Going Over The Edge: Rappelling 269 Feet Down a Skyscraper

A few weeks ago my boss called me into his office to ask whether I would be interested in representing our firm at a fundraiser for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee. I of course was happy to take part, especially once I learned that it happened to be their annual Over The Edge event in which the participants rappel off of the Omni in downtown Nashville.

I have discussed over and over and over and over that I am afraid of heights. However, I have also discussed my quest to overcome that fear by seeking out situations that make me second guess myself. So far, so good. If flying lessons turned my dread of air travel into love, then eventually, one day, I’ll be able to jump and fall off of things without hesitation (hopefully during some sort of planned excursion).

Before I went over the edge, we got a brief training session on how not to fall to our deaths or get stuck on the side of a building. I appreciated the tips.

I’m joking. I felt safe the entire time. There were lots of ropes and harnesses and gears and double and triple layer safety measures.

Before I could start my rappel, I had to crawl over some scaffolding to get to the edge of the building. This was surprisingly nerve-wracking considering what I was about to do.

However, the worst part was the first steps going down the building. It was a little hard to get started because, well, I weigh as much as a wet chihuahua. You control the rate of your descent with your weight and guiding rope through the belay. So, my size made it difficult to get horizontal with the wall.

When I started my descent, I was hanging from the side of the building, but still had my feet at the top of the ledge. This felt very unsettling. However, I felt completely secure once lowered myself down a bit and got my feet flat on the side of the building.

I fed the rope though the belay and I walked myself down the building, taking time to waive at my supporters below and the hotel guests who gathered at the windows to watch.

It only took a few minutes for me to completely lower myself down the 26 stories, but every second was thrilling.

The event was exactly what I hoped it would be. I had a wonderful time and we helped raise money for a wonderful organization in the process.

Over The Edge helps non-profit organizations throughout the world raise money for important causes like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. If you are interested in a chance to rappel down a building without getting arrested, keep an eye out for Over The Edge when it comes to your city.

Paragliding Over the Sequatchie Valley

I like to add some variety to my adventures. Some weeks my New Thing can be done during a quiet evening at home. Other weeks it involves running and jumping off of a cliff. This week was the latter. I have had my eye on paragliding since I first tried hang gliding a few years ago. I significantly preferred that peaceful experience to the adrenaline (and terror) filled falls involved with my adventures in skydiving and bungee jumping.

Paragliding Launch

After an amazing weekend of watching Tennessee beat the Florida Gators (Go Vols), I decided to take a detour down to Dunlap, Tennessee on the way home. Dunlap boasts that it is the “Hang Gliding Capital of the East” and has served as the home to the East Coast Hang Gliding Championships. Well, I think it is a pretty good spot for paragliding too.

dunlap-tennessee-paragliding-jump-site

I met Dave Hanning and Brain Petersen of Flying Camp at the top of Henson Gap, 2,300 feet above the Sequatchie Valley. It was a typical fall day in Tennessee, and by that I mean it was almost 100 degrees outside. However, it felt nice and cool in the shade at the top of the mountain. This was a relief as it took a few hours of waiting for the right wind conditions to be able to launch.

Paragliding Over Sequatchie Valley

I did a tandem flight, which means I was tethered to Brian (thank goodness) while he controlled the glider (again, phew). The launching process is done into the wind. When it was finally time to go, we stood at the edge of the cliff, glider laid out on the ground behind us, waiting for the right wind to hit. When the right gust came along, Brian pulled the glider and it caught the air and inflated behind us as we started to run forward.

Paragliding Launch

Within just a few steps the ground was no longer beneath our feet. It was what every kid who used a blanket as a “parachute” when jumping out of a tree house dreamed of. What? Was that just me?

paragliding-in-tennesee

The flight lasted around 40 amazing minutes. We soared back and forth near the launch site in search of a thermal. A thermal is a rising column of air that can increase your altitude as high as the cloud base (science!). Once you hit a thermal you fly in a circle, trying to find the strongest part where the air is rising the fastest.

paragliding

When we hit the thermal and started to rise the vario-altimeter started to beep signaling an altitude change. It sounded like the world was ending. Imagine the beeping sound a bomb makes in movies right before the hero defuses it.

paragliding-east-tennessee

However, it actually was a sign that we were rising approximately 2,000 feet above the original launch location. In the picture below, you can see Henson Gap far beneath us on the left. The day was clear and beautiful and we could easily see 50 miles away to the nuclear plant in Watts Bar. Before we landed, Brian fit in a few aerobatics which added some extra excitement to an already thrilling ride.

Paragliding in Dunlap Tennessee

Below is a video of our launch from the edge of the cliff:

And here is a video from the air as well as the landing:

Paragliding was a magical experience and one I certainly want to repeat. Although it took me a little while to settle my nerves, I felt completely safe and loved every minute of the ride. If you are looking for some adventure but sky diving or bungee jumping are a little too much for you to handle, then paragliding (or hang gliding) might be the right excursion for you.

Helicopter Ride Over the Lights of Las Vegas

My best friend and I finished or 3,000 mile road trip in Las Vegas (follow the blog to see a post on the trip next week). For me, Las Vegas is not about gambling, pools, and parties, it is about a endless possibilities of New Things to do. (See my previous Vegas posts on swimming with dolphins and taking a trapeze lesson).

Las Vegas Sky

My friend wanted to spend the day watching soccer so I went on my own hunt for how to fill my day. I decided on a helicopter ride, because why not? I started cold calling places to see where I could get a solo flight at the last minute. Skyline Tours delivered. Not only could they take me up, but they let me book my own private helicopter. I really don’t like to share.

Las Vegas Lights

I was given the option of flying “doors off,” which is exactly what it sounds like. There is nothing between you and the air. At first, I was hesitant about flying doors off and was going to opt out of it. However, I was persuaded otherwise and I am very glad for it.

Las Vegas Helicopter

Flying doors off was  exhilarating. It provided an unobstructed breathtaking view of the city below.

Las Vegas Aerial

We took off at the North Las Vegas Airport and flew down the length of one side of The Strip, looped around, and flew up the other side. We flew so close to the Stratosphere that it seemed like I could reach out and touch it.

Skyline Helicopter

This experience is one I would absolutely repeat, despite my fear of heights and flying.

Here is a video of my ride:

If you want to do your own tour of Las Vegas, visit Skyline Tours and they will give you a night you’ll never forget.

Bungee Jumping: 30 Seconds of Joy, Fear, and Adrenaline

When I was little, my mom asked me the old cliché, “If all of your friends jumped off of a bridge would you do it too?” Now that I am older, apparently I am the bad influence encouraging other kids to jump. A few days ago I texted my friend Cody out of the blue and asked him if he’d make the 3-hour drive with me to jump off of a 125-year-old bridge in Kentucky. Luckily he is as crazy as I am and agreed.

The day before we left, Cody realized our destination was in Eastern Time. I’ve lived in Nashville on and off for over 13 years and I am still not used to being in Central Time.  We left Nashville around 5:30 a.m. I am not a morning person. Yet, my excitement for the day was a good replacement for my morning coffee (although I had some of that too).

Young's High Bridge

Our jump was at the aptly named Young’s High Bridge in Tyrone, Kentucky, which spans 240ft (73m) above the Kentucky River. Vertigo Bungee owns the bridge and runs their bungee operation from it.

The idea of bungee jumping did not scare me. I’ve gone skydivinghang gliding, and flown a plane, so jumping off of a bridge felt like the next logical step. Fearing nothing, and being a bit full of myself, I signed up for a triple jump package that included a “head dip” into the water. Once I saw the murkiness of the river, I asked if I could just touch the water with my hands (called a “hand slap”) on my third jump instead. (The water is usually quite clear, but recent heavy rains flooded the river).

The number of bungee cords used depends on the weight of the jumper. Because I am rather small, they had to switch the cords out for me and I was the last person to go for the day. But, the weather was lovely and watching others jump made the time go by quickly.

Ready to Bungee Jump

When it was time for my first jump, I did not hesitate. I was excited and ready to go.

Bungee Jump Launch

As I stepped off of the platform I wondered if this was what Wile E. Coyote felt like when he realized the ground was no longer beneath him.

Bungee Jumping Leap

Suddenly I was flying through the air.

Bungee Free Falling

I had no way to tell which way was up.

Bungee Jumping River

It was hard to know when I was falling and when I was flying back up to the sky. The one thing I did know was that I absolutely loved it.

Bungee Jumping Selfie

Once I finally stopped bounding through the air, I hung by my feet spinning like a top above the river. It was like a little bonus ride.

Bungee Jumping Upside Down

You are probably wondering how we get back up to the bridge. No, they do not drag you up by your feet. They send down a rope which you attach to your harness and you are hoisted up head first. It is actually a rather nice ride to the top. I could have hung out there all day.

Bungee Return to the Top

Here is a video of the big jump:

Here is the same jump from my perspective:

Once I returned to the top, it was immediately time for jump number two. Despite loving it the first time, when I stepped toward the edge I was suddenly filled with terror. I just could not make myself do it again. I could not figure out why I could jump so easily the first time but be so certain that I could not do it a second time.

I had to sit down and collect myself. I used that as an opportunity to review the tape, so to speak, and convince myself that it was safe to go again. I refused to let the fear win. About 20 minutes later I was ready to step back out on the ledge. Alan from Vertigo Bungee, who I am convinced needs to be my personal life coach, soothed my nerves and got me back out on the ledge. I took a few deep breaths and jumped again.

This jump felt a bit more erratic than the first. I flew back up hitting the cords above me. The second jump did not fill me with the positive emotions that came with the first jump.

Bungee Jumping Rebound

Once I made it back up to the bridge, I felt completely disoriented. I had to sit down for a while as my head and stomach spun. I was utterly unable to move for what seemed like an eternity. I have never been prone to motion sickness so this was a new experience for me. However, I suppose if you spin around upside down long enough you are bound to feel sick.

I finally collected myself and Cody helped escort me back to the car. As we neared the end of the bridge I turned around to give it one last look. This was a horrible mistake. The simple act of turning my head was more than my tiny body could take. I made it to the edge of the bridge just in time to puke my guts out. Just writing about it now, I have to reach for the dramamine we picked up on the way home.

I still have one jump left in my package that I can use this season. I have not yet decided if I want to use it. At first, I thought that two jumps were more than enough for me, but in just 36 hours my opinion on that has softened.

Dramamine

While my jumps were not my first steps down my path to adventure and personal growth, they were important steps. I was able to cross one more thing off of my list that intimidated me. I strongly believe that all fears in our lives must be overcome. Whether it is heights, death, or getting your heart broken, we end up much happier when we learn to embrace both the journey and the fall.

My Skin Cancer Diagnosis—And Why You Should Get Checked Too

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. It was not something I ever expected to deal with. I don’t go to tanning beds, I don’t sun bathe, I cover up, and I always wear sunscreen. I thought I was doing everything right. I was doing everything right. Despite that, I still got skin cancer decades before the average person.

Before Skin Cancer Surgery

I first discovered the spot on my shoulder about two years ago after a day in the sun at Steeplechase. At the time, I thought it was just a rash or a scrape or some other innocuous weird human body thing and just ignored it (see below for a what-is-that-red-mark-on-my-shoulder-selfie). For the most part, it didn’t bother me, it didn’t seem to grow or change, and most of the time I barely noticed it. I assumed it was nothing.

Approximately a year later, I saw a Facebook post (caution: graphic photos) by a young woman named Tawny Willoughby. At just 21 years old Tawny got her first skin cancer diagnosis. After six years and several more occurrences, she shared her story to warn others. It was her post, and her description of her symptoms, that made me first suspect that the mysterious spot on my shoulder might actually be skin cancer.

I finally scheduled an appointment for myself a few months later. You might be asking yourself why it took me so long to go to a dermatologist to get checked out after I realized I might have skin cancer. The answer is simple: I am an idiot. I let things like work and fear and stubbornness get in the way of me taking care of myself. I don’t really have an excuse for it. Trust me, any excuses you have for not going aren’t very good either.

Skin Cancer Surgery

Basal cell carcinoma is caused by sun exposure. I used to think that skin cancer just appeared as oddly shaped moles. However, it can appear in many forms. Additional symptoms can include: rough or scaly red patches that do not heal or possibly bleed on and off or crust; patches with itchiness, tenderness, or pain; raised growths or lumps; pearly or waxy bumps; flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesions; and a long long list of other possibilities. Essentially, if it looks different, go get it checked.

The spot on my shoulder was just a red patch that looked relatively normal unless I spent a day in the sun. When that occurred, it would become sore and raw. I committed the cardinal sin of looking up my symptoms online. It seemed like classic basal cell carcinoma. A trip to the dermatologist and a biopsy confirmed my suspicions. When the nurse called to tell me the news I responded by excitedly shouting “internet diagnosis for the win!”

The solution? Surgery.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

I am recovering nicely from my surgery. The first few days were a bit of a pain because my movement was rather limited. I have two layers of stitches (internal and external). But in a few weeks I’ll be good as new. Plus, I’ll have a fun new scar on my shoulder that will make me look dangerous.

I am lucky. Basal cell carcinoma is pretty treatable. It is malignant, but slow moving and rarely metastasizes. It is basically the pot head of the cancer world. However, studies show basal cell and other skin cancers are linked to higher risks of other forms of cancer (such as breast, colon, bladder, liver, lung, brain, prostate, stomach and pancreas). I already had a pretty high incidence of cancer in my family’s history. This is one more reason for me to be vigilant and get my annual checks.

I hope this post will motivate you to go get a screening. If my cancer had not been on my shoulder, I might not have seen it and could have let it grow for years unchecked. It would have turned a very treatable situation into a disastrous one. It doesn’t matter how young or “careful” you think you are, go see a dermatologist. It could save your life. (And please share this post to encourage your friends to do the same).

Return from Hiatus

It has been a while since my last update. For the past few months I have been preparing for my first trial. It required my full attention and left little time for anything else. Unfortunately, on the list of life priorities, the blog fell below all of the other things I had to do such as occasionally eating and sleeping. (Although, now that I think of it, the trial was possibly the mother of all New Things). Work has slowed down for the time being, so I hope to cram in as many activities as possible before things pick up again. (And yes, we won.)

The absence of New Things in my life made me realize how much I love my adventures and how energizing they are. I realized that not having a hobby is indeed my hobby, and I have missed it quite a bit.

Over the past few months several friends have asked me about my list and have said they have been inspired to make their own for 2015. While looking at other lists can be helpful, examining your own goals is the best place to begin. Your list should of course have fun bucket list items you have always wanted to try, but the most rewarding things are the ones you think you are too afraid to try or think you will not be able to accomplish.

Speaking from my own experience, I can say that taking a flying lesson has been one of the most fulfilling undertakings yet. Saying that I was a nervous flyer is an understatement. While I never had a full mid-air breakdown, I was convinced (despite knowing I was perfectly safe) that the tiniest bit of turbulence was going to send us spiraling towards the Earth. I spent most of my flights holding the armrests for dear life as if I could will the plane to stay in the air. However, the flying lesson, which was terrifying in itself, had a sort of time-release effect on me. I learned a lot about how planes work and could feel how getting close to the clouds affected the movement of the wings. Now, I fly for work fairly regularly and when turbulence hits I just look up from my laptop, look out the window, think “ah, clouds,” and go back to my typing (ok watching TV). I don’t think I would have that peace of mind had I not forced myself to take a lesson.

I hope you all will keep reading despite my hiatus, and stay with me on this journey. Somehow, along the way, the blog has received visits from people in 158 countries. That is astonishing. If anyone out there has been inspired to make his or her own list, please share it with me. I’d love to see it.

Blog World Map 2015

PS: If any of you know one of the 57,000 people who live in Greenland, send them my blog. They take up a lot of space on the map.

An Aerophobe Learns To Fly

Over the last year and a half my mission to try a New Thing every week has led to a lot of exciting adventures. Many of them have involved pushing past my fears and doing things that make me uncomfortable. One of my biggest fears is flying. I hate it. I really really hate it. Logically I know I am perfectly safe, but at the first sign of turbulence I become convinced that the plane will suddenly become aware that it is a 500,000 pound metal death machine, that gravity exists, and then plummet to the Earth.

I’ve been trying to work on my fear. Last year I went skydiving for my birthday. This was counterproductive. There is something about being dragged out of an aircraft the size of my car that seemed to only reinforce my fear. A few months later I tried hang gliding. This yielded better results. This is likely because we were dragged behind a plane and not actually in one.

I don’t like to be held back by my fears. Since knowledge is power, I decided to celebrate my birthday by taking a flying lesson. When I told my friends my plan a surprising number of them replied, “like, in an airplane?” When I asked what else I could be doing, one friend said he thought I’d be more likely to don a flying squirrel wingsuit than willingly get in an aircraft. He had a valid point.

I woke up the morning of my birthday and drove to Nashville International Airport for my lesson with Nashville Flight Training. As I drove past the airport I could see the commercial jets taking off. This immediately led to nausea and elevated blood pressure.

Cessna 172

When I arrived at the hanger I met my pilot Erick. I was expecting some “this is how planes stay in the air” training, but we went straight to the flight. We flew a 1974 Cessna 172M Skyhawk II. I don’t know too much about it other than it had 160hp, a propeller, and red velour seats.

About to take off

Erick let me take the pilot’s seat. When we got to the plane he said that I wouldn’t just fly the plane, but I would do the take off. That was an uncomfortable amount of responsibility. Especially considering the number of flight instruments, buttons, switches, and knobs.

Cessna Instruments

He gave me the basic rundown how the plane worked. There are pedals that control the brakes (when pressed together) and the rudder (when pressed individually). The rudder controlled the direction of the plane on the ground. Steering with my feet was really bizarre and surprisingly hard. The plane has to follow the yellow painted line on the runway and I struggled to keep it straight.

Take off

When we were ready for take off, Erick said that he would handle the acceleration, but I would be the one lifting the plane off of the ground. When the airspeed indicator reached 60 knots (69 mph) I was to pull back on the yoke lifting the plane into the air.

As we accelerated down the runway my hands went into a death grip on the yolk and I kept my eyes on the airspeed indicator. When the guage hit 60 I slowly pulled the yoke toward me. The wheels lifted off of the ground and we were on our way.

Aerial view of Nashville 2

Having the controls in my hands was a total head trip. I was convinced that I was going to do something horribly wrong. I knew Erick wouldn’t let that happen, but all I could do was imagine accidentally doing something to the controls that would send us spiraling to the ground. This was only intensified when we flew below a cloud which resulted in (very minor) turbulence. But for me, it signaled that the end was inevitably near.

Aerial view of Nashville

The airport isn’t very far from downtown Nashville, especially when you aren’t stuck in traffic. We headed towards the city to practice some turns. I didn’t enjoy that part. I really just want to get in a plane and go straight. That would be my ideal plane ride.

 
Erick showed me how to determine whether the plane was level with the horizon. Obviously you can check visually, but if you can’t see the horizon there is a turn coordinator to show whether the plane was parallel to the ground. I don’t think I took my eyes off of it the entire flight. I was really excited that it existed. I think commercial jets should be equipped with them in the seat backs.

After a few turns, Erick showed me how to use the rudder to turn the aircraft. But frankly I was so freaked out by what I was doing already that I told him I wasn’t comfortable adding to it.

Pilot selfie

Finally, Erick took back control of the aircraft so I could take some pictures. And with it came utter relief. When I let go of the yoke my hands were cramped from my white knuckle death grip.

Happy flying

Erick was a lot calmer than I was. He even took time for a mid-air selfie. He guided us back to the airport and ended with the smoothest landing I’ve ever had in a plane (thank goodness).

 
I’ve definitely eliminated “not being in control” as a factor for my fear. Even when I was flying the aircraft I was terrified. Once Erick took the controls I felt much better. Well, better. My fear is firmly based on the fact that humans were not intended to take part in the miracle of flight. That said, I will continue to work towards not letting my fear control me, one terrifying flying death machine at a time. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll take another flying lesson.

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