Tom Eblen: I rappelled down Lexington's tallest tower and lived to write about it

Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen rappelled down the side of the Lexington Financial Center on Sept. 25, 2013 during Brave the Blue, a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts’ Bluegrass Council.
Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen rappelled down the side of the Lexington Financial Center on Sept. 25, 2013 during Brave the Blue, a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts’ Bluegrass Council. Herald-Leader File Photo

What's the hardest thing about rappelling 410 feet down the side of Lexington's tallest building? Leaning backward into thin air and hoping all of the ropes, buckles and harnesses around you will work.

Fortunately, they worked. Otherwise, you wouldn't be reading this.

I was among more than 100 people who took part in this year's Brave the Blue II challenge, which began Wednesday and continues Thursday. The event will raise more than $100,000 for the Blue Grass Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

The Herald-Leader was an event sponsor. Organizers thought I would be a good representative for the newspaper because I am an Eagle Scout. I didn't tell them I never got my climbing merit badge and had zero experience rappelling.

Still, as downtown commuters made their way to work Wednesday morning, I was on the 31st floor balcony of the Lexington Financial Center, aka the Big Blue Building. I had just been instructed in how to use the equipment and was hoping that my new knowledge wouldn't evaporate at the first sign of trouble.

Once I leaned back over the edge and got the rope mechanisms working, it was a smooth and exhilarating walk down the wall. Although my mind was focused intently on avoiding death, I took time to enjoy the view. And what a view it was.

The glass tower was like a giant mirror, reflecting the downtown skyline. Lexington's other tall buildings were far below me. Over my left shoulder, St. Paul's Cathedral and Victorian Square looked like toy models. People and cars were specks on the pavement. It was surprisingly quiet.

By finding the "sweet spot" in the lever mechanism that controlled the rope, I was able to avoid bouncing off the wall and spinning around, both of which, I was told, were not good things to do. The only obstacle I had to avoid was the pedway over Mill Street. Another reason to hate pedways.

When I reached the sidewalk, my arms were sore from working the rope and lever. I was fine with that, given the other possibilities. I felt brave and proud of myself. Then I met Wini Yunker of Nicholasville.

Yunker, 79, contacted the Boy Scouts weeks ago saying she wanted to participate, but didn't know much about the Internet and needed help setting up an online fundraising page. She figured if she could get 13 friends to donate a dollar for each year of her life, she could raise the $1,000 minimum. She ended up with twice that.

As it turns out, Yunker, the youngest of six sisters and an early Peace Corps volunteer, is no stranger to this sort of adventure. She has been exploring caves since the 1960s. She has extensive experience rappelling. Underground. In the dark.

In 1968, Yunker was the first Kentucky woman to rappel 275 feet off High Bridge.

"It was legal then," said Yunker, still miffed that a West Virginia woman beat her to it. "Now they won't let anybody do it."

Yunker arrived at the Lexington Financial Center wearing a red shirt. She's a Wildcat fan, she quickly explained, but she wanted the several dozen family members and friends gathered below to be able to see her. And she was kind enough to make a big plate of country ham biscuits for them to enjoy while they watched her descent.

When instructor Nina Martin fitted her in a harness, Yunker was not happy that she had to remove her dangling earrings and wear a helmet. "Do I have to wear a helmet?" she asked. "That will spoil the effect of having my hair done."

Soon, though, Yunker and Martin were bonding over a 400-foot cave in Alabama where they both have rappelled. "I want to be Wini when I grow up," Martin said.

With family and friends cheering — and Nicholasville Mayor Russ Meyer waiting to bestow the key to his city — Yunker made a rapid descent down the glass wall. Her rope locked up on her near the end, but she managed to fix it, dodged the pedway and gracefully landed on the sidewalk.

"And next year, when I'm 80, I'm going to do it again," she said.

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