"Breathe. I can do this. I can do this."
My mantra was on repeat Saturday as my feet shuffled on the rooftop of the Wit Hotel, 27 stories above State Street downtown. My heart raced. My palms were clammy. My stomach had twisted into a tight knot. Anxiety had kicked in.
I was about to take the plunge, just like the more than 70 people who rappelled off the hotel Sunday as part of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago fundraiser.
The fundraiser began in 2009 as an annual event, but because of the demand, the association has made the Skyline Plunge fundraiser into an event twice a year. So far, they've already raised roughly $500,000 since 2009. The next opportunity will be Sept. 7. There's a $1,000 minimum fundraising requirement plus registration fees, and those interested can register at lungchicago.org/skyline-plunge.
"I think that anything that's sort of semi-unique, extreme, fun, exhilarating is definitely the trend in fundraising right now," said Gina Schwieger, association special events senior director. "I think that gone are the days of stuffy fundraiser sit-down dinners."
Well, this was definitely unique and extreme.
But the thought of sliding down 278 feet along the side of the hotel gave me nausea and, truth be told, tears of fear. No matter how many times I try to conquer my fear of heights through skydiving or ziplining, being up high still rattles me. My legs even get wobbly standing on a ladder to change a light bulb.
As my back was to the ledge, rope technicians checked that I was safely buckled into the snug harness that hugged my body around my waist, chest and thighs. With my helmet, gloves and radio, I was ready for the two-rope rappel. My brain tried not to forget what it had just learned: how to slide down, how far to lift the lever to control my descent down the rope, how to slow down, what to do if I suddenly went too fast, triggering my backup device to lock like a seatbelt.
I was told "no fancy movie bouncy stuff."
"Don’t worry," I thought. "I'm not brave enough to attempt any 'Mission Impossible' stunts."
But the toughest part was climbing over a metal railing, lowering my body weight to sit in an imaginary chair, trusting that the harness and ropes were safely secured to prevent me from falling to my death. The waiver acknowledged this was "inherently dangerous" and serious injury or death was a risk. Hopefully, neither would happen.
My bent legs shook like they had just done 100 squats at the gym as they tried to straighten and push off the building. In a moment, I went from standing vertically to standing horizontally. My teeth gritted together to force a smile and hide the scared look on my face for a photo.
My right hand let the rope pass through while my left hand gripped the lever, pulling it down to lower my body slowly toward the ground.
On the way down, my feet walked on the glass of hotel room windows. Some guests waved. A gust of wind brushed up against my back as I dangled slightly, swaying to the right.
Marina Towers and the Chicago River were to my left and the Chicago Theatre and CTA’s State/Lake station were to my right along with Robert Pitkin, the training manager for the fundraiser's rope and rappel experts, Over the Edge.
I was nervous, and Pitkin assured me that was normal.
"Most people freak out a little bit," Pitkin said. "There's varying degrees. But you did great up there. You didn't lock up. You didn't break down. You didn't vomit. We've seen it all."
Once my feet touched the ground, I beamed with pride after letting out a sigh of relief. The breathtaking views alone made the experience worthwhile.
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