Jenny Hayes finds herself between a rock and a hard place as she abseils down the Avon Gorge
Growing up in Bristol, one of my earliest memories is of my mum holding me tight as I clambered up on the small wall that circumnavigates the Sea Walls to peer down through the netting into the deep ravine of the Avon Gorge. Even as an adult who should know better, I can’t resist climbing up and hanging over the top of that net to soak in the stunning view, and it still gives me the same nervous thrill as it did when I was just four years old.
Which got me thinking. Isn’t it time I met that fear head on and did what my body screamed for me not to do? What could be greater than challenging that childish anxiety and stepping over the safety barrier? Nothing, I decided. Which is why, two weeks later, I found myself clutching to a rope for dear life as I dangled over the edge of the mighty Gorge.
Fortunately, that rope was attached to both a sturdy-looking tree and Iain Afshar, an experienced instructor and all-round daredevil who established the Adventurous Activity Company back in 2004. You see, readers, when I decided to abseil down the Avon Gorge I wanted to make darn sure I was in the best hands, and since Iain and his team at AAC have been offering a huge variety of exciting outdoor pursuits across the West Country for over a decade, I figured he was my man.
I wasn’t wrong. When we met up on a sunny afternoon in June I was a jangle of nerves, which manifested in nonsensical prattling interspersed with bouts of nervous laughter. But it didn’t faze Iain, who has the kind of unflappable demeanour you can only ever truly appreciate when fuelled with the level of adrenalin that occurs moments before you plan to launch yourself off the top of a cliff. And appreciate it I did. As he showed me how to harness up, then ran through the technique of abseiling, his calm manner managed to settle my racing brain just enough for me to take in the basics before I started my descent. As did his showing me the safety rope that he’d be holding throughout my abseil, so that if I totally lost my grip (on the rope, or on reality? both felt like a distinct possibility), I wouldn’t plummet to my death. In fact, I’d barely fall an inch – phew!
Despite this reassurance, all logical knowledge of my safety deserted me when I found myself precariously perched above the precipice five minutes later. I was left with a mind wiped blank by terror and a distinctly wobbly pair of legs. Only one piece of Iain’s advice remained in my head – don’t look down.
So I didn’t. Instead, I focused on Iain’s clear instructions as I took my first baby steps over the edge. And I have never, ever been so terrified in all my life. Suddenly the ropes that held me looked like string, the tree they were secured to a mere sapling, and the soles of my trusty trainers seemed to be covered in ice. To compensate, I adopted a vice-like grip on the safety rope and froze in my tracks – a common technique for beginners, apparently, but not one that is particularly conducive to making it through an abseil. So, with infinite patience, Iain coaxed me into transferring my grasp from the safety rope (where it was somewhat of a hindrance) to my harness (which, incidentally, I still clutched as though my life depended on it). Then, with quiet words of encouragement, he managed to get me to continue – tentatively.
As I gained ground, though, something clicked into place and I began to move more fluently down the rocks. The disorienting rush of blood in my ears surged down into my heart, delivering a mighty kick of courage. My jelly legs grew cores of steel and I became more sure-footed, my confidence growing as I navigated overhangs and slippery sections of rock. And lucky it did, because halfway down I couldn’t hear Iain any more – it was just me vs. the cliff. So I channelled my inner action hero (don’t laugh, I have one), ignored my burning muscles and concentrated on completing the final stretch.
I was so in the rhythm of the abseil – and, yes, even enjoying myself – that when my feet hit solid ground it actually felt strange. And amazing. After all, I’d just abseiled down the Avon Gorge! I stood back and gave a thumbs up to Iain who was still way up at the top, and noticed he was signalling something to me – what was that? Come back for another go? Well, he didn’t need to ask me twice. Within the space of 30 minutes I’d transformed from wibbling wreck to Sylvester Stallone, and I was back up that Gorge and attached to my ropes for a second descent before you could say Cliffhanger.
As well as abseiling, the Adventurous Activity Company offers a variety of other adventure and team building activities – including canoeing, climbing, mountain biking and orienteering – as well as skills and first aid courses. Activity prices start from c. £37.50 per person (based on a group of 6–8), but will be higher for smaller groups or individual sessions. For more information tel: 01275 394 558 or visit: www.adventurousactivitycompany.co.uk
All images © Will Dodd