"It's very simple, and you can learn in about five minutes," says Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of Shatterproof, of strapping oneself to and descending down a skyscraper.
That's easy for him to say. He's rappelled 25 times now and is gearing up for another seven-city tour across America as part of his nonprofit's major fundraising effort, the Shatterproof Challenge. He'll be in Dallas on May 21, the first stop of the Challenge's 2016 touring season, as more than 100 people rappel down Reunion Tower and the Hyatt Regency.
Mendell assures us he, too, is afraid of heights.
He founded the organization in memory of his son, Brian, who lost his battle with addiction in 2011. Faced with overwhelming grief, Mendell struggled to make sense of his 25-year-old son's death. He realized that, unlike other major diseases, there was no national organization that funded research and treatment or focused on changing public policy for those afflicted with addiction to illicit and prescription drugs and alcohol. While other organizations hold walks and fun runs, he sees a direct correlation between the Shatterproof Challenge and an addict's steps to recovery:
"The hardest step is the first one, then you just go step-by-step, always looking up at the sky, with your friends and family clapping, cheering and supporting you until your feet hit the ground."
It's the first-ever public rappel from Dallas' iconic landmark.
It's also the Challenge's third annual stop in D-FW. But, there's more to this challenge than pure stunt.
Mendell recalls the shame his son Brian, a "compassionate" and curious young man, felt as he struggled with drug addiction; he likened the stigma to that of the Salem Witch Trials, when in reality he felt gripped by a disease that only strengthened while he worked diligently toward his recovery. The elder Mendell wants to spread that message: Addiction is a chronic physiological disorder.
Fundraising is a mandatory component of the Challenge and, in addition to registration fees, those who wish to take part commit to raising a minimum of $1,000 to participate. Want record of the stunt? All helmets are fitted with camera mounts, and those who raise at least $1,500 qualify for a GoPro Experience. One-hundred percent of those funds go toward Shatterproof initiatives. Last year, the organization raised $2 million, and they hope to meet and surpass that by another $300,000 in 2016.
If you want to sign up, there are two options in Dallas: rappelling 10 stories down the Hyatt Regency or 50 stories down Reunion Tower -- space for which is "very limited." It's an all-day event, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but you get to pick the time you would like to rappel, and the whole process takes about an hour. That includes check-in, gear fitting, training and the rappel itself. No training or experience is required. In fact, according to Mendell, almost everyone who takes part is a "total novice."
"My 80 year-old mother rappelled last fall in Stamford, Connecticut," he says. "She walks with a cane."
He adds that it's an entirely family-friendly event and -- because two people go down simultaneously -- you can go with a friend, family member or co-worker as a team building exercise. There's a viewing party at the bottom with food and refreshments where children, parents, spouses and friends cheer and encourage the daredevils on the way down.
"It's extremely safe, tightly controlled, and really impossible to go too fast. If you do, the ropes lock up like a seat belt," he explains. In fact, he says that's why it was so easy to get such an iconic landmark like Reunion Tower on-board. He just called up its owners, explained that no one taking part in the Challenge has suffered so much as a scratch and found they were eager to oblige. But, for those not quite up to the challenge, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities.
Mendell promises he's still afraid of heights, even though he has now traveled the country, rappelling off buildings nationwide. But, as he recalls the first Shatterproof Challenge in San Jose, California, where he rappelled side-by-side with his younger son in memory of Brian, he remembers the emotion of finally being back on the ground and seeing the crowds that had gathered in support, not just of him, but of those gazing skyward as they struggle with addiction, taking each moment step-by-step. His best advice:
"The trick is, you don't look down."