Celtic Illumination, part 96, Freestyling.
One of the skills we had to master was abseiling. This would come under the broad umbrella we would refer to as ‘rope work.’ In this day and age most people might think of people abseiling off buildings or towers for charity. Exactly the same as we would do, however we spent an awful lot of time practising, because when we came across a situation in the field, where we would have to employ abseiling techniques, there was no time for fannying about. When training, every conceivable safety measure would be brought into play, however in the field, it would just be you and a rope.
One day Jack announced that we would focus on rope work. We went to a remote quarry in the middle of some forestry land, which was good, because normally when people saw our trucks and land rovers, with the big mountain rescue signs, they would stop, watch and take photographs. It was nice to be able to be away from the public gaze.
The cliff face we were working on had a ten to fifteen feet drop, but it then pulled away, back in on itself, so that the descent became free fall. It was quite a scary cliff. I remember holding back. The more experienced troops had created a massive web of ropes and belay points. First of all they wanted to practise lowering a stretcher and luckily Docker was excused stretcher duty that day. A fellow called Keith Perryman was put on the stretcher and I can still hear him scream as he went over the edge.
The troops had not put enough tension on the main rope so when Keith went over the edge he fell a good twenty, or thirty, feet. When you are restrained, on a stretcher, and it’s in free fall, it’s not a very nice feeling. I actually have a photograph of that incident.
Unfortunately my invisibility cloak wasn’t working very well that day and Jack spotted me. “Have you abseiled yet?” he asked, and I shook my head wondering if I could produce a sick note or get away with saying something like, ‘the dog’s ate it’.
Jack called me forward to the edge of the cliff. We were all wearing climbing helmets and climbing harnesses. Jack checked the fit of mine, and then ran through the technique I should use to descend the rope. Once briefed, he told me to go. I didn’t. The other troops saw that this was my first abseil and came over to award me their encouragement. Which as you may guess by now, they enjoyed immensely.
Jack however halted proceedings. Normally Novices were taught abseiling and basic stretcher work on a training slope over near Barmouth. The training slope was still a cliff and quite dangerous, this cliff however was, quite definitely, hovering close to white knuckle territory.
“Is this your first abseil?” asked Jack, and I nodded. “Oh why didn’t you say so!” he chirped. I began to breathe again thinking he was going to take me off the rope and let me wait till our next trip to Barmouth. But no he found a rope and began to uncoil it.
“I’ll put a safety rope on you,” he said, as he tied the safety rope around my chest. Then he picked up an ice axe and holding it, in what can only be described as a threatening manner said. “Get down that rope or I’ll put this through your fecking head!”
Well; it was the military and I suppose that could be seen as encouragement. I was petrified, and slowly edged my way down the cliff face. I was concerned when I would have to move past the point where the rock cut back in, and I would enter a free fall, because I knew that at that moment my legs were holding me away from the rock face, however once there was nothing for me to push off against, I could see my head hammering in towards the cliff. I tried my best and managed to head butt the cliff with my helmet. No harm done, then I began to move down the rope.
When I was about one hundred and fifty feet above the ground Jack told Keith Perryman, who had recovered his composure below, to pull down on the rope I was on. This would mean that I could not move and I was kept there until I could hold a normal conversation with Jack far above me. You may think that Jack’s insistence that I should go and the tactics he used were somewhat brutal, however I can say that when I reached the bottom of the rope, I couldn’t wait to get back to the top of the cliff and do it again.
In fact it was one day on the training slops at Barmouth. Docker and myself were instructing a group of cadets in abseiling techniques. We had fixed two ropes and thrown them over the edge. I was giving a lecture on the different forms of abseiling and the different scenarios that they could be used. There were basically two forms of abseiling. The first is the one you may be familiar with, where people with helmets and climbing harnesses, would slowly descend a high building, structure or cliff face.
The other form is where you would use your body as a friction device to slow your descent. This required no equipment whatsoever and was greatly favoured by Special Forces, who like ourselves, would want to cover ground quickly. One cadet asked which method was the faster. Both Docker and myself were standing over ropes. Docker was wearing full climbing harness and helmet. He attached himself to the rope with his figure of eight nodded and the pair of us ran over the edge of the cliff.
My method is commonly known as ‘free style.’ The rope comes between your legs and wraps around your body and is held in one hand. With your hand extended you control the feed of the rope and therefore your speed of descent. You can face either way; you can run forward, down the cliff or, move backwards, in what might be regarded as the normal approach. The two main points of contact, for the rope, are the groin and the neck. Normally people using this method would be wearing military style fatigues, so good decent, heavy, clothing that would lessen the friction. I however was wearing a light V necked jumper and some climbing breeches.
I won the race, however I remained in a sort of crumpled position at the base of the cliffs as the cadets applauded my effort, unaware that I now sported two huge welts, red and raw, on my neck and inner thigh. The pain was tremendous and I took a back seat for the remainder of that day.