As part of my journey to Cho Oyu and beyond I thought it best I start with some basics, learning the ropes so to speak. And for someone who still to this day can’t tie shoelaces in the normal way, learning the ropes and how to tie them off has taken on a different level of importance given the implication will be far greater than tripping on an untied shoelace.
I will confess to having some previous experience at abseiling, my first and only abseil prior to this weekend was off the AMP Building in Sydney a couple of years ago with my partner, Janet, in support of the Sir David Martin Foundation, and assisted by a great Australian Mountaineer and Adventurer, Andrew Lock. I have even exited a plane on numerous occasions, with a parachute strapped to my back, and spent many hours upside down in aerobatic planes, but when our guide for the day suggested I abseil upside down, head-first after a morning of abseil practice, I thought this is crazy, in a nice kind of way!
The setting was the Blue Mountains which is situated just to the West of Sydney and easily accessed along the Great Western Highway. In fact the route to, and over, the Blue Mountains is much the same as that taken by the intrepid explorers, Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson when they crossed the Mountains for the first time in 1813. And it was a perfect weekend to undertake my basic abseil course, as we were joined by two couples and their boys, close friends, who both happened to be celebrating their wedding anniversaries on the Saturday. So the Saturday night always promised to be full of cheer, and festivities, if I survived the day. There was even the chance of an encounter with the big guy in the Red Suit, Santa, given the area was hosting its Yuletide in July festival.
Saturday morning in downtown Katoomba and I met up with fellow course participants at the Australian School of Mountaineering located in the Paddy Pallin store in the main street. Some were doing a half day course and three of us had signed up for the full day. And what a fantastic winter’s day, the sky was a deep blue, little cloud, but the wind was blowing quite hard from the west, leaving me with a vision of trainees’ swinging in the wind off the side of a cliff – but our guides, Alice and Jem, or J as she preferred, didn’t look the type that were about to send us to our end…but I’ve found looks are often deceptive and there was a kind of mischief in their smiles.
It was a short drive to Mt York, the site of our first abseils for the day, and following a safety brief, we were gearing-up for our first descents. I was very pleased the gear I had recently bought, a Petzl Adjama climbing harness, as it fitted well and was very comfortable, and let’s face it, this is the thing that you will fix a rope to and so having confidence in it was paramount.
Oddly enough, you would think walking up to the edge of a 100 metre tall building and leaning back over the edge would be much harder than doing it on a small rock formation little more than 10 metres in height, but the heart was racing a bit as I stepped backwards, but what a buzz. We spent the morning on a number of different formations, some with overhangs, practicing newly learnt skills, and of course seeing how many bounces you could get to the bottom in . And I must say the emphasis was on safety, as you would expect.
Time goes quickly as they say when you are having fun, and before long we were heading back towards Katoomba to drop off the half-day participants. It was then on to Narrow Neck for a picnic lunch, and more abseiling. Now I did think it was rather ambitious putting out a small table-cloth onto the ground for lunch, as the wind was howling, and the setting was blown in the air like a spinnaker cast adrift. But it was a great lunch and the company was great, Alice and J were imparting their stories of climbing and caving exploits, which only whetted our appetite for more adventure, so we headed over to the cliff. The first was about a 20 metre drop with an overhang, but the wind was full on as it raced up the cliff. Surely we weren’t going over the edge? My mind ticked over as Alice tossed a rope over the edge, saying watch this! The strength of the wind blew the rope straight up into the air in what would be a great party trick, except the next thing going over was me!
And what a vista we had, looking out over the valley I couldn’t help but think ‘you wouldn’t be dead for quids’ so off I went, and surprisingly, once over the edge and into the full blast of the wind it wasn’t quite what I expected, I wasn’t being blown around like a fly-strip under the ceiling fan after all. A number of descents later we headed over to a larger cliff face, about 30-40 metres with a large over-hang which meant a free-descent down the rope. I couldn’t get enough of it and did quite a few descents, along with the scramble back up the side of the formation to the top, before a short-drive back to Katoomba at day’s end.
And as I headed up the hill to meet family and friends, who were well established around the fire in the Carrington Hotel, champagne flutes in hand, I was pleased how the day had gone, having some adventure in a spectacular setting, learning and developing new skills – and as for being upside down, as tempted as I was to give it a go I didn’t want to scratch my new helmet, so I’ll save that for my next trip…
I’m booked to do the Senior Abseil Certificate and Rope Rescue course in early August, and Janet said she could get used to me abseiling in the Blue Mountains, after all, there was unfinished business in the local art, craft, and dress shops! And TomO, our adventurous 12 year old, who is already an old hand at abseiling, is itching to be out there with me, can’t wait mate (he can tie his shoe laces – phew!)…