First Abseiling Experience


I really miss climbing but sadly I am no longer flexible enough or have sufficient strength in my hands and forearms. There are residents in Wenvoe who are far better placed to talk about climbing than me as there are some amazingly skilled young climbers from Wenvoe!

Indoor climbing is all very well, but what I loved was climbing outdoors and was fortunate to go to some incredible places in Wales, the wider UK and even overseas. One of my favourite places was climbing in Pembrokeshire on the sea cliffs – to be stood on a ledge above the waves crashing onto the rocks below, watching sunlight sparkling on the water, gulls, cormorants and even seals below me was absolutely magical. Outdoor climbing is largely weather dependent as it isn’t safe to climb in the wet, so the weather was always as Wales can be – glorious warm sunshine!

Pembrokeshire Sea cliffs

Abseiling is the technique used to perform a controlled descent usually on a rock face. When climbing indoors, your climbing partner ‘belays’ you and is therefore in control of your descent from the top of the wall, when you lean backwards and literally ‘walk’ down the wall. A belay device is used to control the descent. These can either be a ‘manual device’ or an ‘assisted braking device’. I always used a manual device.

When climbing sea cliffs, someone far more experienced than me would set up a belay point at the top using various pieces of protection, or gear, to fix a rope in place. You would then abseil down the cliff to the ledge below from which the lead climber would lead a route up the cliff placing various pieces of protection as they went which would break their fall should that be necessary. The second climber would pay out the rope as they went using their belay device to control the rope (and break their fall in the event that should be necessary). Once the lead climber was at the top, they would make themselves safe and the second climber would then climb the route and remove the protection as they went. All very exhilarating!

But to my first experience of abseiling outdoors.

I was by no means an experienced climber and felt very much out of my depth as all my companions were very experienced and as is often the way in such situations, there was an unspoken assumption that I too knew what I was doing. And I was too shy to expose my complete ignorance! I knew the principles of abseiling having climbed indoors and therefore abseiling down a cliff in theory is similar to an indoor climbing wall where you ‘walk’ down the wall, the only difference is that you are in control of your own descent.

So, picture a perfect Pembrokeshire day, good company and the prospect of a pint of beer at the end of it. We were climbing at Saddlehead along from St Govans. The belay was set up and it was my turn to descend to the ledge below from which we would be climbing. I gingerly lowered myself over the edge of the cliff, my heart pretty much in my mouth as it takes some courage to step backwards over a cliff edge while tightly holding onto the right part of the rope to lower yourself, at the same time desperately hanging onto any piece of rock or clump of grass, while trying to look cool as though you know what you’re doing. Then very slowly as your feet get lower, you bravely let go of solid earth and inch by inch start to walk down the cliff face, heart pounding, all the while paying out the rope hand over hand which only you are in control of. It begins to feel as though you are getting somewhere as the top of the cliff moves further away on the odd occasion that you are brave enough to look anywhere.

Then to my shock and horror, there was suddenly nothing under my feet! Absolutely nothing! What had gone wrong? No-one had thought to tell me that there was an overhang where we were abseiling, in other words, the cliff went in at that point. And so I found myself suspended in space, attached to a rope which fed through my belay device, connected to my climbing harness and I was supposed to continue to control my descent with nothing under my feet to walk down when I had no idea at that point if there was indeed anything solid beneath me at all! Not easy to continue to look cool but then, there was no-one to see me in any case or to hear my frantic talking to myself that all was sure to be well. To this day, I don’t know how I managed not to just let go of the rope in my panic and descend to the rocks below at breakneck speed with inevitable disastrous results!

I did manage to somehow keep my cool though, and did make it to the bottom with very, very shaky legs and proceeded to really enjoy myself, watching the sunshine sparkling on the sea and the gulls and cormorants below me and there was even a seal checking out this new climber who began to look as though she knew what she was doing!

But the dressing down I gave to my climbing partner at the end of that day for having made the assumption that I knew what I was doing made me feel marginally better. A lesson learnt that whatever the situation, never assume that other people are familiar with what is and will be involved and required.