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Paul Dean

It's as Easy as Falling Off a Cliff

January 03, 1987|Paul Dean

Joe Decenzo, waiter, said he'd stay at the bottom of the cliff. To catch anything that fell off. Or anyone.

John Dratz, attorney, noted that he had examined the assets of the organizer of our adventure. He would not be worth suing.

I looked up and formed a loathing for the leering, vertical face of Point Dume. Is that pronounced Doo-may?

"Doom," Dratz said, as in tragic fate. Thanks.

And so humor shivered on the gallows as we who could have slept late huddled beneath the 80-foot scarp of Point Dume to attempt as sport what Delta Force, paramedics, SWAT teams and Indiana Jones do only in emergencies. Rappelling.

You know. It's that one-rope free-fall where men-chimps bound down vertical drops such as canyons, the Eiger and hostage-filled embassies.

I've always harbored two sharp phobias about rappelling. What if a snagged rope becomes a drawstring squeezing the rappellee into a six-inch waistline? What if you leave the palms of both hands smoldering and stuck to the rope?

Steve Staley, 25-year-old founder and chief instructor of Rappelling Adventures of Beverly Hills, understands such anxieties. "It's not every day," he concedes, "that somebody has you step into a diaper and jump backwards off a cliff."

Staley, however, has been doing it almost every day for years. From cliffs, fire towers, helicopters and railroad trestles. As an airborne ranger, he rappelled into Grenada. As a civilian, he has found it to be inexpensive therapy, a quick fix for droopy adrenaline. And a much better conversation piece than jogging. In two months, Rappelling Adventures (213-652-6879) has taught 50 students how to make like cat burglars. For $50, Staley provides the training, a full day of rappelling at Point Doom or Chatsworth's Stoney Point, ropes and a diaper.

"I would like to think I'm leading the evolution of rappelling, turning it into a sport," Staley explained, now a between-careers bartender at a Hollywood club.

"You don't have to be athletic to do it, you don't have to be strong, you don't have to be young." You also don't have to be stupid. "Because rappelling really looks more dramatic and dangerous than it is."

Then why, blanching atop Point Dume, do I want to spit up? Only condors and King Kong would be comfortable up here. Knees tend to ignore sharp commands from the brain. It must be altitude sickness.

But young, brash Decenzo ("I'm an aspiring thrill seeker") already had shinnied down. Dratz ("I'm fairly physical and like to try things") was dangling his legs over the cliff edge and actually yawning. Down below, Michelle Lipps ("I like to challenge my fears and I'm afraid of heights") was buckling up for her second session at this.

Shamed by peers, fears and one female, I shuffled to the edge. Staley repeated his three-minute lesson. Thigh and waist harness secure. Rope through a belt-mounted carabiner with one turn as a friction lock. Gloves on, braking hand in small of the back.

"Don't be afraid of looking where you're stepping. Now, over the edge backwards with me and just walk down . . . "

Sure. But you do it. Over the ledge separating the horizontal from the vertical. Into space. With this grip, you could arm wrestle rigor mortis. C'mon knees, listen up.

Then you find the illusion in it. With back to the beach below, it's difficult to look down. To look up is to be encouraged by where you've been. Dead ahead, eye level, is a vertical wall that your body position converts to a safe, familiar horizontal plane.

You do indeed just walk down.

Everybody does it. Twice. There isn't a skinned knuckle in the bunch. By his third descent, Decenzo is a pendulum bouncing around the cliff face in an acceptable imitation of James Bond.

Boss Staley, of course, can't let it pass.

He treks to the top. He dives off. Face down and spread-eagled. Three flying, terrifying leaps to the beach. There are rope burns across his T-shirt.

"That," he puffed, "is called the Australian descent."

I have a feeling Crocodile Dundee would pass.

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