The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

October 14, 2013

Rappellers are looking forward to Bridge Day

After an exhilarating descent by rope from the catwalk of the 876-foot New River Gorge Bridge to the water below, a trip that offers an unmatched opportunity to see one of West Virginia’s most stunning scenes with the added bonus of several minutes to enjoy it, Robert Griffith got on the bus to go back to the top and do it all over again.

There, he encountered one of the better-known types of outdoor enthusiasts that have given international acclaim to Bridge Day, which this year takes place on Saturday — the BASE jumpers who free fall off the structure with only a few seconds to open a parachute.

“He looked at my gear and asked if I was one of those rappellers that slid down a rope,” said Griffith, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the West Virginia University School of Pharmacy.

“When I said yes, he said, ‘God, I could never do that. What happens if your rope breaks?’ I said, ‘The same thing that happens if your chute doesn’t open.’”

That said, Griffith still feels much better having something to hold on to as he makes his way down to the river.

“Seriously, my rope will hold hundreds of pounds without breaking and I’m firmly attached,” he continued. “He’s attached to air.”

As a rappeller, Griffith takes advantage of Bridge Day in a different way than the BASE jumpers. Instead of jumping from the side of the bridge, the rappellers go to the catwalk underneath and shimmy to the bottom of the gorge using ropes that have been affixed to the structure and hang down about 850 feet.

This gives them more time to see the sights, as well as the parachutists, who zip by them with their chutes making a loud snapping noise in the air.

“Dangling there in the middle of the New River Gorge, the view is spectacular,” Griffith said.

As Mary Davis put it, “You get a view that you have to rappel to get.”

Griffith actually got into rappelling through his love of caving. During his graduate school years at Ohio State, he took a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and was hooked.

“They had something called ‘the Mother Nature Tour,’ which was going into a cave the way Mother Nature intended it,” he said.

That meant in the dark with a head lamp.

“I was the only one in the group who wanted to go. They made you crawl through a culvert. If you couldn’t fit in or got scared, you couldn’t go.”

Neither one of those things happened, and so when Griffith wound up in Morgantown in August 1987, he eventually joined the Monongahela Grotto Club, a group of fellow cavers.

This led to rappelling because sometimes, in order to access a cave, spelunkers need to use a rope and climbing gear.

“In many caves in West Virginia, the entrance is in a sinkhole,” Griffith said. “So you’re walking across a field and there is a hole in the ground that goes straight down. The only way to get in the cave is to rig a rope and rappel into the cave.

“Other caves, you crawl into them, and once you’re in, you find this big pit. It can be 10 to 100 feet deep in the cave.”

Griffith and Davis met each other at WVU, where she works as a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

Davis liked to kayak and Griffith liked to cave, so when they started going out, they tried each other’s hobbies. Luckily for Griffith, Davis took to caving, which, because of the confined spaces and darkness, does not appeal to everybody.

“It’s one of those things you either love or hate,” he said.

About six or seven years ago, Griffith and Davis and other members of the Mon Grotto Club decided to rappel off the New River Gorge Bridge on Bridge Day (www.officialbridgeday.com).

Bridge Day began in 1980 — three years after the 1977 completion of the historic span — when two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge and then jumped from the bridge into the gorge, said Cindy Dragan, chairwoman of Bridge Day.

Although the event is better known for the BASE jumpers, in 1981, there were 28 rappellers and 10 parachutists who descended from the New River Gorge Bridge, Dragan said. These days, about 450 jumpers and 20 to 23 teams of 350 rappellers from an average of 42 states and 10 countries participate.

“The logistics of accommodating both BASE jumpers and rappellers has been worked out over the years and is relatively easy as the BASE jumpers jump from the top of the bridge and the rappellers slide down ropes anchored from the catwalk under the bridge,” Dragan added.

“The rappellers’ ropes are anchored on the south side of the bridge to make sure they have their own space and are out of the drop zone the BASE jumpers are using.”

When the Mon Grotto Club members decided to tackle Bridge Day, they traveled to Mystic Falls Cave near Chattanooga, Tenn., to complete a 250-foot free rappel, which is the minimum height requirement to do the 800-foot-plus rappel at the New River Gorge Bridge.

Rappellers wear a harness around their waist and legs like a rock climber and attach a rappelling rack, a friction device that holds them on the rope and allows them to speed up or slow down via a U-shaped bar through which the rope is snaked.

Then, on the morning of Bridge Day, an advance team goes to the structure’s catwalk, setting up the 850-foot-long ropes that the members will use to descend during the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. time frame allowed.

“It’s almost like a ski lift,” Griffith said. “You rappel down the rope, walk down beside the track, take the bus — you ride the same bus as the BASE jumpers — and go back to the top and do it again.”

The length of time it takes to descend depends on how fast or slow the rappeller goes.

“The first time, it probably took me — I didn’t go very fast — it probably took me 15 minutes,” Griffith said. “I go faster now. The first year, I only got in three times. Many team members go down the rope slow.

“Probably the fastest I’ve seen someone do it is young males on the team. Some of them go down so fast, it smokes. Two minutes.”

Sometimes the opposite occurs, and someone gets scared and stops.

“And they get rescued,” Griffith said. “They get frozen on the rope and the Bridge Day safety people go down with another rope and attach themselves to that person who is scared and lower them down.”

When Davis first went to Bridge Day to rappel, she knew that once she walked out onto the catwalk, the possibility existed that she would not go through with it.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I was too afraid,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”

Usually, on Bridge Day, Davis said, “It’s a beautiful fall weekend and a beautiful time to be out enjoying the beauty that is the New River Gorge Bridge and that we have so much of here in West Virginia.”

Mary Wade Burnside is a writer for the Times-West Virginian in Fairmont.

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