This is mad. Actually mad. It’s quite exhilarating. No, it’s totally exasperating. No, exciting. It’s terrifying. A million voices in my head at once, conflicting messages saying, ‘You can, you can’t, you can, you can’t, you’re weak, come on, you can do it, just keep going…’ And then I’m at the top of the rock face looking down at the sheer drop I’ve scaled barehanded. Now that’s satisfying.
We’ve picked up an all-terrain Hyundai for the weekend in pursuit of some high-octane adventure around the Brecon Beacons, and there’s no going back now. It’s the wettest day of the month, but we’re oblivious to the rain as we contemplate the task our guide, ex-para Andy Talbot, has issued. Taking turns as the belaying anchor, mastering the technique as ground handler, controlling the rate of the next climber’s descent, requires concentration. In comparison, abseiling down is pure pleasure, requiring none of the core strength to make the ascent. I never thought slippery rock faces could be so fun.
Wearing wetsuits and scrappy trainers, we jump into the River Mellte. My girls – Bella, 16, and Chessie, 14 – squeal at the cold. I can barely breathe. What on earth am I doing getting the family to jump into freezing water in the last week of October? We clamber over icy rock faces between crags and fast flowing water, slither headfirst through a wormhole, jump off banks into a waterfall and, most intrepid of all, crawl between a hidden rock face and pounding cascade. I remember watching Tarzan do that in a 1970s movie, so have no compunction letting out a hearty ‘Arggghhhh-arghhhhh’ as I leap, nose pinched (not quite so Tarzan), from ridge to bubbling waterfall.
I am not a camper. But this isn’t just any campsite; it’s a haven on the banks of the River Wye – wilderness camping at its best that feels more safari than glamping. We’re in real cider country, and the farm opposite has 500 acres of orchard turning an autumnal glow. With no other campers around (bliss), we’re as happy as bugs in a rug in snug sleeping bags in our tepee, kept warm by a wood burner. Supper, a previously prepared ratatouille, chicken and jacket spuds cooked on a giant brazier, proves what every girl guide knows: it’s all in the preparation.
Bella and Chessie’s (and dad Johnnie’s) take on their adventure weekend…
When we arrived in the car park, I looked around and took in the amazing scenery until I reached the rock and saw a white rope hanging down. My heart started beating quickly and my head started booming. The fear of vertigo overcame me. Was I really up for abseiling down this 100 foot cliff?
We started with some rock climbing learning various safety tips and how to control the ropes. Chessie ascended while I belayed at the bottom, with her life in my hands. Watching her climb I thought, ah this looks easy - can't wait to get up there.
After Chessie came back down my heart beat got faster. I got strapped in, and off I went. Not as easy as I hoped - but how easy can it really is to climb up a vertical cliff? Anyway I felt like I was in my own world just me and the earth - like the rock was showing me the way up, with perfectly formed nooks and crannies for my hands. I was on my last legs as I finally reached the top. Success! Then almost immediately I was ready for my decent. Easy. I just sat back on the harness, and let the rocks curves guide me. Touchdown came all too soon.
When I got out of the car the adrenalin started to pump around my body. I'd been climbing before, but not on an actual rock. We were given a quick safety briefing on how not to kill each other and then asked for a volunteer, and for some reason I said I would go. It's ok, I thought, I've done this before. So I told my family that I was obviously the bravest and calmed myself until the instructor said that I was the bravest or the stupidest.
I found some good handholds (and footholds) and started metre by metre with the instructor (somewhere way below) telling the others how to keep me alive should I fall – not likely. I did question his judgement though. And then I had to walk back down. Easy.
Being clipped up to Bella was when my nerves kicked in. I think I may have turned into a mountain goat as I reached to top way too quickly. After a call down to the others, I sat down in the harness and let it do its job, although I had to impersonate a crab before sitting on a boulder at the bottom.
Then I had mums life in my hands, or should I say, under my belt. Literally, she was clipped to my belt, ok, maybe she wasn't clipped to my belt, but the rope that she was clipped to was clipped to me. She was quite picky about the tautness of the rope and I practically pulled her up the rock, quite a haul. Now I had a real challenge as I had to give her a smooth descent.
Apparently I did a very good job, but I never told her that she was practically doing it herself. I just made sure it didn't go too fast or catch, I just let it run through my fingers and she did the rest.
Next challenge was abseiling. I was reasonably calm about this as I had also done this before, apart from the fact that this was a vertical 90’ face, and not a smooth, flat surface like the last time I did it. Oh help. Walking up the hill to get to the top of the cliff was a challenge in itself. We finally reached the top of the cliff with wet soggy feet from our trek in the pouring rain and walked to the edge of the cliff. Problem: we couldn't see exactly what we were supposed to abseil down. We are 'reassured' that the 3 mm thick rope will hold us. They attached mum to a harness and off the edge she goes. Bye bye mum!
Not before long it's my turn. I'm attached then off I go over the edge. The only problem is that it looks a lot easier from the bottom of the cliff than it actually is. The rope was dripping brown water as I brake. Nice. Once down, we all changed into our wetsuits in the Hyundai and when we came back down soggy and frozen we jumped in to the car, cranked up the heating, and sat on the heated seats, which were practically a sauna by now, and thawed out ready for the next adventure of climbing waterfalls…
The ascent I put on what looked like a pair of string nappies and was told, ‘that's your harness, without this there are no fun sports on the agenda’. On a normal walk you would never give the rocks a second glance but when you’re told you’re going to climb the vertical face fronting you it’s impossible to take your eyes off it as you try to imagine your route.
Clunk clip then off you go, get climbing. Bet you never thought your fingertips could virtually save your life. With heart racing and plenty of disturbingly shallow breathing I kept thinking ‘don't look down’. A third of the way up with aching arms and feeling every muscle in my body I slow down, start breathing and still don't look down. Made it! The top. It felt like a mountain in my limbs but was only just the beginning.
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Watch Sarah's family adventure here