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  • Tucker Spolter

Rappelling - Part 1


RAPPELLING

My brother and his wife, D’Anne, live by the adage, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” So we went to Utah.

We received an invitation to D’Anne’s fourth “fiftieth” birthday party. We were promised horse back riding, golf for me, white water rafting, kayaking, hiking in Arches National Park, Scrabble by the pool at the Gonzo Inn, lunch on the Colorado River and rappelling. Our adventure would culminate on our last night with a sunset ride in a 12-passenger open-air Hummer, which gave new meaning to the word ‘hummer.’

Bobbie fingered the invitation, took a sip of Cline zinfandel and looked at me? “Kinda stirs your emotions, doesn’t it.” She wiggled her shoulders. “Sounds like fun.”

It did sound like fun. Though, as we get older there are some adventures that we might avoid such as parachuting into a live volcano, polar bear wrestling or running naked through a clump of poison oak. Only an ignorant person would be dragged into a new adventure with only a vague comprehension of what one of these new adventures might entail.

So Bobbie and I followed my brother Jerry, D’Anne and ten friend’s, people who would never pass the Mensa exam, to Moab, Utah where we would try something for the first time: rappelling

As a high school graduate you would think that I might have made a few inquires of the rappelling company; perhaps a quick e-mail, a short phone call or hell, even an old fashion letter. If I had had any intelligence, my intelligent questions might have included:

  • Dear Sir, I’m terrified of heights; from what height might we

be rappelling for the very first time? Will our first and second practice rappels be higher than eight feet?

  • Dear Sir, I’ve grown quite attached to my wife. Would my wife or any of us ever be in any real danger?

  • And then the one question I never considered asking, “How often have you personally been rappelling?”

I did telephone and asked, “I just got a new hip. Would my hip be in any jeopardy? There are certain angles where my new hip could possibly explode out of its socket and I could be crippled for life.” I heard a smug snicker from the other end of the line.

“Man, we take seven year old kids on these trips. And I’m certain you can keep time with a seven-year-old.”

A seven year old kid I could contend with, I was reassured. But it turned out he was a liar, liar, lair pants on fire hanging from a telephone wire. If this was not a telephone conversation, if we were face-to-face, I’m certain his nose would have rivaled Pinocchio’s.

Two weeks later the twelve of us found ourselves in downtown Moab climbing into a van. We laughed. Expectation filled the air. Jokes were exchanged as our van climbed up the ridges and bounced through ravines and along the canyon rims of the desert. Up we went over “Big Slick,” a mountain bikers Eden. We laughed some more. Up and up we went. Only a jackass doesn’t realize that what goes up must come down. Hee-Haw.

Curt and Mitch, buffed and tanned, were our guides, our leaders, our personal Lewis and Clark who would instruct us in the fine art of mountain descent. Regrettably, Curt and Mitch would soon be playing God with one dozen lives. Our lives

Finally, the van rolled to a stop. Our guides leaped onto the desert floor and began doling out rappelling gear. We each got a cool belt contraption to step into. It fits snugly around your legs and then you pull two straps up through your crotch and tighten them around your waist. What this does to accent the male genitalia, would make a ballerino (male ballerina) green with envy. My wife had hers on in two seconds. She looked like she was ready for Mount Everest. Patronizingly, she was nice enough to help me with my gear.

Next we each got a hard hat to protect us from falling rocks, I thought. It didn’t occur to me that they might be to protect our heads when falling head-first from great heights onto large, jagged boulders. We got descenders and belaying devices for the “fast-rap” and the “simul-rap” I thanked them like an idiot, not bothering to ask about either “Rap.” Though I suspected their raps didn’t rhyme or have a cool beat.

Mitch and Curt wore well-worn elbow pads, knee pads and gloves with the tips of fingers poking out. Apparently, the route we newbies would be taking would be much easier, because none of us got any of those useless items.

Curt, our older guide, handed some of us blue nylon bags with lengths of coiled line inside. Real mountaineers do not call rope, “rope.” Mountaineers call rope, “line.”

Right there – right then, I could have asked a question that would have saved me much embarrassment and tremendous amount of wear and tear on my psyche. ‘Hey, Curt,’ I might have asked ‘Why is there one long length of blue rope. . I mean line? And one long length of pink rope?’ If I’d asked that question and if he’d responded honestly, right then I would’ve hopped back into the air-conditioned van, rode back to the hotel, ordered a gin and tonic and sat by the pool with a good book.

Mitch, the youngest member of our “seasoned” mountain climbing duo, asked us to gather our gear as we were heading off to the “hole.” In the van, I’d heard both guides make several references to the “hole.” I innocently assumed that since we were in the desert the “hole” must be some sort of oasis. I was wrong. I was also wrong about Mitch. I would find out too late that Mitch was NOT a seasoned member of our rappelling team.

We gathered our gear and trekked off. Moab and its desert are magnificent, with arches, upheavals of sandstone and precariously balanced columns that Wiley Coyote would be proud to perch on in his never ending battle to get the Road Runner.

Again idle chatter and a mood of expectation rippled through our group. I was certain that we would stop on our mile hike to the “Hole” for some impromptu training with our new gear. Then my mind rewound thirty years.

In the Marine Corps, we NEVER went on a twenty mile hike without going on a series of one mile hikes, then three mile hikes, etc. As a Marine my fear

of heights was less pronounced and I’d actually done some rappelling. Our drill instructors doled out line and grappling hooks and told us to toss them over the lip of a ramp inclined at 45 degrees and about ten-feet high. We practiced until we all got the hang of it then we pulled ourselves up and rappelled back down. Two hours later my whole company confidently dropped out of the windows of a four story building and went back for more. Of course I was 19 then and in the best physical shape of my life.

As we trod along I looked around at our group. No one was close to 19. Though a few of them were in pretty good shape.

About 40 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to the “Hole.” Our total training time with our new harness, belaying devices and descenders was nada, zip, zero. Curt pointed to a black slit in the ground. “This hole is the entrance to the ‘Hidden Chambers.’”

The ‘Hidden Chambers?’ I felt like I was about to climb into a Harry Potter book. And a lot of nasty things occur in Harry Potter books.

The Desert Dozen paced gingerly around the hole. It was dark. It felt deep. Very deep. I did the movie thing picking up a good sized stone and flipping it into the abyss. I counted, “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.” I quit at four one thousand. None of us heard the stone hit solid ground, though, we thought we heard a splash. Collectively we looked at Curt and Mitch.

“There’s a pool of water about ninety feet down,” Curt smiled, trying to assuage our misgivings.

I was not assuaged. “How deep?” Mitch looked at Curt for an answer.

“We’re never quite sure until we get there,” Curt shrugged.

“Oh, you guys will be going down first and then we come down after?” Bobbie asked politely.

“Nope, we’ll be up here holding the belaying line.”

A terrible, uneasy feeling slowly enveloped my body.

Curt encouraged everyone to tighten their gear and asked, “Who would like to be first to descend into the crevasse?”

Not one hand was raised. No one volunteered. In fact, two members of our group opted for walking back to the road and back to town. I was one of them.

Curt and Mitch pleaded, cajoled and promised us the thrill of a lifetime. I figured my thrilling life would be over in a matter of minutes.

My brother went first. Hell, it was his stupid idea in the first place. He wanted to do something for the first time. As I watched him step toward the hole, my thoughts went into fast forward. ‘Go for it, Bro. Go do something for the first time. If you died doing something for the first time then we wouldn’t have to do it for the first time.’ Ugh, guilt washed over me. Negative thinking. “Go for it, Bro!” I said proudly.

I went second for three reasons. If I didn’t go second I would never have gone and if my brother fell I’d have someone to land on. And if somehow I did make it down to the bottom and Bobbie fell, I could try to catch her.

The drill was to fight every human instinct and lean over backward, push a rope through the chrome rings of something that looked like a pygmy xylophone, step off a wall of stone, descend into a black hole, like backing off the roof of a ten-story building on a pitch black night, descending into a pool of water – who’s depth fluctuated after each cloud burst -, then wade through the pool of water – our guides were not sure for how long - climb out, turn around and rappel off that wall another forty feet to the cavern’s floor.

“How’s everyone up there?” My brother’s voice ascended from the bowels of the earth. He hadn’t uttered a word for five minutes. And now the words he did utter had none of his macho Marine Corps bravado. Jerry was an officer and a gentleman; I was enlisted and a ‘grunt.’ The Major sounded pitiful. Sure I was out ranked, but as his older, tougher, though shorter brother, I would do better.

Curt gave me the conspiratorial aren’t-we-going-to-have-fun look. I returned the universal up-yours look. I don’t know the current world record for human heart beats in a minute, but I do know that my heart shattered it. Snail slowly I leaned back forcing my foot to step off and down the wall of stone. I pushed a few feet of line through the xylophone, TOO much! My elevator was out of control. I felt like I dropped sixty feet. I bounced off the wall and did a 360. My knuckles scrapped against the jutting rocks. My sweaty hand slipped off the belaying rope. I squeaked. I had no breath to SCREAM. I dropped another foot or two.

“Everything okay?” came from just above me as I hit rock for the second time. Flailing about, I found the belaying rope, dangling in the Hidden Chambers, I braced my boots against the sandstone and gasped for air. I decided to hang there. Maybe for a week or two.

“You’re doing great,” my brother cried from below. He was full of it! The only way he could see me was if he had somehow smuggled a 60 foot periscope inside his jockey shorts. Then I thought about my brother. I didn’t know if he was a boxer or a jockey guy.

“Go on down,” Curt’s voice echoed off the walls from above. “We have people waiting.”

Right. Curt was now running a Disney concession. Ladies and Gentlemen, move right up, step into the turnstile of death and of your own free will, plunge backwards into the Hidden Chambers.

I ignored him. I hung in space. There was more light than I expected. Rays of sun shone through a series of irregular cracks. I finally caught my breath and then looked down. MISTAKE! VERTIGO! My heart revved up. My breath disappeared. I started to drop and spin at the same time. I jerked the rope. ERROR. I plunged. My body smacked the wall again and again like a ball in a fast paced game of racquetball. Abruptly, I stopped in the pool of water. It wasn’t deep. But my knees collapsed. My belaying rope didn’t belay and I fell face down in about two feet of water.

I splurted out a stream of Hidden Chamber’s water. Believe me they’ll never be bottling the stuff. A new thought went through my mind - How humiliating would it be to drown while rappelling. A three hundred foot tumble, a frayed rope that slowly came unraveled, crushed bones, a severe concussion had that certain je ne sais quoi. Drowning in two feet of water did not.

I pulled myself up and sloshed across the underground pool. I peered over the rim down to the cavern floor where my brother waited expectantly.

“How are you doing, bro?” Jerry called.

Saving face with my brother became more important than begging him for a ladder. I gave him a big thumbs-up. I wanted to use another digit.

Resigned, I turned, leaned over backward and started down the wall. Oddly, I felt better. I wasn’t 007, but I kind of glided down the wall. The bottom of the abyss came closer, closer and I was down, I was wet, exhausted, but I was down. The ordeal was over, finished, done. Never again! I’d made it.

“Fun wasn’t it?” My brother asked tentatively.

I don’t know what my face looked like but my brother’s was ashen. And then I made the stupidest, most inane statement I’d ever made. “Bro, that was great.” My mind flipped back to childhood. The sibling taunts. Dare ya. Oh yea, double dare you. I grabbed my brother’s hand, looked him right in the eye and said “Too bad it’s over. Bro, I wish we could do it again!”

I heard a female sigh. My brother and I were still loosening our crotch harnesses when Bobbie a lit on the cavern floor. She heard my last comment and gave me the LOOK. Every married guy knows the LOOK. The how-can-you-be-such-a-stupid-ass LOOK.

It took another hour and a half for everyone to rappel to the bottom of the Hidden Chambers. We descendees munched on trail mix and craned our necks as the rest of the canyoneers climbed out of the underground pool and pin-balled their way back to solid ground. I thought I’d had a bad time, but a few of the others looked like they’d bellied through a mine field. More than one face was white, sweaty and pasty. Two of them resembled the trunk of a petrified tree.

Curt and Mitch ricocheted down. Damn, these boys were good. A circus act! Curt pushed off the cliff, circumvented Mitch and hit the cliff again. A group of Olympic rappelling judges would have given them a minimum rating of a seven, maybe 7.5. The tandem landed in a congratulatory mode; high-fiving and butt patting. Dutifully the assembled applauded.

“Wasn’t it great?” Curt’s voice echoed enthusiastically around the cavern.

It didn’t register then but neither Curt nor Mitch ever attempted to remove their mountaineering gear.

“Aren’t you glad you came?” Mitch went for the ego stroke. “You guys are the best group yet; especially considering your age.” Way to go Mitch! His latest book is titled: How to Piss off a Flock of Baby Boomers available now for a buck ninety-five on amazon.com. Mitch had committed a major faux-pas. All of us with AGE exchanged a look.

I don’t know if Curt picked up on Mitch’s blunder or simply wanted to move our expedition on. “Now some real fun,” Curt enjoined. “If you’ll help us get the gear outside, we can get on with your second adventure.”

We watched stunned as Curt and Mitch back-cast the belaying ropes from the top of the cavern. The line ricocheted down the wall and flopped to the ground. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized our last avenue of escape had just escaped.

A gentle hush enveloped our group like a dank fog. Immediately we all knew. It wasn’t over. As the old song went: “We’d only just begun.”

With an odd foreboding, I watched Curt coil up the long blue rope, while Matt slipped the roll of pink rope over shoulder.

Mitch rubbed his hands together. “I’ve really been looking forward to this.”

“I thought we were done.” A tentative female voice bounced off the rock.

“Aren’t we done?” A genderless voice queried. I didn’t even know we had anyone who was genderless lurking in our cave. I looked around for its source.

My wife went up to Mitch. “I thought you said our adventure would be over by noon.” She pointed to her wrist watch. “It’s almost 1:30.”

“This is a big group.” Mitch looked carefully around at each of us. “And most of you guys are a tad bit older.”

Strike two for the young guys. Their tip was growing smaller and smaller.

“Our first rappel took longer than we thought,” Curt apologized. “Besides, you folks are going to get to rappel off of Morning Glory Arch.”

“Yeah,” Mitch gushed. “It’s so cool. Twelve stories high.”

A edgy murmur went through our group. Bobbie and I stared at each other. On a fluke, two days before, we had hiked the two miles to the bottom of Morning Glory Arch. It spanned and entire valley. Large chunks of stone which had once been integral parts of the formation lay crumbling on the desert floor.

Like lemmings we followed Curt and Mitch out of the cavern. Rodents returning to the light of the sun.

t the cliff again. A group of Olympic rappelling judges would have given them a minimum rating of a seven, maybe 7.5. The tandem landed in a congratulatory mode; high-fiving and butt patting. Dutifully the assembled applauded.

“Wasn’t it great?” Curt’s voice echoed enthusiastically around the cavern.

It didn’t register then but neither Curt nor Mitch ever attempted to remove their mountaineering gear.

“Aren’t you glad you came?” Mitch went for the ego stroke. “You guys are the best group yet; especially considering your age.” Way to go Mitch! His latest book is titled: How to Piss off a Flock of Baby Boomers available now for a buck ninety-five on amazon.com. Mitch had committed a major faux-pas. All of us with AGE exchanged a look.

I don’t know if Curt picked up on Mitch’s blunder or simply wanted to move our expedition on. “Now some real fun,” Curt enjoined. “If you’ll help us get the gear outside, we can get on with your second adventure.”

We watched stunned as Curt and Mitch back-cast the belaying ropes from the top of the cavern. The line ricocheted down the wall and flopped to the ground. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized our last avenue of escape had just escaped.

A gentle hush enveloped our group like a dank fog. Immediately we all knew. It wasn’t over. As the old song went: “We’d only just begun.”

With an odd foreboding, I watched Curt coil up the long blue rope, while Matt slipped the roll of pink rope over shoulder.

Mitch rubbed his hands together. “I’ve really been looking forward to this.”

“I thought we were done.” A tentative female voice bounced off the rock.

“Aren’t we done?” A genderless voice queried. I didn’t even know we had anyone who was genderless lurking in our cave. I looked around for its source.

My wife went up to Mitch. “I thought you said our adventure would be over by noon.” She pointed to her wrist watch. “It’s almost 1:30.”

“This is a big group.” Mitch looked carefully around at each of us. “And most of you guys are a tad bit older.”

Strike two for the young guys. Their tip was growing smaller and smaller.

“Our first rappel took longer than we thought,” Curt apologized. “Besides, you folks are going to get to rappel off of Morning Glory Arch.”

“Yeah,” Mitch gushed. “It’s so cool. Twelve stories high.”

A edgy murmur went through our group. Bobbie and I stared at each other. On a fluke, two days before, we had hiked the two miles to the bottom of Morning Glory Arch. It spanned and entire valley. Large chunks of stone which had once been integral parts of the formation lay crumbling on the desert floor.

Like lemmings we followed Curt and Mitch out of the cavern. Rodents returning to the light of the sun.

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