Do look down: Leaning back and relaxing 24 stories above Tacoma

Perched on Tacoma’s skyline, I distracted myself from what was behind me by locking my gaze forward.

I felt somewhat calm standing on a ledge atop the Hotel Murano like an Olympic platform diver preparing for a dramatic leap. Then came the instruction from rappel director Aaron Lennox.

“OK, lean back.”

Tentatively, I sat back, putting my trust in two thin ropes. With 24 stories of nothing below me, I felt my right leg quiver nervously. Then, the words of Edgeworks climbing guide Jimmy Grant popped into my head.

“It’s OK to be nervous,” Grant said moments before I took the elevator to the roof. “That’s what keeps you alive.”

On Friday (Sept. 30), from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 75 people will take turns rappelling down the hotel to raise money for Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity.

Participants had to raise at least $1,000 to take part. Elliot Stockstad, director of development for the organization, said $85,000 was raised as of Thursday and fund raising will continue after the event. It’s gone so well, he said, the organization plans to bring back the event next year.

The idea for the Habitat Challenge came earlier this year when Nova Scotia-based Over The Edge contacted Stockstad. Over The Edge stages similar urban rappelling events around the world to help charities raise money.

Stockstad said funds raised from Friday’s event will be used to build and repair homes for needy families in Pierce County.

On Thursday, as I received my pre-rappel instruction from Matt Jachowski, he told me the hardest part was dropping over the edge. The rest would be easy.

Getting hurt, he added, would be “impossible,” even though I had just signed a disclaimer that clearly stated death was a possibility.

Jachowski was right. Once I dropped over the edge, I felt like I was sitting on a slightly uncomfortable swing as I walked myself down the side of the building. I looked over each shoulder and took in a view that included Commencement Bay and a large swath of downtown.

Below, I saw a small crowd cheering me on. They seemed concerned I had become stuck or lost my nerve as I dangled for nearly five minutes, waiting for a photographer to make his way from the roof to the courtyard.

The 245-foot descent goes relatively slowly. Most will take five to 15 minutes. The equipment is designed to stop you should you go too fast. And once you get comfortable, there’s no motivation to move quickly.

“Tacoma is really beautiful,” said Krystle Edwards, another of Thursday’s eight participants. “I was looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, I really love Tacoma.’”

Edwards had rappelled only once before on a trip in the Swiss Alps with her Stadium High School classmate, Liz Daley. Daley was a rising star in mountaineering and snowboarding circles before she died in an avalanche in Argentina.

Thursday was the second anniversary of Daley’s death. Edwards was participating as part of an organization called Liz Rocks, which is raising money to build an outdoor rock climbing facility at Point Defiance. The second fund raiser for the project will be Saturday night at the Foss Waterway Seaport, where organizers hope to reach their $150,000 goal. They raised $80,000 last year.

Edwards figures a rappelling event seems like the perfect place to find people interested in a public climbing facility.

Even though most of those descending the Murano don’t have much experience rappelling.

“I’m a little nervous,” Stockstad said. “But it’s a trust thing. I’m excited to do it. And I’m excited to see so many other people do it.”

On Friday, participants get to choose a song that will play in the courtyard below while they descend. Stockstad has narrowed his choice to two: Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” or The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”