To celebrate my 50th birthday in 2020 I’m attempting 50 things; some scary, some relaxing, others entertaining. One of the scarier options on my list was abseiling 300ft off the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.
I booked my abseiling challenge, in a moment of bravado, at the end of last year. Whilst I’m not overly scared of heights I don’t like exposure. I’ll happily climb a mountain; I’m not so happy walking along a narrow ridge with drops on either side. Or abseiling off the edge of a small platform!
As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed I was secretly relieved that I wouldn’t need to go ahead with this folly of an idea. However, despite the best efforts of Covid-19, my abseil was only rescheduled, not cancelled.
The day of the abseil
The morning of my abseil dawned bright and breezy. I couldn’t even rely on the British weather to bail me out!
We arrived with plenty of time to spare. Time enough to watch some of the earlier abseilers, many of whom were raising money for charity. Time enough to get nervous. Not helped by comments from my ‘supportive’ family.
Despite our early arrival my abseil was delayed for half an hour due to the windy conditions. Although only a breeze at ground level it was a different story 300ft up and the wind meant only one abseil could take place at a time, rather than the usual two.
In due course I signed my medical and liability waver forms (always good for nerves) and met the rest of our small group. As well as myself there was a man who was petrified of heights and a gung-ho couple who mentioned they’d been skydiving a few times. My levels of nervousness put me somewhere in the middle.
We were kitted out in harnesses, helmets and gloves and asked to agree to a list of rules (including no bouncing or jumping on the ropes, as if). Finally we were waved off into the socially distanced lift for the ride up to the indoor viewing platform.
Up on the viewing platform day trippers arrived, walkEd over the glass viewing floor, took photos and enjoyed the view. Whereas us abseilers took a quick look round and then retreated to the corner of the room to await our fate.
After what felt like an eternity we were collected by a jolly lady who led us through a side door onto the escape staircase. From here it was just a few steps to our abseil hatch in the tower.
Ready to go
Up until this point we hadn’t been given any abseiling instruction. Fortunately our instructor rectified this, calmly demonstrating how to hold the rope, telling us where to place our feet and what to do if the wind blew us off course. I forgot it all the second he finished talking.
I was happy to let the sky diving couple go ahead of me. They could test the rope. And the wind speed. From my vantage point inside the staircase I couldn’t see either of their descents. All I heard was some urgent walkie-talkie action and reassuring words shouted down by our instructor. My partner later told me the lady had been blown around the edge of the building. Gulp.
Two abseilers down, two to go. At this point, the fourth person in our group decided to pull out. Our instructor offered him a couple of choices but the poor chap was terrified and wanted to return to the viewing platform. I felt disappointed for him but he made the right decision. In turn he was replaced by a gentleman who was abseiling to celebrate his 70th birthday.
A new instructor also arrived and before I knew it my harness was checked over and rope attached ready for my descent.
It’s one thing being inside the tower. Quite another to step out onto, and off of, a small platform several hundred feet high. I always knew this would be the hardest bit. Of course the knot wouldn’t undo, the rope wouldn’t break and the harness wouldn’t fall off. But, what if…
Somewhere in between my many thoughts I stepped off the platform, placed my feet on the side of the tower and gripped onto the rope as if my life depended on it. It didn’t. The instructor persuaded me to let go and just hang on. I didn’t immediately plummet to the ground. In fact, I waved to the camera.
And I was off. Or perhaps I wasn’t. Despite my free fall concerns the irony was that I couldn’t actually work out how to get going. I eventually managed, with a little help from the instructor, and started my slow descent.
I quickly discovered it was best to concentrate on feeding the rope steadily through my hands and walking my feet down the tower. When my mind wandered I would remember how high up and how utterly dependent I was on the rope. I had to keep focussed.
My adrenaline ran out about halfway down. I’d done the hard bit (stepping off the platform), and survived. Now I just wanted to finish the abseil. I forced myself to look around at the scenery, and back up to the top of the tower. I tried not to look down too much but did have a nose at the super yacht moored next to the tower. Yours to rent for £690,000 a week.
As I got closer to the finish I looked down more and saw people taking photos of me. That felt weird; I don’t usually like being the centre of attention but for once I didn’t mind.
The final part was a little tricky as there were obstacles to negotiate. Fortunately the lady on the ground helped pull me round to the side to avoid them. And then it was over. I was back on the ground. I walked away from the edge of the tower, took off my abseiling equipment, and left.
Did I enjoy it? At the time, I’m not sure but in retrospect, yes. Did I feel a sense of achievement? Definitely. It’s good to be scared now and again! Would I do it again? No. It was a once in a lifetime challenge which I don’t feel the need to repeat.
How about you? Would you enjoy abseiling off the Spinnaker Tower?