Sunday, January 29, 2012

Incredibly loud and uncomfortably close

So. In a previous post about Bruny Island, I mentioned that I developed a fear of heights a few years back due to an incident while abseiling. I also said the incident was a story for another day. This is that day.

Rewind to 2004. I was twenty years old and along with my sister, parents, and various close family friends and relatives, had headed to Coles Bay for the weekend to celebrate my father's birthday. Here I am, about to walk into Wineglass Bay and meeting a local.

One of the activities planned was abseiling. My father is a qualified abseiling instructor and many among the party had never abseiled and were keen to give it a go. Dad found a suitable rock face for us and set everything up. This is the view from the edge of the drop- not a huge drop, but still pretty high up.

I was an old hand at abseiling. From the age of 12, Dad had taken me and my sister on all kinds of abseils. I had abseiled off bridges, 50 metre high water towers, and all manner of rock faces. This one looked nice and simple. Not too high, but still high enough to be thrilling. I was calm and confident and volunteered to go first and show the beginners how it was done. Dad was at the top with me, and his mate Neil, who was also very experienced, was the off-rope guy at the bottom. We harnessed me up and I started the scariest part- backing up to the edge and leaning right back, ready to start walking down. Too easy. This photo was zoomed in so it looks like we weren't that far from the ground- but we were.

I'm still not sure how it happened. One second I was leaning back, and the next second my feet had slipped and I was freefalling backwards. I didn't actually fall downwards as the ropes stopped me, but I fell backwards. That feeling of freefalling backwards, from a considerable height, was one of the most frightening feelings I have experienced. I had no control. I felt my body and head smash against the rock wall with a considerable amount of force.  I was left dangling upside down, pressed against the wall. There were gasps from the onlookers and I heard Dad say "Shit. Neil, could you come up here please?" Everything seemed strangely muffled as my heart was pounding right in my ears. The sound of my own heart beating out my terror was incredibly loud and uncomfortably close. I hung there, silent.

It may not sound that frightening, but picture it. Picture dangling in midair with no control over your position, and opening your eyes to see the ground a long, long way from you. I knew the ropes were holding me, but it was small consolation and irrational terror held me immobile. Neil arrived at Dad's side in a considerably short time and they spoke calmly to me, telling me I had to sit myself up and reach for their hands. I hung still and silent. I may have said no, I'm not sure. Eventually they convinced me and I pulled myself into a sort of sitting position, was grasped by the hands and pulled up. There are photos, thanks to my insensitive ex who thought I would 'want' to see them (as well as showing them to his entire family. Thanks for that) but I'm not going to put them up. Mum was waiting and as soon as I was unclipped I went to her and she hugged me. I buried my face in her shoulder and wept.

I was left with cuts and bruises, including the bruised imprint of my own ribs on my back, as well as a new fear of heights that did not go away. Dad tried to get me abseiling a few months later, but I couldn't do it. I tried. I got harnessed up and got to the edge and just couldn't do it. For months after I would lie in bed and remember the feeling of freefalling, the loss of control, the dizzying smash of my body against the rocks, the terror of hanging suspended above the ground. I tried to fight it but it would not go away. It seems my fear of heights is here to stay with me, as demonstrated by my panicked state when climbing the lighthouse on Bruny. It makes me sad. I miss abseiling. I want to try and conquer it again, but I just don't know if I can.


In other, very sad news, a beautiful family here in Launceston have been rocked by the sudden loss of their husband and father Aaron last week, just a few months after the loss of their 10 year old son Noah. It is terrible news and my heart is so sad for Lisa and her boys. You can read their family blog here. If you feel you would like to do something to help, a page has been set up so that donations can be made to help them get through the next few months. You can donate here. They have so much love and support around them but I can't imagine the pain they are feeling right now.


  1. Thanks Karen for including Lisa & Aaron, it is all very sad. I have a fear of heights too but unlike you I can't put an event on it. I'm amazed that you used to abseil off bridges etc! I hope you overcome your fear especially being you loved it before.

  2. That would have been very scary. It would understandably take a lot of time to overcome and be able to face again. But I'm sure with your strength and determination if it's possible you will! Lotsa love! J x

  3. Thanks ladies. I am still determined to keep trying. One day I'll abseil again.