2022 Bridge Day Trip Report by Bill Gee
After two years (2020 and 2021) of being canceled, the annual Bridge Day (Wikipedia link) event was restarted for 2022. The event this year was on 15 October. It is always held on the third Saturday in October.
I attended Bridge Day in 2011 as a participant. In 2019 I was on the rappel safety team, and for 2022 I was again on the rappel safety team. More information about the rappel is at Bridge Day rappel.
It is a long drive from Kansas City to Fayetteville, West Virginia. I left Wednesday morning about 8:30am intending to drive until about dinner time and then find a parking lot to camp on. I got as far as Evansville, Indiana where I found a Pilot Truck stop right on I-64. Pilot and Flying J truck stops allow overnight parking on their lots for no charge.
The next morning I was on the road by 5:30am. The time zone change is in Indiana just west of the Louisville metro area. I lost an hour going east. I arrived at Bridge Walk about 2:30pm local time. Bridge Walk is the business that sponsors the rappel activities during Bridge Day. They are located within easy walking distance of the bridge, which is very convenient for camping. There are other campgrounds in the area, but they tend to fill up months ahead of the event and are not as conveniently located.
The rappel safety team always has a group dinner and short meeting at Pies And Pints, a pizza shop in Fayetteville. I got there very early. A few other safety team members were early too, so we chatted until the restaurant had our table ready. There were about 25 people at the dinner and meeting.
Friday morning I was up early to get in some exercise walking. The safety team met at 7:30am to prepare for rigging the bridge. As usual it took a while for everyone to gather and get geared up. We were on the bridge by about 9:00am.
Rigging the bridge mainly means installing anchor straps over the cross-beams that support the bridge deck. The usual process is to throw a small sandbag over the beam, then use the attached light line to pull the straps over. In 2019 I tried for half an hour to get a bag over the beam and never succeeded. This year I brought a contraption made of PVC pipe that should make it easier.
My contraption was a partial success. The PVC proved to be too flexible and the tether cord I put in it was not long enough. It took 20 minutes to get a throw bag up to where I could toss it with the pipe. The toss worked the first time, which was gratifying. In the meantime, however, one of the other team members had the throw down pat. He was throwing the bag over the beam on the first try almost every time. We gave up on using the pipe because Pete was much faster.
If we do the pipe again, it needs to be made of a stiffer material such as aluminum conduit, and it needs a lot more tether cord. In the meantime, as long as Pete is there we have no reason to use the pipe.
Each of the 20 stations we rigged has two straps, one long and one short. Each has a ‘D’ on the ends which are connected with a triangle screw maillon. The team assigned to each station will rig their rope into both of the straps. The longer strap also has a safety tether attached. Before anyone goes off the catwalk, they must connect to that tether. They can use other tethers if they want, but they must also use the provided tether.
We finished rigging the straps by about 12:00pm. I had lunch while sitting on one of the W plates. The safety team brings a rope of their own which we hung as part of our rigging. Everyone on the safety team had the opportunity to do a rappel on the team rope. I took my turn!
I started the rappel on 5 bars of my rack. I had to feed rope for several hundred feet before it would slide on its own. About 50 feet off the ground I added my hyperbar. About 15 feet off the ground I stopped and tied off my rack.
The safety team brings a spare rope and haul system onto the bridge. This can be used to lower a team rope. If someone gets stuck or in trouble, we can use our spare rope to lower them – rope and all – to the ground. The reason I stopped just short of the ground is so other members of the safety team could practice using the spare rope and lowering system. It took them about 6 or 8 minutes to get my weight transferred over to the spare rope, then only 30 seconds to put me on the ground.
After we cleared the bridge, I picked up my badge and t-shirt at the registration desk at Bridge Walk. The badge is what gets me on the shuttle busses and the bridge on Saturday.
The weather Friday morning was light wind and upper thirties. Very few clouds in the sky. Out on the bridge the wind gets amplified, so I dressed VERY warm. I had on multiple layers with a Carhartt coverall for the outer layer. A balaclava and neck gaitor helped a lot. My rappel gloves were reasonably insulated already, and I wore a pair of silk liner glovers inside. I was still chilly standing out on the bridge, but it was tolerable.
Friday evening there is a meeting of all rappel teams at an auditorium in Fayetteville. The meeting is used to go over safety and procedural information. At that meeting the safety team is introduced and told which rappel team they will be working with. I was assigned to team 8 (TAG Team). When I met them I got a huge surprise. The team included Jeff and Nina Martin! I have worked with Jeff on several Over The Edge events where he is a site safety supervisor. What a small world.
Saturday morning I was up early. No morning exercise – there was not time for it. I had breakfast and put on my gear. The temperature was about 38 degrees with almost no wind. The wind came up about mid-morning to 10 to 15 mph. It does not sound bad, but that is enough to seriously chill a person.
I walked over to the highway shortly before 6:00am. People were already arriving. I helped for half an hour with parking. Participants park in the ditch on the south-bound side of the road. We park them two abreast and as close together as possible. The highway patrol started shutting down the highway to all traffic about 6:45am. I joined up with the rappel team I was assigned to.
About 7:00am the word came that the sniffer dogs were ready. We put our packs, ropes and other gear out on the white stripe and then stepped back. The dogs and their handlers came along and checked everything out. As soon as the dogs were done, we lined up to go on the bridge.
Each rappel team sends two or three people onto the bridge to rig their rope. The safety person assigned goes with them. Due to the way the anchors are numbered, we go onto the bridge in reverse order. The highest number team goes first, and team one is last. This helps prevent people having to pass each other while the ropes are rigged.
Each rappel team also sends two people to the ground below the bridge. These people serve as the initial belayers. The rest of the team waits at one end of the bridge. As people go down the rope, more people can come out to the bridge. The goal is to have two people from each team on the ground, two on the bridge and one on rappel at all times. Each team is responsible for rotating their people through. Each team has several radios. Ideally every team member has a radio, but that sometimes does not happen.
After each rappel team gets their rope rigged and lowered to the ground. the safety person assigned calls down to request a pull test. There are two safety team people on the ground. They will find the rope, make sure there are belayers present, and then climb up the rope far enough to get their full weight on it. If that does not reveal any problems, then the rope is approved and the rappel team can start doing their rappels. My team was one of the first to be approved. They were rigging their first rappeler by 8:15am, forty five minutes before the official start of the event.
With Jeff Martin helping people get on the rope, there was not much for me to do. TAG Team has done this event many times and they have a good system. This year they had three people who had never done the Bridge Day event before. None of them had any trouble. One of them weighed only one hundred pounds. She had to go down to four bars on her rack. She also was rather cold.
Late morning I took over the team next to mine on the bridge. They were called A Frayed Knot. A smaller team, they were not able to keep their rope busy all the time. The safety person for them went to do a rappel and have his lunch. About noon I was relieved by another safety team member so I could do a rappel and have my lunch.
As I was rigging my rack into the rope, I notices one of the BASE jumpers with a collapsed parachute spiraling into the water. It look bad, but there was nothing I could do. Later I heard that he survived with only minor injuries. A video of the incident was posted on InstaGram.
Once I got to the bottom I had lunch and then belayed for several more safety team rappels. Eventually I and another safety team member made our way to the shuttle bus stop. We were back on the bridge by about 1:30pm.
I took over a different pair of teams for the rest of the day. The event ends at 3:00pm. One of my teams sent their last person down at 3:02pm. Pushing things a bit! All rappel teams started derigging their ropes. I had to pause a couple of the teams because they did not tether the anchor straps before they started to pull them down. Getting all the ropes pulled up (or lowered), all the gear gathered and things cleaned up took most of two hours. We were finally off the bridge about 4:30pm.
The safety team vests, anchor straps and other gear was turned in at a pickup waiting by the road at the north end of the bridge. It was a ten minute walk back to my camper at Bridge Walk. I changed out of my coverall and started dinner.
The safety team always holds a debriefing session shortly after getting off the bridge. We went for most of an hour sitting around a picnic table at Bridge Walk. Every rappel team is assessed. Odd inicidents are noted, such as unlocked carabiners and untethered gear. We make suggestions for next year.
When that was done I finished dinner and then hitched up the camper. Sunday morning I got up early, did some walking exercise and then hit the road. I was driving by 5:45am, more than an hour before dawn. I picked up an hour when I crossed into Central time zone. By late afternoon I was getting near St. Louis. I stopped in O’Fallon, Illinois and parked on a Walmart lot for the night.
The next morning I was on the road early again, about 5:00am. That got me through St. Louis before the heavy traffic set in. I was home shortly before 10:00am.
Bridge Day is a long drive. I spent most of four days driving a total of 1661 miles to have two days of fun. The fun is intense, though, and as a safety team member I am helping all the rappel teams do their thing safely.