October 16, 2004 0630 EDT:
Uniformed officers. Bomb sniffing dogs.
National Guard soldiers armed with M-16's and snipers nestled in cliffs.
These duty bound men and women were preparing for an assault of nearly
200,000 radicals on this cold, wet, dreary October morning.
These radicals however, are not to be found in Faluja, Iraq but instead
right here in the United States. Fayetteville, WV to be precise.
Radicals hell bent to feed the insatiable desire to act like lemmings
and leap from the second longest single arch bridge in the world .
I am one of these radicals.
The New River Gorge Bridge has just played host to the 25th anniversary
of Bridge Day, a spectacular event that allows people to have access
to a bridge normally only accessible by motor vehicle. Lots of
people. Lots of strange people. People like base jumpers
(low altitude parachutists), rappellers (dopes on ropes), Hi-line thrill
seekers (sliding down an inclined cable) and the nearly 200,000 particularly
strange people who like to watch the other strange people do their thing.
The bridge was built in October of 1977 at a cost of $37 million, is
nearly a mile long (3,030ft) and weighs nearly 88 million pounds.
At 876 ft tall, it is the second highest bridge in the United States
-Only the Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado is
higher. This, however, is the bridge that the radicals choose
to swarm to.
This years event began the evening earlier on Friday with a safety meeting
at 'Passages to Adventure', one of the organizers of Bridge Day.
I was surrounded by my 13 teammates along with a total of 293 other
rappellers that made the cut [there were a total of 22 teams allowed
this year with 10-14 people/team. 25 teams applied]. I believe
there were a total of 450 base jumpers this year also but they had their
own meeting somewhere else.
We were told that we could no longer use the catwalk railing as an anchor
point for the ropes, as has been used all 24 yrs prior to today. The
same railing that had been calculated to have a 10:1 safety factor [4
or 5 to 1 is more than acceptable]. The tension level rose a bit
when we were told we had to use an untested method to anchor our ropes
this time. Further tension was added when questions about Saturdays
forecast of possible sleet and high winds causing issues with rope abrasion
against the already rope unfriendly 'Cor-Ten' steel used to construct
the bridge. The safety team nodded in acknowledgement of the concerns
and simply said "This concerns us too. My advice is to pad
everything. Double it, triple it, 'cause this stuff [the steel]
eats rope pads for breakfast."
"Hmmmmm..." I thought to myself. I'm sure
did many others did the same.
Fortunately, this event draws some of the worlds most experienced rappellers
with many of them being on the safety teams. After the safety
team discussed and explained the methods and equipment to be used for
the anchor points, a significant portion of our anxieties were alleviated.
These guys know their stuff and were going to be out there with the
rest of us, so you can be sure that they weren't going to let themselves
or anyone else get hurt that day.
Meeting was adjourned by 20:45 (8:45pm) Nothing left to
do except build a huge bonfire and stay up past midnight.
"Time to make the donuts", as they say. I crawl
out of my very cozy sleeping bag to be assaulted by the near freezing
temperatures. Have to get all my gear packed and get to breakfast
by 5am. I volunteer to begin the day at the bottom of the bridge
to assist with the belay. A belay, for those of you unfamiliar
with this term, is a means of safety backup for the rappeller should
things go horribly wrong. The belayer can hang from the rope and
create tension on the rope from below. This can help to slow the
speed of someone who loses control of their rack [a descending device
with steel bars through which the rope is 'snaked' through, creating
friction that the rappeller can manipulate to control his or her descent].
I board the rickity old school bus with one of my teammates for
a bumpy ride filled with death defying switchbacks. Switchbacks that
necessitated the bus to back up over very scary, steep cliffs in order
to navigate. We reach the bottom and begin our hike to the base
of the bridge to await the lowering of our rope. It's all of maybe
40 degrees, raining and foggy. We aren't sure if our rope is going
to end up dropping onto the railroad tracks, the power lines or -if
we're really lucky- onto the very steep, muddy banks that lead right
to the swiftly flowing river below. We get the lucky spot.
We radio up to the top that we're ready. To avoid confusion with
293 people using radios to communicate amongst one another, all the
teams were assigned different radio channels. We were told to
start our transmission with our team name and location and whom it is
we are talking with. Our team name was "Good to the last
drop". Sort of a fun take-off of a famous coffee slogan.
"This is Good to the last Drop, base team to Good to the last drop,
rig team. Ready at the bottom... over"
"Rig team to base team... roger that. Will let you
know when we're set up here... out"
We sit and wait.
The weather is indicative of the day to come; problematic, filled
with uncertainty and treacherous.
Chaos is interjected into the calm of waiting around when we hear another
team using our channel. Our team captain is on them fast.
"This is Good to the Last Drop team captain... Which team
is on our channel? This channel is in use, please get off and find another."
"Uh... This is bomb squad team leader and you need to get
off our channel. Please do so now."
"Sorry to burst your bubble, Gentlemen" our team captain
interjects "but this channel was assigned to our team by
the event coordinators. Leave this channel."
"Perhaps you didn't understand... this is THE Bomb
Squad" [insert pregnant pause here...] "As in
the security team trying to prevent the bridge from being blown up?
Do what you need to do but leave this channel immediately. Thanks."
Guess the coordinators screwed up that one! We spend the next
30 minutes messing around trying to find a channel that isn't in use.
As the various rappelling teams begin to see their team members already
on rope, we begin to wonder what's taking ours so long?
Seems that we got one of 2 spots on the entire bridge that has our rigging
point directly over one of the main support beams of the bridge, thus
preventing us from having a clean drop with our rope. We are forced
to lose valuable time rigging a re-direct. More Grrrrr.
Finally, at 10:15, our first guy touches ground, over an hour after
the first team on rope.
We wait for the second one down before we are relieved of belay duty
and head up the hill to the bus to take us the 2 1/2 miles to the top.
The bus trip takes over 30 minutes due to the treacherous, narrow road.
During the bus ride we begin to calculate how many rappells we can make
in the 6 hours of the event. This delay cost us precious
time but we think we can make 2 rappells each IF we are on our game.
We cross our fingers and get to the top.
HOLY CRAP, Batman! Even with the miserable weather, the
place is a zoo! People everywhere! Nearly a mile long
stretch of vendors selling their wares -and this is before one even
gets to the bridge! We get off the bus and walk toward the security
area to access the lower side of the bridge. We show our passes
and climb up on a railing and down a ladder onto the grass just 100'
from the edge of the gorge. The spectators see us in our
gear and cheer us on like we're some sort of basketball heroes.
We are amused.
We wait on the under side of the bridge with others from our team for
our turn to rappell. Only 4 of our team are allowed on the catwalk
at a time. Since we were the belay team and volunteered to be
at the bottom of the bridge at the beginning of the day, we get bumped
up a few slots by our other team members. Cool!
When I'm finally allowed out on the catwalk, it's nearly 1pm.
The weather started to settle down a bit but was still raining off and
on and was only a little bit warmer than this morning.
The catwalk was a trip! It's all of maybe twenty-one inches wide
with a 3 foot handrail on either side. The catwalk is suspended
underneath the bottom most part of the bridge with only a few support
beams being beneath you as you walk through the arch section of the
structure. Not sure anything can prepare you for the experience
except to go out there and walk it. I was, without a doubt, nervous.
I gingerly walk along the steel diamond plate floor, careful not to
step too hard lest I damage it and cause the floor to collapse beneath
I continue walking along the foot and a half wide catwalk until I get
to the first rig team and have to squeeze by a crowd of rappellers and
safety inspectors. My 2-way radio that's clipped to my chest gets
raked off its holster and falls, slow motion to the catwalk. I
attempt to reach for it, my movements like cold molasses as it bounces
once, twice, thrice on the diamond plate floor and skitters to a stop
directly in front of a foot. That foot is in motion also and looks
like it is going to kick the radio off the bridge. My arm changes
from molasses to lightning as I scoop it up and save it (and those below)
from a cruel fate. It just goes to show how you have to
pay attention to everything when you are out in a place like this.
I triple checked all my gear to make sure all was secure but overlooked
the unfamiliar radio which is never part of my regular stuff.
Doubt it would have caused an injury (it's light and that's what helmets
are for) but would have scared the shit out of someone at the very least.
I make it to our teams rig point and clip into the railing. Butterflies
are dancing in a mosh pit in my belly. Cool. :)
My turn finally arrives and I examine the rigging. All looks in order.
I step out over the railing and begin to feed the rope through my rack.
Yes. I am attached to the bridge in multiple locations as I do
this. I'm crazy, not stupid. :) I get rigged
in and ready to go and the saftey inspector checks me out and sends
me on my way. Slowly. Very slowly. Too slowly.
DAMNITT! The length of the rope is greater than any other
rappell I've ever done and the extra weight of the 800' rope hanging
below me acts as a belay and I'm stuck. The solution is to "drop
a bar" meaning you adjust the number of steel bars the rope
feeds through to adjust the level of friction. Problem is, the
rack I'm using (there are different types) is a closed bottom
style and prevents me from removing the last bar of the rack.
Well that and the fact that my bottom belayer has to put a load on the
rope to prevent the wind from blowing it into another teams rope.
This creates a problem. I'm 800' above the deck (ground)
and have to take both of my hands and pull myself down the rope.
Grrrr! Very frustrating and very tiring but eventually
get to a point where things start getting a bit easier.
So, here I am, dangling in mid air by a 9/16" piece of nylon and
realize that I'm totally at ease. No butterflies, no nervousness,
just a profound appreciation for the jaw dropping view. It's then
that I get a twinge of disappointment. Just a twinge. I was expecting
this amazing near panic rush of adrenaline to help burn the event into
my brain. Fortunately this twinge lasts all of about 0.3 seconds
and I go back to being dumbfounded by the view. Stunning!!!!!
Around halfway down, the weight of the rope below me has reduced sufficiently
to allow me to move without assistance. I begin to let the
rope slide through the rack and find that I have absolutely no way to
reference how fast I'm going. The ground isn't coming up at me
at all. I feel like I am stationary except for the whine of the
rope through the rack. Good thing for me that I have a musical
ear as I quickly realize that the rope is singing at an unfamiliar pitch
as it feeds through the rack. That, I decide, is how to judge
my speed until I can get a better reference.
BANG! Holy Cripes! What-the-hell-was-THAT?
BANG! I go partially inverted to get a look around and behind
me. All I see is purple, then yellow as two parachutes come
whizzing by me, supporting the tandem base jumpers that had leapt off
the bridge several hundred feet above. Hehheheh. Forgot
about the base jumpers. Their chutes make one helluva noise when
they open up!!
The treetops are approaching a bit faster now. A minute or more
goes by before their approach indicates I should slow down a touch more.
Finally make it to the bottom around 15 minutes after I started.
The trip would have been significantly faster had I not had so many
difficulties higher up. A casual descent would have been around
5 or 6 minutes. There were strict orders not to do a speed rappell
which was classified as anything under 45 seconds. This could
actually create enough heat in the rack to melt through the rope, causing
a significant inconvenience to the one descending.
I radio up an apology for the long descent and take my spot as belayer.
When we get relieved, we start back up the hill back to the bus and
wait. And wait. The rain returns and it gets colder again.
We wait some more. Leaves are falling all around us. Quite
a few actually. Make that a pants load. Then the wind hits
the bottom of the gorge and the rain stings our faces. Cripes!
If it's this windy down here what's it like on the bridge? Radio's
all around us are crackling with traffic.
"Abort" "Abort" "Bridge Day is cancelled"
Crap. There goes our chance for another drop but at least
everyone in our team has made it down at least once. The
last guy on rope was one of our team. He described the situation
as a fairly sudden squall just as he started down. He was buffeted
by winds fierce enough to divert the rope so that he could see the side
of the bridge opposite from where he started. Well, when the sleet
wasn't obscuring his vision. His belayer said he needed the weight
of his partner just to stop from being dragged along the bottom.
The guy on rope said he thought it was a fun ride. I was jealous.
By the time we got back to the top it was just past 15:00 and the event
was to end at 16:00. Doubt we would have been able to make two
drops anyway. The winds and weather had disappeared and they were
allowing the base jumpers to resume their fun so we watched them from
Nuts. These guys are nuts. They step out into open space and do
summersaults and acrobatics waiting far too long to throw their chutes
open. They fall, fall, fall until you're sure they're going to
go splat! and then a burst of color as they're equipment does
it's job. Nuts.
...Think I'll have to try that someday. ;)
I've included this link for you to peruse a few of the better shots
I took of the day along with some other cool ones from a trip to Luray
Caverns while visiting my buddy Lincoln in DC. Also a few from
the Upper Gauley river. OH, did I forget to mention that I went
white water rafting the next day? I went white water rafting
the next day on the Upper Gauley river, rated at 7th in the world for
most difficult rapids. Beautiful day. Got really wet. Got
really cold. Only launched one of our crew in one of the fiercer rapids
(not me). It was cool.
Take a look at the mayhem: