༺ blog - personal ༻

cliff rescue

2022 Aug 28

This is how not to take your mates climbing. Jeez, one of the worst days out ever was when I took Peewee and Katie to Swanage. At the time, back in 1990, I was pretty experienced taking folks out on their first day on a real crag. I had been a guide on mountain walking holidays, I’d done loads of wild adventures, what could go wrong? Looking at the guide book when we got to the beginner’s area, I looked for a good starting climb. There were blimmin’ tons of groups all over this pretty small area. It didn’t look like it would be any fun, so I thought “why not try this more exciting looking one?” Mistake!

The three starred climb was a bit away from the heaving and noisy crowd. The guide said to ab down from some stakes over a grassy cliff above the sea. We found the stakes. We set up. Not wanting to send my girlfriend, Katie, on a sea cliff abseil as her introductory move, I reckoned I’d lower her off. She was supposed to go over the edge, down a ways and then swing onto a ledge near the base, above the waves. We couldn’t see what the conditions were like, but, you know, the guide didn’t make any kind of a deal out of it, and..er..there have to be more excuses, but..

Anyway, over she went and all was well for a few minutes until the rope started to wear a groove in the grassy edge. If you were abseiling, the rope would be relatively still, but lowering a person down was a different thing. A thing I hadn’t thought about. The rope got more and more stiff, jammed down between some rocks too, and eventually, stuck fast. “Oh bugger!” thought I. “Ok, we’ll just have to pull her back up and think again.” The more we pulled, the more stuck it got until she could not go either up nor down. Swinging gently back and forth above the waves. Sea gulls crying on the breeze. Such a lovely day!

Peewee ran around onto a headland that overlooked the scene and could see her dangling. Long blonde hair very visible. Apparently she wasn’t that far above the waves but was out of reach of the cliff that was overhanging. Much more overhung than I had realised from the description. He shuttled communications back and forth as best he could.

Around about then some guys came along on their own day out, and one guy said that he had just done a mountain rescue course. We could use a second stake and arrange the ropes so they had some slack and make a clever pulley. He rigged it up and held it together with a little prusik knot. We were supposed to be able to yank her up with the extra purchase the pulley gave. So, three or four of us started pulling on this rig. She went up a few feet but the strain on the rope was immense then..

The stake moved.

Just a few inches, but we were yanking the thing out of its moorings. We could all go flying off into the sea should it give way altogether. When it moved we all turned to look at it and everything went very, very quiet. Mountain rescue guy beat a retreat and off they buggered to make a call to the coastguards!

Meanwhile, time had passed. Some twenty or thirty minutes dangling on a rope is not fun. The legs get starved of blood and go numb and tingly. You get cold. She wasn’t right in the warmth of the sun. Sea cliffs can have mean moods too. Inside of very small areas you can have one bit that is just all loveliness and butterflies, and only a few feet away it can be terrifying and elemental, dangerous and cold. She really might be in trouble here.

Some guys on a fishing boat had realised that there was trouble. They had sailed in close to the cliff to find out if they could help. Peewee ran around relaying messages. The fishermen said that if I could lower her down just a bit they could get her onto the boat. I tried to undo the pulley system but the little prusik knot wouldn’t give up. Too much strain on it see. I looked for something to cut it with in my rucksack but couldn’t find anything that would do the job. Starting to feel a stronger pull towards freaking out by now, I ran around the grassy banks at the top of the cliffs looking for something to cut that bloody knot with. After a minute or two I found a fragment of broken glass and ran back to the loose stake. I reattached myself to the system and cut the knot free. She went down a few feet and stuck again as the stake yobbled in the soil. Gulp! There was a loud bang as the boat crashed into the cliff. It had come right in and on the roll of a big wave had rammed the rocks so that it could get in close enough to grab Katie. One fisherman dashed out of the little boathouse with a machete and grabbing Katie by the ankle as she dangled, swung it and severed the rope, and caught her! What a hero!

I think I remember Peewee jumping up and down and relating all this to me as I slumped back onto the grass. Maybe it’s just my memory enhanced a bit, but I imagine I actually saw the scene, but of course, that can’t really be true. I can still see it though!

Right about then the coastguard showed up in a Landrover. They told us what was going on as they had radio contact with the boat. They would take me and Peewee back to the dock and meet the fishermen with Katie there. Apparently, she was fine! We got what gear remained into our bags and got into the back. They haired off at quite a lick. Talking about this with Peewee recently, he reminded me not to forget the bit about us nearly getting chucked out of the back of the Landy. I nearly forgot that bit, and it wouldn’t be here without the reminder. Anyhow, the tyres they had on were not fit for normal roads. They went too fast around a corner and spun it. I mean, right when we were starting to relax and babbling our versions of the story to each other, high on adrenaline, the Landrover violently spun a three quarter turn. The back was open and we hurtled towards it, grabbing on at the last moment to avoid being thrown onto the road.

More sedately, and after some apologies, they delivered us to the dockside. Lovely Katie was all smiles when we were reunited. I wondered if she might be holding the machete as we walked up. After that, I always made sure I had a little knife with me. You know, anytime I went out with a rope that is.

So, wherever you are Katie, sorry!

Katie on her bus