Two by two, clipped into bright blue harnesses, the volunteers followed the same high-wire choreography: Turning their backs against the edge of the hotel roof, they took a step back onto the ledge — and then, jumped off.
It was an uncommon sight for this part of Northern Virginia. The boxy beige buildings of Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood are better known for deskbound defense contractors than for SWAT-style stunts performed outside.
That, perhaps, was the point.
On Thursday and Friday, about 80 people, including two local elected officials, a Washington Post reporter, and a member of the D.C. Divas women’s football team, dressed in full pads and uniform, rappelled down the side of the Crystal City Hilton to raise funds and awareness for New Hope Housing.
The Fairfax County-based organization operates homeless shelters and supportive housing facilities across Northern Virginia. For months, it had been planning the event as a way to fund services that have become even more critical during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Affordable housing, homelessness, unhoused people isn’t something that gets the attention that it needs,” said Jeff McKay (D), chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who scaled the hotel wall in loafers and a county-branded polo. “If I could take a risk myself to raise awareness about something most people don’t think about, I have a great responsibility to do that.”
Most of the volunteer rappellers had to raise at least $1,000 to participate, and they did so in style: There was a group of family friends in multicolor tutus. A man who wore his harness over a white blazer that he asked other volunteers to sign. A petite woman in pink, flanked by her Bible study group, said she was ready to take the leap after God gave her the okay.
Greg Garcia, a television producer who has roots in Northern Virginia, raised $30,000 after writing on Twitter that his wife Kim was “going to push me off of a building.”
“Greg’s not a big fan of heights but Kim is a big fan of seeing Greg scared,” the couple wrote on their fundraiser page. “So here we are.”
The experience is facilitated by a Nova Scotia-based organization called Over the Edge, which puts on rappelling fundraisers around North America for nonprofits. Inside a ballroom in the hotel, they took the volunteers through a safety training and got them outfitted into harnesses.
“I’m feeling a little bit nervous, but really it’s the cause that made me feel, ‘I have to do this,’” said Arlington County Board member Matt De Ferranti (D), minutes before going up. “I’m thrilled to do it, and I’ll also be thrilled when it’s done.”
The views from the top of the Hilton are commanding: Off to the east, the brutalist concrete-and-glass architecture of Crystal City, punctuated by the occasional plane taking off from Reagan National Airport. Off to the west was a wider view of Arlington — the Air Force Memorial, the apartment towers in Ballston, the green tree canopy that covers the rest of the county. Down below, cars zooming past on the highway.
From 160 feet into the air, it was difficult to hear the small crowd on the ground cheering and blasting — what else? — Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” (It is admittedly difficult to follow the song’s instructions, one rappeller said, while suspended by a rope in the rain.)
But two by two, they went over the edge anyway. Among those who stepped up to the challenge was Carrie Sue Geiger, 53, who works as a case manager at New Hope’s Mondloch House.
“I’m not an adventure seeker by nature,” she said, a streak of purple in her hair hidden by a blue climbing helmet. “I had no intention of rappelling, but here we are. We raised enough money that I had to do it.”
She was interviewing a client at Mondloch House, a supporting housing initiative in the Groveton area that includes an eight-bed shelter and 20 apartments, when she showed him a promotional photo from another event put on by Over the Edge. Immediately, the man pointed out someone in the crowd wearing a tutu.
“You have to do the same,” he told Geiger. So, she showed up Friday with her daughter and a small posse of friends, all of them decked out in sheer tutus they had obtained for the occasion.
Up at the top of the Hilton, she didn’t look down. She did a test run with her harness. She was feeling good.
Then it was her turn to take a step back onto the ledge. Her foot slipped, and as climbing guides pulled her back up, she started shaking. But Geiger thought of her chronically homeless clients — who struggle with substance-use disorders, intellectual disabilities, physical impairments, or sometimes all three.
“If they can handle everything they have to deal with,” she thought to herself, “I can get myself over the side of a building.”
Just not ever again, she added.