I was wearing a black Singing Rock brand climbing harness around my waist and thighs. As I waited for James to reach the bottom of the rocks, I barely even noticed the green of the trees around me, the blue of the sky above, or the rumbling from the machinery at the rock quarry across the mountain. All I knew was that Nate had promised I would be safe.
My turn had come. Nate Greenway, who had crew-cut blond hair, was twenty-four, and was my coordinator and my friend, opened the screw-gate on a steel locking carabiner. “Are you right-handed or left?” he asked.
“Right,” I answered nervously. In response to my answer, he folded the thick rope, which ran through two steel anchors that were sunk deep into the rock, to make a bight, or bend, in it. Then he pushed the bight through the wider of two holes in a piece of steel that was called a “Figure Eight” because it resembled the shape of the number eight.
Nate wrapped the bight around the thinner end of the eight and clipped the eight to my harness with the carabiner. “Screw down so you don’t screw up,” he said, reminding me which direction to orient the carabiner.
He closed the screw-gate so the carabiner wouldn’t come open, then started giving me directions. “Take this end of the rope. Hold it in your right hand like this.” He showed me how to hold it. “Don’t switch hands. Put your left hand behind your butt so you’re not tempted to use it. And no matter what happens, don’t let go with your right hand.” I obeyed mechanically.
“Stand there,” he said, “and face me.” He pointed at a spot about a foot from the ledge of the thirty-foot cliff we were standing on. Holding the long end of the rope behind my posterior with my right hand, I turned to face Nate and turned my back to the cliff. “Put your feet square with your shoulders,” Nate said. I squared my feet and spread them a little wider in the tight blue climbing shoes and gripped the rope for dear life.
“It doesn’t feel natural to have your hand on the rope behind you, but that’s the only way you’re going to be safe,” Nate said. “You’re going to want to reach for the rope with your left hand, but if you’re falling, that won’t stop you; you’ll only end up with rope burn. Now talk to James.”
“What are the commands again?” I asked.
“You say, ‘James, on belay.’”
I looked over my shoulder and down. James looked very small from up here. He had the rope passed under his backside and held in his right hand.” James, on belay?” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
From the rocky clearing in the forest thirty feet below, my friend James replied loudly, “David! Belay is on!”
“Now you say ‘James, permission to rappel?’” Nate instructed calmly.
“James, permission to rappel?” I screamed.
“David, permission to rappel is granted!” came from below.
“‘Rappelling,’” Nate said.
“Rappelling!” I repeated.
From below, I heard “Rappel away!”
“Now slowly feed the rope through your hand and walk backwards,” Nate told me. I was gripping the rope for dear life, and the thought of loosening my grip one bit terrified me. I took a shaking step backwards. “Put your foot partway on the top of the ledge and partway off,” Nate said. I moved the other foot back. I was standing partially over thirty feet of air. “Now feed a little more rope through,” Nate said.
I stood there paralyzed. “If you slip, James will catch you,” Nate reassured me. “All he has to do is pull on the rope a little and you won’t be able to go down any further.” I couldn’t move, and my eyes were glued to the figure eight at my waist and the rope fed through the anchors in the rock a few feet in front of my feet.
“David, look at me.” Nate’s words pried me out of my terror. I looked up and met his eyes. “David, are you red, yellow, or green?”
“Huh?” I asked.
Nate suddenly realized that he hadn’t covered the stop light talk. He explained quickly, “Green means go; it means you’re completely comfortable. Yellow means you’re not comfortable, but you’re willing to go anyway. Red means you’re scared to death and don’t want to do it.”
It clicked. “Yellow,” I lied. I was red; burning blazing, fire-engine red. Everything sensible in me rebelled against the idea of walking backwards off of a cliff, but I intensely wanted to at the same time.
“Then put your weight into the rope,” Nate said. I slowly and nervously leaned back, over thirty feet of air, and put my weight into the rope. It stretched a little, but held me, and the harness dug into my waist. “Now feed it through,” Nate said. “Slowly!” I eased my hand forward from behind my posterior and toward my hip. I jerked backwards, hanging more of my weight over the void. Shaking, I slowly eased my grip on the rope and slid my hand back a few inches.
“Now do it again,” Nate commanded. I slid my hand forward again, and once again my body jerked back. “Take a step down,” Nate said. My feet were angled on the line between the horizontal and the vertical, and I put one completely onto the vertical. The thick rubber on the bottom of my climbing shoe gripped the hard stone. “Now take another step,” he said, “and keep feeding the rope through. I followed his instructions, still shaking.
Now both of my feet were planted against the side of the cliff. “Keep going, David,” Nate said. My hand was getting sweaty from its death-grip on the rope, and I hoped desperately that it wouldn’t slip. I kept going, one step at a time, one lurch backwards and one feeding-through of the rope at a time. Finally, I reached the bottom. Solid ground had never felt so good. The whole walk down had taken only about thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds of my life.
Next week, I would be teaching counselors how to rappel.