- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
I really do feel like Wonder Woman up here, creeping down the shimmery skin of a 38-story high-rise building in downtown Austin.
Except, of course, for my legs, which are shaking so badly I could probably hitch them up to a generator and power an entire city full of lights for 24 hours.
I glance over my shoulder, without looking down. The Frost Bank tower rises like a giant nose-hair clipper toward the sky. A turkey vulture rides a thermal in my peripheral vision. I wonder if anyone’s conducting a business meeting in one of the offices as I dangle just out of reach and, if they are, what they think of my red, white and blue spangled superhero costume.
A few weeks ago, I agreed to rappel down the W Austin hotel as part of Make-A-Wish’s annual fundraiser so the nonprofit organization can grant wishes for seriously ill children.
I ignored the fact that I’ve got a fear of heights so bad I once crawled on my hands and knees for an eighth of a mile along a vertigo-inducing trail at Glacier National Park. I’ve scuba dived with hammerhead sharks, run in a naked 5K race and zipped down a luge track face-first on a fast-moving sled, but a fear of heights is my Achilles’ heel.
I’ve declared 2017 my Year of Adventure, though, so here I am.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point. My heart nearly pounded out of my chest as an elevator whisked me to the top of the building, knowing I’d be using a harness and carabiners for the trip down. After a quick session on a low wall to practice proper rappelling form, I headed toward a spiderweb of ropes and pulleys that, I was told, guaranteed my safety. As I waited, I made small talk with Kathrin Brewer, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Central & South Texas.
“Oh, you’re afraid of heights?” Brewer said. “That’s a bummer, because this is really high.”
No kidding. I decided I wouldn’t look down and vowed to get off the building as quickly as possible, preferably without wetting my pants.
Someone handed me a pair of blue booties, which made me look like a surgeon headed to the operating room. They’d keep me from scratching any windows. A bunch of people clipped me to two ropes (in case one fails!) and pointed out the backup safety system.
Then Darien Dopp, wearing a big hat, sunglasses and a bushy beard, appeared in front of me and invited me to sit on the ledge, nearly 500 feet above the sidewalk. So I hopped up. But when he asked me to stand up and hold onto a metal framework, I balked.
That’s when he took off his sunglasses, looked me in the eye and told me he wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He assured me that each of the two ropes — a primary and a backup — could hold 5,000 pounds.
“You need to understand you’re not going anywhere,” Dopp, a technical manager for Over the Edge, said in the calmest, most soothing of voices, his gentle hazel eyes piercing the back of my skull.
I stood. Leaned back. And then let go of the metal frame.
A few moments later, I began my slow downward creep, like a gecko backing down an extra-long drainpipe. I descended in a flurry of cuss words and glistening sweat. After a few minutes, my right arm began to burn, because in order to progress, I had to keep hoisting the slack end of the rope to feed it through the mechanism — and 500 feet of rope is really, really heavy. (By contrast, Olympic swimmer Tommy Hannan, who weighs about 100 pounds more than me and thus made a better counterbalance to the rope, rocketed down in less than two minutes.)
Slow work, I’m telling you, but with just 100 feet to go before I made it to ground zero, I was finally a little more relaxed. I almost enjoyed the reflection of the city on the glass in front of me.
In all, it took me about 20 minutes to finish the rappel.
When I landed, I lied on sidewalk. My mouth felt like the dentist left the saliva sucker on too long; my tongue was the Sahara Desert. Someone handed me a bottle of water, which I immediately drained.
“It is a little humbling,” Dopp, the man who coached me over the edge, tells me later. “It shows you how small a speck you are in a major big city, looking down and seeing all the activity below.”
I tell him that his eyes got me through it, and he’s not surprised.
“If you can make eye contact, usually that’s enough to get a personal connection,” he says. “That’s one of the tricks I use. I just try to be as soothing as possible and help them relax.”
Dopp, who rappels deep into caves for fun, has coached a few thousand people down the side of a building. His technique worked for me, and I’m grateful.
“Someone put it to me one time that life doesn’t begin until you’re outside your comfort zone. I don’t like to let people walk away. It’s a huge thing they’re doing to overcome a fear of heights,” he says. “To step on the top of that ledge and lean back and trust the rope — the experience is a little overwhelming.”
Thrill-seekers, people determined to overcome a fear of heights and families looking for a high-adrenaline bonding experience — some 45,000 people at 600 events around the country — all have rappelled through the program, says Chad Wicks, director of client experience for Over the Edge. Most people, though, do it to support a cause they believe in.
“It’s thrilling, but your brain is going, ‘Why are you doing something you’re not supposed to be doing?’” Wicks says.
Here in Austin, 220 people, each of whom raised at least $1,500 for Make-A-Wish, rappelled at this year’s event. They raised a little more than $610,000 — enough to grant 110 wishes, according to spokeswoman Jill Skinner.
Everyone made it, but occasionally someone does back out, Wicks says, including a guy in a fully feathered chicken costume who changed his mind a few years ago. He took the stairs all the way back down.
Not me. I arrived by rope, and I’m pretty proud of myself.
But I’m no fool, and I know it wasn’t entirely me that made this possible.
I credit the Wonder Woman costume.