2014 seems to be the year of the bucket list for me. Not only did I make one, but I’ve been able to cross a few items off of it shortly thereafter. One of those items was “rappel down a tall building.” And, lucky for me, that idea wasn’t so far-fetched since Special Olympics of Iowa hosts Over the Edge each fall. To participate, I had to raise $1,000 to benefit Special Olympics. Check an item off the bucket list and get good karma for raising money for a worthwhile charity? Check and check.
Various Special Olympics regions host similar events all over the country with buildings of all different statures. In Des Moines, it’s held at the Financial Center building, standing at 345 feet and 25 stories, it’s the fourth-tallest building in Iowa.
Those who hear the address of the Financial Center — 666 Walnut Street — may shy away from being anywhere near the edge of the roof, but it’s all perfectly safe. The Over the Edge organizers are assisted by special tactical teams from the Iowa State Patrol that train frequently in rappelling (as a side note, Vice President Joe Biden was in town the day of the event, so state patrol had about half of their usual Over the Edge support, I was told).
I hadn’t been rappelling since I was at YMCA camp when I was 10 years old. And even then, the rappelling wall was a lot shorter. This wasn’t a particular concern for me, since I didn’t think they would allow people with zero rappelling experience to do it if it wasn’t safe. The day of the rappel you spend about an hour before your rope time training and preparing, which seems like a lot. This includes signing the liability waiver and getting harnessed. They check your harness about three times and ask you if you have anything in your pockets about 20 times, just to be sure. From the time you’re harnessed to the time your feet hit the ground, your helmet always stays on.
Before the main rappel, you are taken through a training rappel on the lower tier of the Financial Center on the west side of the building, which is maybe three stories high. You learn some technique (where to put your hands, how low your butt needs to be below your feet, etc.) and how to operate the equipment that makes you go down — they describe it in a way similar to a gas pedal. The further you pull the lever, the faster you’ll go. Pushing the lever all the way is your brake. There are some safety mechanisms — pull the lever too far, too fast and the lever won’t make you go anywhere. And if that fails, there’s another device attached to a backup rope that will lock up if you go too fast too soon. If that happens, you have to give hand signals and let them know via radio that you’ve locked up — but you can reset the safety and continue the rappel as normal.
On the roof, it’s really a great view. I could see water towers for all of the suburbs and could pick out some other landmarks around me. From the Financial Center roof, the state capitol looks absolutely huge sitting on the hill. Going to the edge of the roof and climbing the ladder to stand on the ledge actually wasn’t the worst part. The worst part, at least for me, was trusting the harness and leaning backward. My survival instinct is probably a little too strong because even though I knew I was safe, it was hard for me to lean back and put all of my weight on the harness. The trooper handling my line warned me when he was about to throw the rest of my rope over the side of the building, because when you’re throwing hundreds and hundreds of feet of rappelling rope overboard, the weight of it starts tugging on you and you can feel it.
Once you’ve leaned back and your rope is down the side of the building, it’s all pretty easy after that. One thing they emphasized repeatedly is that your physical strength has nothing to do with your rappelling abilities. Just lean back, pull the lever so slightly, and go. My nerves did give me some trouble starting out that I forgot I’d have to feed some of the rope through the equipment manually due to the weight of the rope starting out (but as the rope weight gets less and less as you rappel, you’ll go faster and faster even though you’re pulling the lever the same). After I remembered this, I was off and rappelling.
There was one tricky spot at the top to traverse. It’s concrete around the top of the building under the ledge, perhaps 4 feet tall or so, and then concrete pillars with windows about 4 feet wide in between. Once you passed the concrete under the ledge, you had to swing into the little window cubbie under the ledge and between the pillars, which was pretty unsettling since you feel like you’re freefalling because your feet aren’t touching anything. You have to remember to keep your butt lower than your feet, then push off, to maintain control. I apparently banged my ankle on the ledge during this, but didn’t realize it until later that night when I noticed some bruising and swelling. After a day of hobbling around, everything was back to normal.
Starting at the top, the reflection in the windows is blue skies. Things got inexplicably weird as I went lower and the blue skies were replaced with the reflections of the Hub Tower across the street. All of a sudden I felt really high up once I saw the building’s reflection, and I cannot explain this. It wasn’t a scary thing, just weird.
It took less than 5 minutes for me to rappel the Financial Center from top to bottom by my friends’ and co-workers’ estimates. I was pretty focused on getting back down on the ground, and I wished that I had taken some breaks on my way down to admire the view around me. We were rappelling kitty-corner from the Younkers fire, so we had a great view of the scene on the way down.
Overall, going Over the Edge for Special Olympics of Iowa was an awesome experience that I was able to participate in that not many people do. Together, participants raised more than $106,000 that will benefit more than 11,000 Special Olympics athletes across Iowa. If you have the same item on your bucket list as I did, I’d definitely suggest considering this event next year.