This Is What It’s Like to Rappel from a 31-Story Building in Center City

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Yep, that’s me dangling there.

To say I was given the opportunity of a lifetime yesterday is a bit of an understatement. And to say I wasn’t completely terrified about said opportunity is an even bigger one.

I joined the folks at Philadelphia Outward Bound School for their four-years-running Building Adventure event, a fundraiser that supports Outward Bound’s outdoor leadership programs in Philadelphia schools. The fundraiser was launched back in 2012, a year after the School District of Philadelphia cut Outward Bound’s funding in the face of a budget crisis; Building Adventure was created to close the funding gap in order to keep Outward Bound programs in Philly schools running. Every year, Building Adventure takes around 100 thrill-seekers, who raise at least $2,000 each, to the top of One Logan Square for a 31-story rappel — gorgeous, once-in-a-lifetime views of Philly included. 

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The initial push-off — so terrifying.

I realized as I awaited my turn that it was actually a blessing in disguise that I’ve been busier than usual with work these past few weeks. When I agreed to do the rappel three weeks ago, I experienced an initial flood of panic — excitement, too, but mostly panic — as I began to process exactly what I was about to do. I turned around in my office and looked at the view from my 36th floor window and realized that that was what I’d be seeing, except from outside the window and dangling from a rope. Then I promptly closed my blinds.

But after that initial bout of “What the heck was I thinking?!” remorse, I pretty much forgot that I’d committed to doing it in the first place and trudged ever-forward with my work deadlines. See? Blessing in disguise.

It honestly wasn’t until I woke up yesterday that it all came flooding back: I was going to rappel — today! — from a 31-story skyscraper. The central question emerged once again: What in the world was I thinking?

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Howdy from that tiny speck on the right.

“You’ll hear pretty much every person in your life telling you, in your brain, that you can do this,” Philadelphia Outward Bound executive director Katie Newsom Pastuszek told me when we chatted about the rappel. She’s done the descent every year since Building Adventure launched, so if anyone should know, it’s her. “The moment you step out on that ledge, you’re going to be having your own personal Come to Emily Conversation. It’s a wild ride, but a really, really awesome one.”

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The view when I first started going down. Stunning.

She was right: standing on the ledge, with my heels hanging off the side of the building and my back to Logan Circle and, further, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all the voices in my head were screaming at me, but the loudest one was my own — the voice telling me that I could do this, that lots of people had already done it, and that, anyway, it was basically too late now and the only way out of this was to lean back. Lean waaaaaay back.

I think anyone who’s ever rappelled or even bungee jumped will tell you, it’s the way-back part, that first step off the ledge, that’s most terrifying. It’s the moment you have to let go of your own confidence and self-assuredness (if you had any to begin with) and totally, completely, 100 percent trust the people and gear helping you get to the ground. It was a tough pill to swallow, largely because my entire training for this moment consisted of a less-than-five-minute tutorial on the rooftop about how to work the levers and ropes. How does that qualify a person to do this?

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Still near the top in this one.

But I realized that even if I’d spent an hour or a day preparing for this thing, it would still all come down to trust. (Especially considering the mechanics of rappelling aren’t particularly complicated.) So with a deep breath, trembling knees, and a smile that I’m sure screamed “I’M TERRIFIED” to anyone looking at me, I leaned back. Waaaaay back. And I was off.

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And a look to my left.

I won’t bore you with the details of the actual rappel — the GoPro strapped to my helmet took some of the photos in this post, so you can see what it looks like from up there — but I will say that once I ironed out my technique, I realized something awesome: that dangling 31 stories above the city, I was probably experiencing the most peaceful version of Philadelphia that one could, well, ever experience. See, from up there, you can hear the city bustling and hustling below, but it’s more like a distant white noise. Individual taxi horns and fire truck sirens, which from the sidewalk can startle you, are muffled and sort of come together in a single waft of ambient surround sound. And other than that, it’s silent. Completely, utterly silent. You’re left with your own thoughts, as you take in this spectacular view. At some point it hits you: Wow. I’m doing this. I’m really, truly doing this.

And, of course, you live to tell the tale.

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