fact, the only reason my friend and I signed up for the rappelling class was because of the hunky airmen who would be teaching us. Our teenage hormones made us do all sorts of things we might not have done otherwise. But looking back now, I'm glad I did it. 

The first thing you should know is that I’m terrified of heights. In my blog post, Do something that scares you, I recounted a time I had previously faced this same fear. But here I was again, a couple years older, but no less afraid.

The day started with a demonstration by the airmen. It was everything my friend and I hoped for- manly men demonstrating their manliness. The instructor directed our attention to a platform that was about 50 feet above us. The structure was supported by four poles with one horizontal crossbeam about 10 feet below the platform. On cue, several airmen launched themselves backwards off the edge. They let out slack until they cleared the crossbeam then made a rapid, smooth descent to the ground. It was very impressive. 

The instructor informed us that we would be executing that same maneuver, then we'd finish the day by descending down an 80 foot cliff, but first we'd learn some basics. As you can imagine, I was terrified. I was cursing my raging teenage hormones, the ones that kept getting me into trouble, and thinking I should have just stayed home and watched TV instead. 

I was plotting my escape when an airman dropped to one knee and started strapping me into a harness. I suddenly forgot why I wanted to leave. 

The instructor explained the mechanics of rappelling and we did a little play-acting on the ground. I watched them demonstrate our first task, rappelling down the side of a two-story building. It didn't look too difficult from where I was standing. But when they told us to climb the ladder to the top of the building I snapped to attention. I wondered if anyone else felt like throwing up. 

I was supposed to grab the rope above me with my non-dominant left hand and use my right hand behind me to control my descent. My instincts told me to latch onto the rope with both hands and hang on for dear life. But they insisted, so I did what I was told. They backed me up to the edge of the roof. My legs were shaking so violently the airman helping me laughed. I would have laughed too but I was too busy watching my life flash before my eyes. After finally getting over the edge, the rest went pretty smoothly. 

Now they told us we were ready for the platform. I was blinded by fear and have no idea how I even got to the top. An airman threaded the rope through my gear and was tightening my helmet strap under my chin. “Remember to count to three before you pull up, so you'll clear the beam,” he said. At this point I couldn’t even remember my name and he wanted me to remember to count to three?

I was saying my last good-byes, wishing I had made better choices in my life, as he backed me up to the edge. Just when I was about to go, I heard a thunk then a gasp from the spectators below. The girl to my right forgot to count to three and hit the beam. They lowered her down. "She’s fine," my helper assured me, “that's what the helmets are for.”  I’d like to tell you just how it went but I have no recollection of what actually happened. All I know is that, by some miracle, I didn’t hit the crossbeam and made it down in one piece. 

After a short break, they loaded us into the back of a military transport vehicle and we took a very bouncy ride up the mountain. We got out and started hiking. Before I knew it, we were at the top of an 80 foot cliff.  The airmen spotting us from the ground look very tiny.

I stepped back and let the others go first. By the time it was my turn, some of the airmen were heading down too. They wanted us to walk down the rock, no fancy stuff. I was concentrating on all the things they taught us, making my way down slowly. An airman dropped down on a rope beside me. “Push out and let out a little slack,” he said grinning.

I looked up at my spotter, watching intently from above. I knew what he told me to do but I was feeling pretty confident so I pushed back and let out some slack. I swung out and dropped several feet before reconnecting with the rock. It was so much fun! The airman and I bounced our way down the rest of the cliff together. “Good job today,” he told me as he unbuckled my harness. I was sort of sad that it was over but it was an experience I knew I'd never forget. 

The life lessons I learned that day could apply to many endeavors:

  • Start on the ground and work your way up
  • Be open to the advice of an expert, even if you think you know best
  • Surround yourself with a team of supporters
  • Remember that getting over the edge is the hardest part
  • Keep trying and, before you know it, you’ll overcome the fear and start having fun

and most of all:

  • It’s never a good idea to just stay home and watch TV