Urban Mountaineering: what it’s like to rappel down 31 stories

 WHYY's Peter Crimmins rappels down 1 Logan Square. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

WHYY's Peter Crimmins rappels down 1 Logan Square. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Friday, 100 people dropped from the top of a 31-story building in Center City, Philadelphia.

They all rapelled down the side of One Logan Square as part of a fundraising effort for Philadelphia Outward Bound School, an education program that tries to instill leadership and self-confidence skills to teenagers by making them do extreme things, like whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, or, in this case, rappel 420 feet down the face of a high rise along the Parkway.

Outward Bound allowed others to try some urban mountaineering — including Mayor Michael Nutter, Pa. Sen. Vincent Hughes and me, your local arts and culture reporter.

After a little instruction on the roof of One Logan Square, and a lot of harnessing, I was told stand in what I always thought to be the worst place on earth — the wrong side of a railing designed to protect me from falling 31 floors into the garden of the Four Seasons Hotel.

As with most things in life, the hardest part is getting started. They said, “You’re OK. Drop.” I said, “What’s OK? There’s nothing here that is OK.”

They said, “You’re OK. Drop.”

Once descended from the railing, I’m on my own for the next 400 feet. I feel like Batman and Robin from the original TV series, walking backward, straight down. But here the camera is not set on a 90-degree tilt.

The view is amazing — more so than from any skyscraper observation deck because not only did I have an immediate 180 degree aerial view of the city, I was also literally holding my life in my own hands, busily feeding rope through a geared pully.

At about halfway down, my body started to ache. My legs weren’t doing much but propping me off the vertical skin of the building, but my abdominal muscles started twitching, as though I were holding a single sit-up for 20 minutes. I had a hard time breathing.

Around the halfway mark, I came within earshot of the sidewalk, where a DJ hired by Outward Bound was spinning songs. As some kind of cruel joke, he was playing Tom Petty’s “Freefalling.” I was not amused.

Back on terra firma, somebody asked me how I felt. A little dazed, I realized that during the entire drop, I never looked down, perhaps in self-preservation.

So what did I learn from this?

First of all, have redundant safety systems.

More importantly: trust your rope.

Gonna free fall out into nothing.Gonna leave this world for a while.

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