by Sue Ann Rybak

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of heights. The mere thought of climbing to the roof and looking down used to make me sick to my stomach. But, thanks to family and friends, I gradually became less fearful. Just the same, I was never one to crave the adrenaline rush associated with plunging to earth.

So when I recently told my friends I was going to go rappelling down the side of a building, they thought I had lost my mind – especially since my husband fell off a three-story scaffolding almost two years ago. When I told one of the Local’s editors, his reply was “Why?”

Exactly. Why would any sane person rappel down the side of a building?

Initially, when I first heard about the Philadelphia Outward Bound School fund-raisers last year, I was terrified. But, when the opportunity arose again, I decided to take a leap of faith – literally. Last Thursday, Sept. 12, I participated in Outward Bound Philadelphia’s Building Adventure ‘s practice rappel at the Russell Byers Charter School at 19th and Arch streets. Just in case,I decided to chicken out, I made my husband come to record my once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Participants in Outward Bound Philadelphia’s Building Adventure will rappel down 31 stories on Oct. 18 from the top of 1 Logan Square in Center City. The organizer assured me that two stories would be a cinch. Easy for her to say – she wasn’t rappelling!

Finally, the big day arrived. Strangely, I wasn’t nervous. Before rappelling, I interviewed a few participants, most of whom rappelled in last year’s fund-raiser. Before taking the plunge, I decided to watch someone who participated in last year’s event. I thought this must be a piece of cake for her compared to dangling from 30 stories.

Then it happened. After being fastened in the harness, you have to step up onto the edge, feet half on the edge – before jumping into the air. You literally just jump off the edge. Well, she froze. Once up there, she twisted halfway around, and her brain probably screamed, “Stop, you are jumping into nothing!”

“Oh my God,” I thought, I can’t do this. I forgot to mention I am extremely uncoordinated. In first grade, I was one of the few kids who had gym everyday. Walking the balance beam less than a foot off the ground was an issue for me.

I suddenly had visions of me losing my balance and falling sideways. When my husband fell, he broke his back and several bones in his feet. Before the accident, he was extremely agile and sometimes would rock climb without ropes – not the most brilliant idea – but he never lost his balance or flinched. His nickname was Spiderman. I, on the other hand, could barely walk a low balance beam without losing my balance. What had possessed me to volunteer to do this? Was I having a mid-life crisis?

I could feel my legs shake and sweat on my brow. After a friend went up to reassure the young woman that rappelling down two stories was nothing compared to what she did last year, she elegantly rappelled down the side of the building.

Then the love of my life, who early joked he would take pictures of me slamming against the side of the building, said you’re next. Easy for him to say – his feet would be firmly planted on the ground while I risked my life dangling from a rope. Well, there was no backing out now without looking like a complete chicken. My mother’s words suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Apparently, the answer is “yes.”

As I walked up the stairs to the roof wearing my harness and helmet, kindergartners waved to me. Oh, great, I thought I can’t chicken out or I will be totally humiliated.

Finally, after being hooked up to the ropes and learning how to gently release the rope so I could slowly scale down the wall. It was time to step to the edge. I stepped onto a orange milk crate and almost fell off. Great, I thought, I can’t even balance on the plastic milk crate. The young woman, who probably weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet, said, “Don’t worry I got you?” My life now depended on a woman who could be knocked over by the wind. She held my hand as I stepped up to the edge – heels hanging over, my right hand grasping the rope, the other holding onto her hand.

OK, I can do this. Just keep your legs wide apart and jump backwards. And without thinking, I did. And, miraculously, the ropes held and, like Spiderwoman, I slowly rappelled down the wall. Hey, I am doing it! The moment I hit the ground I had a huge adrenaline rush. I was never so happy to have my feet on solid ground.

I had conquered my fear and, believe it or not, wanted to do it again. I even resolved to participate in next year’s event. And once this is published, I can’t back out. But I am not worried: I am Spiderwoman.

For more information about Outward Bound Philadelphia’s Building Adventure, go to

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