by Mark Dryfhout
A birds-eye view of Niagara Falls atop the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel was a breathtaking experience that left me awestruck and reminded of my humble mortality. What better time to be reminded of fragile existence than when dangling by a rope from the top of the tallest hotel in the area?
Normally, the scenic view would be the first thing I would notice, but at the time, one of the more pertinent concerns on my mind was the possibility of plunging 357 feet to a hasty death.
How did I wind up at the top of a 27-story building, placing all of my weight, trust and future on a lonely rope to keep me from falling? Allow me to whisk you away into the adventurous life of a summer newspaper intern.
It all began on Thursday, July 25, when I received an email from Director of Development Amy Neveaux of the New York Special Olympics. The message told of a unique fundraising event to occur the next day to raise money for the Special Olympics.
The fundraiser features an annual activity ominously named "Over the Edge." The once-in-a-lifetime (or, perhaps more appropriately, last-of-a-lifetime) extreme event allows the Special Olympics' top fundraisers to rappel down the glossy face of the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls.
Buried within the generic who, what, when and where was an invitation for media to try the rappel a day in advance of the event.
If anything, the invitation was a great escape from the humdrum life of an intern whose grandest concept of "escape" was walking to a nearby McDonald's to pick up co-worker's lunches. In my 18-year-old mind, hyped on caffeine and encouraged by my teenage duty to engage in every ill-fated activity that blows my way, I called Neveaux and signed myself up.
After convincing my supervisor (whose only concern seemed to be that the company wasn't responsible for a horrible accident involving a summer intern) to allow me to go, we were soon speeding (at the suggested state speed limits, of course) toward the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel.
As we lapped the parking lot, dodging disgruntled gamblers and searching fruitlessly for a parking spot, I saw the faint trails of the rappelling ropes against the casino's walls. I would be lying if I said I didn't have second thoughts at this point.
After a myriad of harnesses, instruction, buckles, safety equipment and karabiners had been equipped, my supervisor, a few other media representatives and I were soon on an elevator headed for the roof. During the safety briefing, I overhead my supervisor having a conversation with one of the safety instructors. Their tone was lighthearted and conversational. I vaguely recall the term "expendable intern" being thrown around jokingly.
"Easy for him to say," I thought bitterly. "He's not about to jump off the roof of a casino for fun."
Silently, I forged a renewed confidence out of the fires of embarrassment. After all, I was representing my newspaper. I had to be tough, or at least look the part. That didn't seem so hard to do. Right?
Wrong. There's something about the command "Lean back!" that seems to go against every fiber of my body as I stand with my back toward a 357-foot drop. All of my teenage confidence and bravery must have stayed on the elevator, because they sure weren't with me.
I leaned back into the harness, my weight precariously centered over the lip of the casino's roof. A few more inches, and ... I was over the edge.
Laboriously and unskilled, I began my awkward descent, ignoring the urging of my supervisor to pose confidently for a picture. The words "harrowing," "exhilarating," "extreme" or "insane" don't describe the descent with any measure of accuracy compared to the way I felt.
This would probably be where I would describe the view of Niagara Falls from the vantage point along the wall, but, unfortunately, I wasn't really concerned with the scenery. I was too busy strangling the life out of my tether rope.
Sooner than expected, I touched down safely on the ground, and I didn't even cry. Well, maybe a little. I'd like to think that's some sort of an accomplishment.
After the adrenaline had worn off, and I had pieced backed together my conscious sanity, I came to a horrible realization the worst is yet to come. I had escaped the frying pan, only to jump right into the fire, so to speak. I tried to keep a cool face as I talked with my supervisor about the experience, but my mind was focused on only one thing:
"How am I going to tell my mother about this?"
Teenage concerns aside, "Over the Edge" is an exhilarating experience, and the best part is that the proceeds from the event are transferred directly to the Special Olympics. Participants (except lucky media guests like me) must raise at least $1,000 in order to rappel down the hotel. Normally, people wouldn't even consider the death-defying feat even if they were paid $1,000, but these special contributors are empowered by the great charity to go above and beyond fundraising.
"Rappelling down was fun," remarked Kiss 98.5's Nicholas Picholas. "Knowing what it was for made it even better."
Some daredevils hadn't even given the wall-drop a thought, as one trio of fundraisers explained, "We did it for the charity; rappelling is just an afterthought."
The actual fundraiser occurred July 26 and included many ground-level festivities such as live music, beverages, a disc jockey, donation tents, merchandise sales, photo opportunities and even some visits from Special Olympic athletes.
"We raised close to $100,000," Neveaux stated. "We are doing this event next year ... it will be our fifth year, so we are hoping to make it bigger and better!"