Bridge Day Rappel
New River Gorge Bridge - Fayetteville, WV - 1985
Before I even begin with this tale, I will refer you to the disclaimer under the menu tab "Legal." Please read the disclaimer and realize that this story is both dated and reflects only my individual experience. It is not a "how to" for any rappel and I've left out the technical guts as this is something one should have real time hands on training for.
When it comes to rappels, I think it is hard to beat a beautiful day of fall colors and people rappelling and base jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Following my introduction to the Colorado 14'ers in college, I relocated to Maryland for my first mining job and needless to say, the real mountains of the west were far far away. Something had to fill the gap and a serious caving habit fit the bill. Over the following five or six years, I traveled with a merry band to West Virginia on a weekly basis to plumb the depths of the the Friar's Hole Cave system, Pendleton County's Hellhole, virgin Scott Hollow Cave, and numerous other dark and inviting caverns.
We were a general lot but over time we trended toward the tougher trips involving either substantial time and distance underground or the pursuit of vertical routes. We began doing pits up to 300 feet deep, initially ascending with prussik knots and later, as our budgets allowed, we graduated to Jumar, CMI and Gibbs ascenders concocted into Texas sit stand and ropewalker arrangements. We eventually added the more challenging routes to our tick list, doing the drop in Cass Cave not long after another fellow had expired in the waterfall, taking on the Canadian Hole entrance of Friar's Hole and its chain of plunging pools and of course planning the trip to Mexico to do the ultimate rappel, the 1200 foot Sotano Golindrinas. We began planning the Mexico trip but before we took on the biggest cave rappel of all, we wanted to have at least completed one very long rappel and ascent. The generally accepted test piece of the time seemed to be the New River Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. For readers unfamiliar with this span, it is an incredible piece of engineering bridging the New River Gorge in the southwest part of the state. The Gorge is a mecca for outdoor activities, including white water kayaking and rafting, rock climbing, train watching, and hiking. Catch the Gorge in any season and you will be impressed but the fall colors can be exceptional. Better yet, on one day of the year, the bridge is partially shut down to car traffic and base jumpers are allowed to plummet from the deck of the bridge to the bank of the river 860 feet below. Those seeking to rappel may also slide down and climb up a series of ropes set up from the maintenance catwalk beneath the deck structure.
Now we had knowledge of a rappel that would prep us for Mexico, but we did not have 900 feet of rope nor a permit to hang it from the bridge on that particular day in October. Needless to say, the authorities are not going to allow a web of ropes to hang from the span without some degree of organization. The number of ropes was limited to about ten and each group placing a rope could have about 8 members, totaling about +/- 80 rappel spots for the event. My caving partner had a connection and managed to find us two spots on a rope sponsored by the Parkersburg, WV Grotto of the NSS. We needed only to purchase our respective share of their rope, which was being purchased for their group to do the Mexico rappel. The cost PMI static line at the time was a bit over $0.50 per foot and our individual shares came to about $65.00 each in exchange for which we got to join their Bridge Day permit. For the experience, this was a small price and we were thankful for their willingness to allow us to tag along.
We now had a plan, a spot on a rope and all I needed to do was find a way from rural Washington State to Baltimore on the second Friday of October to meet my partner for the ride to Fayetteville. The hang up lay in the fact that my employer had asked me to take a temporary assignment in Washington lasting from the last week of August until the end of November. A plum job on the dry side of North Cascades National Park and within easy reach of Banff, Hells Canyon, and the Cascade Range. The only problem was this one weekend I really wanted to be in Baltimore instead. Having attended the Colorado School of Mines, I had some familiarity with ex-patriot work and I drew the appropriate parallel and explained that my taking the job in Washington would have to be subject to the provision of a round trip ticket to Baltimore at a time of my choosing so that I could attend to "personal business." Of course I suggested that a visit mid-job to the home office would be prudent opportunity to review the course of the project with upper management . . . it worked.
I left remote Okanogan County on Thursday afternoon and made the three hour drive to Spokane to overnight before catching a flight to Baltimore the next morning. The Friday flight was uneventful, i.e. back in the pre 9/11 days when flying was still a pleasure, and my partner picked me up at the Baltimore Airport for the drive to West Virginia. We arrived in the early evening and found our team in the campground located on the north side of the bridge. We did the introduction thing and got organized for the rappel to follow the next day.
For any one unfamiliar with Bridge Day, it is a huge event. In 1985, it drew 100,000 people for the single day, 500 base jumpers, 80 rappellers, and 3 bungee jumpers. Two of the four lanes of the span are closed to traffic and everyone has the opportunity to walk across the bridge, eat popcorn and cotton candy, and gawk at those of us who planned to step off into the gap separating the bridge from the ground far below. That works out to be 171 people per potential splat.
We sorted our gear, which was really quite minimal, a stainless steel rappel rack, an ascending system, and a Amway squirt bottle full of water. Seemed like everyone had such a squirt bottle, some planning for fast rappels with cooling en route and then the rest of us who seemed to be more in the "just in case" or "seems like a good idea" or "monkey see - monkey do" mode.
Needless to say, everyone planned to rappel the span but only about a third of the participants planned to ascend back up their rope to the bridge above we were two of those who planned to do so. My ascent system was a rope walker utilizing two Gibbs ascenders, a chest box to hold me to the rope, and a spare ascender as a third connection point, i.e. back-up. For this task I chose a handled ascender tied to my seat harness. Of course we all wore helmets to fend off any fast moving soda or beer bottles that could have made an appearance anytime.
The game plan called for us all to meet at the northern approach as a team and lug the rope, about 80 lbs worth, to our assigned position. Once rigged, the rope would be carefully lowered to the ground below and then everyone would have the chance to rappel and then return to the top on the shuttle bus making the round trip from bottom to top for the mass of base jumpers. Everyone could then make a second rappel, having gotten the hang of it after the first rope and then those of a mind to skip the bus ride and climb back up the rope could do so. We met at the set time and walked the narrow, perhaps 24" wide grated catwalk to our assigned point. It was not a short hike as we would rappel from the far side of the center of the span and this bridge is the better part of 3000+ feet long. A number of us shouldered portions of the rope that had been divided into four connected coils for the walk.
Once at our assigned point, the rope was tied into a structural member and its length was lowered to the ground far below. Once the rope was in position, my partner and I waited for our turn to rig to the line and descend. Having never rappelled from this height before, I took in the methods of the other members of the team who had done this before. This rappel was 100% free, no rock wall to walk down, just lots of rope hanging in free space. As we waited our turn, we watched the base jumpers plunge from the deck above at a rate of one every 20 seconds or so. Their trip to the river bank was faster than ours, about 8 seconds from start to finish, as compared to, well . . . we did not know how long it would take us, we'd never done this before.
When our turn came, we pretty much had observed the drill from the rest of the team. We got a another team member to help pull some slack in the rope, about 80 pounds of it is hanging down there, so we couldn't just reach out and grab a bight of rope to quickly thread through your rappel device. Instead my partner pulled a few feet of slack and while standing firmly on the catwalk, I rigged the rack and then, when all was ready, I climbed over the rail and hung from the rope. I learned to rappel in college, the army way, i.e. a swiss seat and carabiner but this was no short quickie rappel and I had since learned safer methods for both short and long drops. I knew the rack inside out but still stepping out into 860 feet of nothing does cause one to give some thought to the action, for just a second perhaps. Once I was on the rope, my partner let the rope down to hang free and I prepared to start the descent.
I'm not going to relate the details of rigging the rack, selecting and manipulating brake bars or the nusances of braking. Instead, if you are going to take on this long rappel, get some good hands on advice and do the drop with some folks who know what they are doing. The height makes for a different set of rules . . . in other words, this is not the same as rappelling 120 feet seven times in a row.
After about twelve minutes on rappel, I touched down on the ground below, having dropped at an overall rate of a bit over one foot per second. A bit of time on the rope, but admittedly I did stop to take photos of scenery and base jumpers along the way. Having never done a rappel like this, I finished satisfied with the drop and confident that I could safely do it again, without the camera taking up any time. My partner followed and reached the ground after a similarly slow sightseeing descent. We gathered our gear and walked to the bus shuttling parachutists back for another jump. Curiously, we sat across from a fellow holding billows of parachute in his lap who was staring intently at our gear. We conversed and he noted that in his humble opinion trusting one's life to a piece of nylon rope was the most risky thing he had ever witnessed. I asked in response whether he ever had doubts about his chute opening and he assured me that would not happen as he packed it himself and there was no chance of failure. Confidence, or perhaps insanity, took all forms that day.
We trudged back to the far side of the bridge and back down around the abutment to the catwalk below for the walk back to the rope. We took our place in the rotation and after another hour or so, we were again on the rope headed for the bottom of the gorge. Having been through this evolution once before, we were more confident and we both made it to the bottom at a quicker pace. The methodology of the drop remained the same and at the bottom we snapped the brake bars off the rope and came free of the line. However, this time we were not planning to take the bus back to the bridge above, we were going back up the rope, along with one other person in the group.
Once again, we were not sure how long this would take, but we figured it could not take more than 45 minutes or so based on our previous ascents and a healthy extra bit of time in case we got tired half way up. We were both using Cuddington style ropewalker systems and as expected, the first 30 or 40 feet can be a hassle as there is not enough rope weight to allow the Gibbs ascenders to move smoothly up the rope. For us, 30 or 40 feet was classic Texas sit stand territory but that method was certainly not suitable for the 800+ feet that would follow the slow start.
My partner held tension and I made it past the slack part and the system began to work as designed. I decided before I started that I wanted to do this a a not stop ascent to see if I could and to find out just how long it would take me to climb that distance. I climbed on steadily but also noticed that an older fellow, who had started when I was up about 250 feet, was passing me on a parallel line . . . I was impressed with his speed and style.
I got to the top in 28 minutes and thought that was a good time. My partner followed and soon enough he too was safely over the rail. The event was over for us and while we waited for the last climber to make it to the top I walked over to chat with the older fellow who did such a fine job on the climb and who clearly put me in my place on the style competition. I asked his age and he said he was in his mid 50's . . I asked his time and he told me 22 minutes, "a bit slow today" as his record was 18 minutes. He asked my name and then introduced himself as Bill Cuddington . . the inventor of the rope walking system I just used for the climb. Its a small world.
We pulled the rope back to the catwalk and formed enough coils to spread the weight among four of us for the long walk to the far side of the bridge. The day was over and we had met the test of the New River Gorge Bridge Rappel and walked off with the knowledge that we could handle the big pit in Mexico when the time came. We joined the throng of people on the deck above and watched the base jumpers dive from the span . . . and we ate hot dogs . . . and we talked of the rappel and just how much fun it had been.
On Monday morning, I walked into the conference room and the Vice President asked if I had taken care of my personal business over the weekend. I'd been with the company for a year or so and I was known for having interesting pursuits so he took a chance and asked just what it was that he had footed the bill for me to do. True to form, I told him that I had to fly back from the West Coast to rappel the New River Gorge Bridge . . .