When I was hired by the Fire Department. and went to training, I knew that I'd have to overcome my irrational fear of falling, because this kryptonite translated very easily into a fear of climbing ladders. I had to climb with gloves on my hands, in boots, wearing equipment that weighed me BACKWARDS, and of course, what if there wasn't someone there to butt the ladder? The ladder could fall. With me on it. And others.
My first rappel was off of the 4th floor of the concrete training tower. While my friends observed that it appeared that this evolution scared me more than my nemesis, the roof ladder, I was actually fairly comfortable. However, I was shaking with effort...the rope we were using was very heavy, and I wasn't clearly understanding the laws of physics that went against my nature: such as:
Rule # 1 "Open your hand and let go of the rope so it will slide!"
Overall, my first rappel was a good experience. I was slow as I tried to get the hang of it (no pun intended), but fear wasn't really a part of the picture because I felt very in control. I'd tied the knot we are all depending upon (and tied it well!), and although there was no safety officer on belay (contrary to SOP's), all was under control.
My second rappel was different. This time, while our Deputy Chief of Training actually decided we did not "need" someone on belay because "nothing had ever happened before", the FD Safety Officer happened on scene and took up his post....just in time. Apparently he saw this situation as being a very bad thing and realized that if he didn't take over, well....
Aside: (Thank God he arrived when he did...two cadets fell that day and would have been seriously injured or killed if the Safety Officer had not been on hand, on belay with the rope in his own hands!)
And the Deputy Chief heard about it, believe me. (No one outranks the Safety Officer when it comes to safety issues!)
I remember standing at the foot of the tower that warm, cloudy afternoon, waiting for my turn at the evolution, to carry the pump can (85 unweildy lbs) up the 6 floors + to the roof of the tower, to rappel down wearing an SCBA face piece with the ambient air valve open, tanks on our backs, but not turned on, an axe dangling from the spanner belt on one side, the spanner wrench on the other. While I watched those who went before me, I saw two of them fall. The first fell a story and a half (about 15 feet) before her descent was slowed, then stopped. ALL of us reacted in horror to this event.
Soon it was my turn. I labored the pump can up to the roof and tied my knot to the anchor. My facepiece was fogging over, I was already tired and winded, and the ambient air valve is not made for this kind of labored respiration. If the tank was on and the facepiece operating as it was designed to do, there would have been no problem, although admittedly my tank would have been dry in very short order. As it was, every single one of us was hyperventilating not so much from exertion (although that was a factor) but from a lack of being able to draw a decent breath! It was absolute Hell, and every firefighter ever in this kind of training can verify this.
So I tied my knot and went to the parapet, took up the rope, ran it through my D-ring and stepped over it - straight into thin air.
I started out decently, holding my right hand high, palm up.
But I hadn't calculated the weight of the rope, and I wasn't adept at dropping my upper body perpendicular to the wall; and so the rope seemed that much heavier. For those who are not familiar with what we called "life-safety rope", this is not some piece of twine. This was heavy-duty rope, and I was holding 6 stories' worth of it. It probably weighed as much or more than I did at that height. (Seemed like it, anyway!)
It was a combination of errors that got me into a precarious position. The first was my body position. I could not seem to get myself to follow the directions to get my head lower. Instead, I was trying to "muscle" it. Mind you, at that time, in training I was doing 20-25 lb bicep curls...but that was nothing in the face of trying to muscle a rappel. The rope should have been sliding through my hand, but I had a death-grip on it.
As I descended towards the 4th floor balcony, where I'd have to "invert" and swing inward, my hand was being pulled further and further toward my hip. I was losing the rope. Desperately, I tried to abduct my hand outward. I tried thrusting my body hard to my left, trying to scoot "up" the rope, while pulling hard with my right arm to get the rope into my hand and get my hand back up. It backfired. I still remember my face crashing against the cement wall, helmet clunking, the rope sliding through my hand, losing grip.
I was shaking. I couldn't see because my facepiece was fogged over. I'll never forget the sound of my breath wheezing in desperate hitches through the ambient air valve, which sounded like it was about to give out. I couldn't get air. I couldn't think. My Captain was screaming at me: "YOU'RE FINE!"
That was the most useless thing he'd ever screamed.. And he liked to scream. He was a useless Captain. All we cadets suspected as much but this particular suspicion was confirmed when he yelled at me, "LET GO OF THE ROPE!"
That was the first and last time I ever yelled back at him. "NO!"
I was NOT going to let go of the rope.
All I could think about as my breath rasped in and out, as sweat ran into my eyes, as my fingers tried to curl bone around the rope, was the hard cold pavement 4+ stories below me. I thought about my friend falling more than a story before being stopped. I wasn't sure who was on belay, if anyone. I couldn't trust that ANYONE was there. And I thought about my fear. Here I was, dangling high above the ground, facing my most terrifying fear become reality.
I was going to fall.
You may think I'm exaggerating the situation. I'm not. This is NOT hyperbole; it's EXACTLY what happened that day.
I was flat against the cement wall. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, and all I could hear was my Captain screaming at me to give up and let go.
Don't use the argument that he was using "reverse psychology"; he wasn't. This guy was not fit to be a Captain, and only did it for the power trip. He was NOT well respected even among his own ranks...not as a firefighter, and certainly not as a Captain. (This is a fact). And he'd already written me off, even before that day.
It does NOT help, when facing your worst nightmare, that the one guy who's supposed to be in your corner shouting helpful advice is instead leading the cheer for your destruction.
I still had the rope in a deathgrip. It was a fist-length away from my butt. (Not to be gross; it's just to convey where the rope was, and it's NOT the same thing as "hip". Ask a climber.)
Somehow, I managed to ignore my Captain's screaming....he was at that point screaming from the 4th floor balcony, just below me. I would have given him "The Finger" if I had one to spare. I'm thankful now that I did not, it being occupied with keeping me from splattering to the ground.
All I really knew was this: Very simply stated, I resolved only ONE thing: I was NOT. GOING. TO. FALL
There, in the cacaphony of the moment, was a snapshot of clarity; I had to make a decision. I envisioned falling, all that could happen, "good" or bad. None of the options was acceptable. I considered; "What if this is for real? What if there is no one on belay?" (Remember in reality...I WASN'T sure there was someone on belay.)
This was about survival, and even if my dimwit Captain didn't see it, I did. I couldn't give up. In Law Enforcement training, they taught us that no matter how severe the injury, how intense the pain, how futile the situation....SURVIVE. I'd lived through thier courses, the raids, the tear gas, CS gas, and pepper spray straight to the eyes...twice. I was NOT going to let go of the rope. It was a very conscious decision in a time of panic.
Slowly, I managed to place my feet back against the wall and "walked" upwards, trying to take the weight off the rope. As I did this, the rope slid ever further, until it was only the pressure of the two first fingers of my thickly-gloved right hand, pressed against the lower portion of my thigh. that kept me suspended.
It was agony. Every single muscle was shaking. I was crying, both from fear and the agony of trying to survive. From the punishment of the words of my Captain who clearly wanted me dead. From the pain of my breath rasping harshly in my throat. From the frustration of not being able to see.
From the fear I was about to fall to my death to the great rejoicing of the one guy who was supposed to be on my side..but obviously wasn't.
I was not much of a Catholic at the time, but I was trying, and I had always believed in Guardian Angels. In that moment, I said a prayer to my Guardian Angel for help, but nothing happened. I asked God for mercy, and begged for help. I just wanted the rope back in my hand. That was all.
Carefully, I began to wiggle the tip of my finger, trying to work the rope back towards my palm. My Captain was still screaming at me to let go and give it up. I ignored him. He was an ass.
I slid again...and the rope was back where it had been. So I rocked to my left again and worked my fingers against the rope. My entire weight was suspended on one finger. Just one finger. One leather-gloved finger.
Not giving up.
Slowly, the rope worked into my palm as I fought my fear to try to follow useful directions now being given by one of the other Captains, who had taken over my direction in that crisis as he was not interested in seeing me crash. My own Captain was pouting silently at this point. (I have a cartoon image in my mind of this Captain being bound and gagged by my Guardian Angel).
Somehow, the rope was back in my palm, and as I had descended, the rope had gotten lighter. It was time to invert at the 4th floor balcony. I inverted, swung inward...and found the rope sliding exactly where I wanted it. I was still shaking and panting with effort, the rope was heavy, but the remainder of the rappel went smoothly until I finally stepped off the wall and onto the cement apron.
When I think about that day, I can still feel the rope in my hand, I can still see the pavement below me, and I can still hear my Captain shouting at me. But none of it matters; because on that day, I made a very conscious decision NOT to give up. I made a decision for survival and for life, even though the loudest voice was crying for destruction. Somewhere, in that maelstrom, I found God, I found trust, and I found a spine I didn't know I had.
Oddly enough, I look back on that moment of time with immense affection. Although it was a time of great suffering, it was, ultimately, a great triumph. Even though it might not seem very noteworthy to most people, it meant a great deal to me, and I pray I will never forget what it was like to know that all was lost...and then find the rope back in my palm again, refusing to give up - no matter what.
I just wish I had that kind of spine and discipline in my spiritual life.
Lent, 2010: I'm still looking for the same kind of survival instinct in my spiritual life. But because I know I had it then, it encourages me now, I hope it is there for you, too, even if that proverbial rope is teasing the last bit of skin of your fingertips......
Don't give up. Don't ever give up, no matter WHO is screaming at you to let go...hold fast and keep trying!