I'm beginning to think that my speaking engagement at UK was partially a ploy to get me to come on an adventure with Luke, the guy who arranged it, and his friends.
If that's the case, I hope that I'm involved in many more ploys.
My flight was diverted, delayed, rescheduled, and rerouted. In the end I flew into Cincinnati, where Luke's friend Stephanie picked me up and drove me to a halfway point to meet Luke.
By the time we got to Lexington it was almost midnight.
"So you've never been rappelling?"
I hadn't, but I've always wanted to do it. What's more fun than hooking into a rope and bouncing down the side of a building?
"Okay, we have to go teach you how to do it now. We have an adventure planned tomorrow that will change your life."
They took me to the UK baseball stadium and attached a rope to a post near the highest deck. Luke clipped in and zipped down the side of the stadium to the ground fifty feet below.
His friend Brian showed how to use a descender and I went down next. It was much easier than I thought it would be, and much more controllable. We ran up the stadium steps and zipped down five or ten more times before packing up.
As I met Luke's friends, they all talked about the adventure without giving me any more information on it.
"Are you really scared about tomorrow?"
"Shh... don't tell him what it is."
"I wouldn't go. It's crazy."
After finishing my speech and sticking around to chat with some of the audience members who stuck around to ask questions we headed off to Wal Mart to get some last minute supplies.
"Can we tell him what we're doing yet?"
They filled me in on the plan. They weren't kidding,this was a good one, and was way better researched and planned than anything I've ever done.
And so I put on the wetsuit and climbing harness that they had brought for me and taught one of the three guys charged with documenting it how to use my camera.
Half an hour later we pulled into a rocky patch in between some bushes. We were at "High Bridge", which is a bit of a landmark in Lexington. Built in 1877, the bridge is actively used by trains to pass three hundred feet over the Kentucky river below. It was the first cantilever bridge built on the American continent.
The plan? Tie a three hundred foot rope to a railroad tie at the top, rappel down 300 feet, and drop 10 feet or so into the water before swimming back to shore. Awesome.
Any fear of heights I had has been demolished by repeated exposure to them, so the rappelling didn't phase me. But I AM a huge wimp when it comes to water, and so I started worrying about that. The air was fifty five degrees and I was already shivering.
We could feel the vibration of the train coming as we started unraveling the gigantic coil of rope we'd lugged up. Eager to avoid both detection and getting hit by a train we lay head to toe on the thick metal guardrail as the train approached.
It flew by us, shaking the bridge far more than I would have expected. We all jumped up and down cheering when the engine passed.
Lowering the rope wasn't difficult, but seeing how far down it had gone was nearly impossible. It was pitch black and we didn't know the exact height of the track. We tried to coordinate with the cameramen on the ground via walkie-talkie, but they couldn't see the end of the rope either.
As a last ditch effort we tied a glow stick to the rope and dropped it.
"Did it hit the water?"
"No, I think it's still going."
"Yep, it's still falling."
"Wow. This is taking longer than I thought."
"There... I think it hit."
A whole conversation while the glowstick fell through the air. It didn't do much to verify how high up the rope was, but we figured it had to be close enough.
After a video of his dying wishes ("Mom, don't blame this on Matt. It was my idea."), Luke clipped in and hoisted himself over the edge of the bridge.
And then... nothing.
The hanging rope weighed so much that it was acting as a brake. It's not worth the space to explain how this happens, but basically the more weight on the rope below, the more friction there is, and thus the harder it is to descend.
Using some force Luke fed rope through the descender and jerked down a couple feet.
The first ten feet or so had to be done in the same fashion, but soon he was able to move more smoothly. We'd chosen an entry point that lined up with a huge steel girder that went from the surface of the bridge to the peak of an arch below. Luke pushed out along the girder until he was out of sight.
Finally, after an eternity of waiting and subsequently listening to him yell at the camera guys to take a lot of pictures, we heard a giant splash. He made it.
I was next.
I swung over the railing, the guys at the top double checked my harness and connections, and I began feeding rope through like Luke had. I took a minute to look down at the water to try to scare myself. The amount of danger has nothing to do with how scared I am, so I may as well get myself riled up.
I kicked down the girder and paused at the lower edge of it. One more big kick and I flew down into the air below, in contact with nothing but the rope keeping me alive.
I zipped down in segments, trying to pause to enjoy the view. As if on cue, I looked up at the sky and saw a shooting star.
After a few minutes I started trying to think about what would happen if the rope broke. Sixty feet is just about the cutoff point. Any higher and you're risking serious injury or death.
I look down. I can barely see the ground in the dim moonlight. Still, I can see enough to know that I'm way higher than sixty feet. Three times it maybe. My glove is getting hot so I take a break. If I fell now I'd be dead. One snap from above and it's all over. I look at the rope. It's no thicker than my thumb, and everything rests on the assumption that there's no defect anywhere along its length.
Now that's scary, I thought.
I continued down a little bit faster. Once I was below sixty feet I'd be safe no matter what. I had started spinning slowly ever since kicking off of the metal truss, and as I descended I went faster and faster.
(picture is a long exposure with a glowstick tied to my harness)
By the time I got near the bottom I was spinning so quickly that I was starting to get dizzy. Would I be too dizzy to swim? I'd better get down fast so that I don't get any dizzier. I release my grip more to go faster. Finally I get to the end of the rope and let go, spinning faster than ever.
I fall ten feet into the water, which isn't nearly as cold as expected. Slightly dizzy, I get my bearings and swim back to the shore, still wearing my leather gloves, shoes, and climbing gear.
The other two rappellers make their way down safely too. Matt, the last to go flies down the last twenty feet or so without stopping at the end. We thought he was showing off, but it turns out he actually couldn't control his speed anymore.
We packed up our gear, changed into dry clothes, and basked in the warmth from the heater in the car.
Unsurprisingly, this adventure ranks among the most exciting I've been on. Thanks to Luke, Brian, Matt, and everyone else who helped with the speech and the mischief!
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