Rappelling, the View from the Top
Maj Harold Compton
Over the last 12 years I have had the pleasure to teach rappelling to thousands of cadets and summer campers at the Marine Military Academy. I have had students from 12 years to 18 years and have also conducted training for adult groups throughout this time. It never ceases to amaze me how much fear rules the actions of many of these students. Recently it caused me to reflect back on my own first experience at rappelling.
First Rappelling Experience
My first experience at rappelling came in 1971 while a recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. Until this time I had never attempted anything like this and like most of my fellow recruits was both anxious and apprehensive. As we went through our initial training on the ground we couldn’t help but look up at the tower. From our vantage point it looked like it went up into the clouds. How would we ever get down without killing ourselves? Not willing to show our fears we kept a straight face and when it came to the end of the instruction and we were asked if there were any questions we all answered loudly, “No Sir!”. Of course in the back of my mind the only question was “What am I doing here?”
As we climbed the stairs to the top of the tower I could feel a hush fall over the entire platoon. Exiting onto the roof we realized that the tower looked even higher from up here. As I peered over the edge the recruits still on the ground looked like ants to me. I briefly wondered whether my SGLI insurance would cover this.
Watching the other recruits go before me it all looked so easy. When my turn came I was suddenly struck by the thought of what would my family think when they heard the news I was dead or injured from a fall from this massive tower. My instructor, a young hardcore Marine Sergeant simply told me “Do exactly what we told you and nothing else, got that?” I answered firmly “Yes Sir” but for the life of me I suddenly had forgotten everything. After hooking me up and checking my brake I was told to sidestep to the edge and sound off to my belay man. As I shouted out “Compton on belay” I vaguely wondered if those would be my last words. I assumed my position on the edge and leaned out. At this point I experienced a battle between what my body wanted to do and what my mind was telling me I had to do. The body wanted to get away from that edge and find a safe spot while the mind was telling me this was safe and I had to do it. Luckily for me, the mind won out and I began a slow descent to the ground. I was immediately aware that rappelling was not as hard as I had thought and I continued without incident to the ground. Twice more that morning I ascended the steps to the top of the tower and repeated my descent. Without showing it my other recruits I was extremely proud and happy I had completed the rappelling, and was still alive!
Looking back at my initial training I am constantly reminded that all my students today experience the same fears. The physical part of rappelling is easy to master and honestly not that difficult. It is the battle with the mind that most have to overcome. Calm demeanor by the instructor coupled with constant encouragement usually gets the students down the first time and once on the ground most cannot wait for their next trip down the wall. Occasionally I do run into more difficult cases and once again it is always that mental battle that the student must win. They only need to have the courage to take that first step and they quickly realize that the view from the top is not that bad.
Rappelling at Marine Military Academy
To learn about rappelling at the Marine Military Academy read our recent article “Rappel Training“.