Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The worlds tallest commercial abseil: the 140 meter (460ft) Gordon Dam, Tasmania

7th April 2007:

Every once in a while I like to try something I haven't tried much or at all before. In Thailand it was Scuba Diving, Cairns it was Sky Diving and here in Tasmania it is Abseiling.

Abseiling, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is where go stand at the edge of a high structure (usually a cliff), and lower yourself down to the ground via a rope. You are strapped into a waist harness and in addition to your rope there is also a safety rope as a backup.

Now, I did go abseiling once before. About 15 years ago as part of a school outdoor excursion trip I abseiled from a height of about 20 meters(about 60ft): it seemed high at the time.

In Tasmania, though, they claim to have the "World's highest commercial abseil" and while I was in the area I figured I might as well give it a go.

How high is the world's highest? It is 140 meters (460ft). Putting that in perspective, its taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is roughly equivalent to a 38 story building. Gulp.

Joining me in this madness was an esteemed bunch. I met up with Drew who was a dental surgeon, and a husband and wife who were engineering lecturers in a university in Melbourne. All three originally hailed from India and having never met a native Indian it was a good opportunity to find out about Indian culture.

The tour operator for the day was Aardvark Adventures and our guide's name was Tom. Tom came across as a real outdoor adventure type: it seems he regularly goes on white water rafting expeditions which last over ten days. Based on his descriptions of the rafting, it might be something I could pencil in for the next time I'm in the area as it sounds like great fun.

The trip to the Dam took about 2 1/2 hours and we traveled in our Mercedes van through some pretty remote countryside. And boy was it pretty: there was no wind so all of the lakes were mirror-like, the countryside was lush green and mountains towered over the countryside below.

We were all in high spirits during the trip there although looking back I don't think we talked about the activity we were doing today at all: there may have been an unconscious decision not to even think about the ordeal ahead(!) But then we arrived at the Dam and avoidance was no longer an option...

We could not get over how big it was. The approach road for the dam comes in from above and we were all trying to peer down from the high vantage point to see the base of the dam but it was just too deep. It went on, and on and disappeared down into murky darkness.

Once the insurance waivers were signed, Tom brought out the gear and got us all strapped into the waist harnesses to which the ropes would be attached to the front. We then each grabbed a bag of equipment and labouring under the weight of the long ropes we made our way down onto the dam structure.

There are three possible abseil points on the dam: 30 meter, 50 meter and the full 140 meters. Tom explained that because we were all inexperienced, we would not start on the 140 meter height straight away: he wanted us to get some practice on the 50 meter height (about 13 floors in a building) first. That was fine by us because standing on the dam structure itself we did finally see the base 140 meters below: I wasn't nervous with the Scuba or Sky Diving, but standing on the pedestrian walkway on top of the dam and looking all the way down to the bottom, I found my heart rate starting to quicken slightly(!)

Drew was first up. The second hardest bit of this abseiling business is climbing over that safety rail (while attached to the safety rope) and clinging on to the rail knowing that there is a bit drop below. Once Tom finished attached the guide rope (the main rope which is used to control your descent) to Drew it was time for the hardest bit: letting go of the rail and leaning backwards until you are horizontal with the ground below.

By now we had gathered a little crowd of onlookers and soon it was cheers all round as Drew let go of the rail and started to walk down backwards. It all went without a problem.

Then it was my turn. My usual tactic for these activities is to just not think and to get on with it. Despite clearing my head of all thoughts, climbing over the rail started the heart rate beating faster, clinging onto the rail on the other side with the big drop below waiting for the guide rope to be attached made it beat faster again and then it was time to let go of the rail...

As it turns out, abseiling it like riding a bike: my one encounter with it 15 years ago came in most useful and I was straight away bouncing out from the wall, letting the rope fly through my glove and letting the friction of the rope going through the waist harness slow down my descent and pull me back into the wall, where I bounced out again for the next near free fall.

All too soon I was at the bottom and after unclipping the ropes from the harness, I raced back up the stairs ready to go again.

After another normal abseil, we decided we'd try something a little different. I took off my harness and put it back on backwards so that the ropes were attached to my back (instead of my front). I climbed out over the rail again and instead of leaning backwards, I leant forwards and did a front abseil where you walk/run down the side of the dam face first(!)

We only got to do that once as it was time to go to the main event: the 140 meter abseil. Drew went first again and made it look very easy. He also looked microscopic once he arrived at the bottom. Calling down to him was also pointless, Tom explained, as he was just too far for somebody's voice to travel. I went next and again just stopped thinking and went with it. This particular abseil was different to the previous ones done that day. The dam has a concave curve at that point so as you descend the wall slopes away from you and you end up sitting in the air 38-floors above the ground. I hadn't noticed how comforting the wall had been in the previous abseils until I could no longer touch it. Also, not having a wall to stabalilse yourself with meant that I gently started twirling a little left, then right. The view down through the gorge behind the dam was great and all too soon I reached the bottom, feeling great having successfully done the world's highest (commercial) abseil.

All in all, it was well worth the effort. We did have a 2 1/2 hour drive back to Hobart which was a pain, but otherwise it was all good. Another box ticked on the list of activities!