Glancing over my left shoulder I gauged the speed of the sun seeming to fall down over the distant ridge that outlined the Red River Gorge. This was more than just a beautiful sunset from Eagle Point Buttress, overlooking a sharp bend in the river nearly 300 feet below; it was a race to get our team to the bottom for much needed water and to set up camp before the rain caught up to us. Getting stuck at the top in a downpour would have not been a pretty sight, so we deemed it safer to rappel in the dark than to attempt a trail descent in the rain… best decision of the trip. Two down and we still had enough daylight for our next participant, nervous and rightly so—it’s not a small task to back yourself off a 200-foot vertical cliff on a rope the size of your ring finger. I managed the rope carefully over the rugged edge where each rappeler would plant their last foot before hanging freely in the open air to make the rest of their descent into the thick canopy of oak and pine below several feet from the rock that piled up into a massive bluff.
My station lie about 15 feet from the flat top of the bluff, where Topher and I were transferring guys from their initial rappel line to the main line that would get them to the bottom. From my vantage point I could see that this young man was not going to make it this time around. This was no place to face fear, not under these particular circumstances. Shadows now emerging from each object, I gave the universal hand signal across my neck to get him off the line and move on to the next guy. Relieved to not be backing off into the abyss of shadows, he gladly retreated to the safety of the rock that held his pack quite well. Feeling a bit disappointed that we couldn’t get everyone on the team down the second rappel of the trip, I began strategizing an exit plan to keep the adventure alive.
Topher and I leaned out on our ropes one last time staring into the blackness below that enveloped the last rappeler of the day, then dropped the thick line to the ground in one clean shot through the thick leaves that were on the verge of morphing into a brilliant color show for miles in all directions. We hauled ourselves up to our last, but certainly not least participant waiting for us at the top and put him to work. “Ever coil a rope?” Topher asked without hesitation. “No.” Then Topher started working with him to clean the extensive anchor that kept us safe during all this high adventure. I led the way through the wooded rock-top, only our headlamps providing enough lumens to steer clear of any danger. Tying in on our 150-foot static line we used friction hitches to descend what looked like a jagged river bed; moist, sharp rocks the size of a man’s fist littering the trail (if you could call it that). I fell almost immediately, which may have been encouraging depending on the perspective, and glad that I was also tied in with my auto-block and locking carabiner. Four rope pitches of torturous descending made me desire the rappel option again, but we were in it now. Dinner was going to be late tonight, maybe 10:30 I figured… I’m going in that river; I don’t care how late it is. Following the path of the brave folks who have wandered in this wood before us, we made our way to rendezvous with the rest of the team, who had dinner nearly cooked.
Sitting down for the first time in 14 hours felt right and we began sharing our highs and lows for the day. I was expecting some comments about the rappel that day, but was caught entirely off guard when our brave soul who opted for the hike out stated, “My high was getting on that rope, because at least I tried… and coming down with Matt and Topher was awesome” (my paraphrase as I remembered it). My wife and I have been talking a lot lately about our plans, our dreams and shortcomings; there are some fears that hold me back, and life can quickly cloud the vision of things like ministry and remembering what discipleship is all about. I am encouraged by this young man who, knowing that this cliff would freak the snot out of him, and it did, tied in fully prepared to give it his best shot. When I look at my own life and areas that I know I need to change, bend or push myself off a cliff I’m not sure I’m even willing to “tie in” if you will. The question came up last night and I asked myself, Jen and now I am asking you: what is one thing that you know that you should be doing and you are not doing it? For me it is taking back our Sabbath day once a week and making that day about my family before God fellowshipping with other believers to push us all deeper in our discipleship journey with the Father. How about you? If you don’t want to tell me, please tell someone… tie into that rope and weigh the line, it might be your highlight of 2021. [the pic at the top is our first descent with our participant facing his fear head-on and completing a 180-foot rappel!]
(and I did jump in the river before bed at 2am in case you were wondering… second best decision of the trip!)