What do you eat for breakfast before rappelling 31 stories down a skyscraper in the middle of Philadelphia?
If you're Carol Serena, hands-on general manager of busy Rittenhouse brasserie Parc, the answer is half a cup of coffee and half a Red Bull. For Anna Adey, a Parc server who was the only other Starr Restaurants staffer Serena could convince to accompany her this time around, it was even simpler: no coffee, no food, nothing at all.
"I'm running on pure adrenaline," Adey said as she adjusted her harness and pulled on protective gloves, less than 45 minutes before dropping over the rooftop ledge.
Why suit up to scramble down an office building facade on a gorgeous fall day? Why not, enthusiasts at Philadelphia Outward Bound School might counter. More than 130 people participated in this year's "Building Adventure," an event that has become one of the adventure-based organization's primary fundraising tools.
Building Adventure was first held three years ago, in 2012, when budget woes facing the Philadelphia School District cut off what had been a major funding source for Outward Bound's local scholarship programs.
The organization's leadership was faced with a dilemma: there was still a huge demand for their public school outreach courses — which bring together students of various economic strata for adventures that help them develop character, bond and realize they're more alike than different — but not enough money to sustain them.
"We didn't want to just do a humdrum fundraising dinner or luncheon," relates Philly Outward Bound executive director Katie Newsom Pastuszek. "We wanted something more exciting; a fundraising event aligned with our mission of changing lives through challenge and discovery."
Inviting teams of people to raise money for a chance slide down ropes dangling off the edge of a high-rise is just the thing.
Mayor Michael Nutter, an Outward Bound booster and alumnus, has participated each year, from the first rappel off of 1515 Market Street through the past two, both down the side of Brandywine Realty Trust's One Logan Square. Inspired by the success of the Philly event, an Outward Bound chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area held its first Building Adventure in 2013.
Parc's Serena first heard about the opportunity to take part in the unusual challenge last year, thanks to Don Smith, a longtime Outward bound supporter and volunteer who lives in the building above the restaurant and eats breakfast there at least five days a week.
She almost signed up, but chickened out. Then, a few months later, she went ziplining for the first time.
"There I am, zipping across trees 650 feet above Hunter Mountain in New York, and I thought to myself, 'I've just gotta get over the fear. I can do it, rappel down a building. Especially for a good cause,' " she remembers.
Determined to get a team together and raise the $2,000 minimum donation required to participate, she raised the idea at a Starr Restaurant staff meeting. At first, many other managers and employees seemed gung ho. As the event date approached, however, growing trepidation overtook initial enthusiasm, and they all declined.
"Stephen was busy opening Upland [his new California-inspired NYC restaurant with chef Justin Smillie], but he would do anything for charity," Serena says, and so even though the rappelling team was down to just her and Adey, they decided to go for it.
Winds were whistling across the landing outside the 31st floor of One Logan when Serena and Adey stepped out for their brief, five-minute training session with event managers Over the Edge.
"Here's the emergency brake, it'll catch if you're going too fast, so there's no chance you'll fall," said the instructor, as his group of instructees nodded their blue helmets in understanding.
Their bright smiles wavered only the tiniest bit as they glanced over at the quad of huge, rope-threaded tripods set up on the gravel rooftop, and watched fellow rookie adventurers grin nervously as they were hoisted backwards over the building's lip.
"My son's down there waiting for me," said Adey. "He got the day off from school for this; he's already thrilled." The fearless 29-year-old hadn't rappelled before, but her handlers nodded approvingly as she told them she had gone skydiving.
Locked in, she leaned back, set her feet against the smooth concrete, and started the 418-foot climb down.
"Keep your eyes on your feet, it's something you know you can control!" shouted another participant to his teammate, who was stalled at the brink, intermittently begging to get out of it and cursing her colleague for getting her involved.
When Serena's turn came, it wasn't the dizzying aerial view of Logan Circle that was the hardest part, after all.
"The rope was much heavier than I thought it would be," says Serena, 47, who is slight and trim. After a few minutes in edge-teetering limbo, trying unsuccessfully to spark some momentum to start the descent, event staffers lowered her down 30 feet, and off she went.
Office workers who looked up from their desks during those 15 minutes might have had a chance to high-five Serena's oranged-gloved hand: she used it often to bounce herself off window panes as the unrelenting breeze twisted her back and forth during her drop.
Unhooked from her harness at the bottom, a look of obvious relief spread over Serena's face. She was about to work a 10-hour shift ("It's Penn Family Weekend, I can't take the day off"), but first was ready for a bit of celebration.