I think it would be fair to say that people who know me well would describe me as both motivated and fearless – I’m not one to back down from a challenge, nor am I someone who gives up very easily. But on 30th April I faced one of the biggest mental and physical challenges I have ever encountered – Abseil for the Animals. I took part in the UK’s highest freefall abseil from the ArcelorMittal Orbit in Olympic Park – and thankfully my terror at the top was not in vain as my personal challenge was all in aid of The Mayhew Animal Home, and whilst I knew this would be something outside of my comfort zone, I had no idea just how much inner strength I’d have to summon to get me though.
So if I’m scared of heights why take on a physical challenge 300ft in the air, right? Many people have asked me why I signed up for the Abseil for the Animals and the primary reason is of course to raise as much money as possible for a charity I feel so passionately about and who’s work I whole heartedly support. If you follow me closely on social media you’ll know that at the start of the year my resolution was to somehow use my influence and social media presence to be able to do something good and indeed charitable. At that point I had nothing specific in mind, but in February I saw an advert from The Mayhew Animal Home asking for volunteers to take on the challenge and fundraise for them and I knew straight away that this was something I wanted to do. But why an abseil when I have a fear of heights? I asked myself this several times last Sunday! But the truth is, and without wanting to sound in any way patronising, a 10k run or half marathon would be something that with some training discipline I think I’d be able to take on without too much of a challenge (I don’t think physically I can and will ever run a full marathon due to torn knee ligaments several years ago so a half would probably be the longest physical distance my body could cope with without serious risk of further knee injury), so I wanted to do something that whilst being a great fundraising opportunity would also push me well and truly out of my comfort zone. I wanted to put myself up for a physical feat that genuinely challenged me and was far removed from anything I’d ever done before. So the Abseil for the Animals ticked an awful lot of boxes, and despite my husband point blank refusing to do it with me I signed up anyway, and at that point with 3 months to go didn’t think too much more about the actual abseil itself.
I wrote a previous blog post here about The Mayhew, and why their work is so important and I am so passionate about it. They help literally thousands of animals across London every year, and animal welfare is something I’ve believed in so strongly ever since I was little. To have this opportunity to now well and truly do something for abandoned and mistreated animals and to make a difference to a charity who work tirelessly both in the UK and internationally for the support of animals and the education of communities around the importance of animal welfare is very much an honour, and in the weeks leading up to the abseil I worked hard to raise awareness and funds for The Mayhew.
By the day of the abseil I had raised around £1150 (and a further £100 worth of sponsorship came in after the abseil itself taking my fundraising and donation total to over £1200) and knew that the butterflies in my stomach would be worth it for the work The Mayhew could do with that very kindly donated money. My slot on the day itself was 4.30pm and although I found it hard to settle to anything and think about much else, I felt okay, and on the tube on the way to Stratford actually pretty calm and looking forward to getting abseil done.
I hadn’t been to the Olympic Park since 2012 and had forgotten that one of the things you see first when coming out of Stratford station is The Orbit itself. It was at this point that I had my first “wobble” of the day – despite obviously knowing it was over 300ft tall and the UK’s highest freefall abseil I at that point realised just how tall it actually was and as I squinted into the distance at it could even see a tiny dot making their way down the side of the sculpture, and the very real feeling that it would be me doing that in under an hour hit home harder than I thought. Apparently at this point my husband also thought how high it was and how there was no way he would have consider doing the abseil as it was so much higher than he thought, but luckily for me he decided not to tell me this until afterwards when I was safely at the bottom!
As I met the events manager from The Mayhew who expressed her delight at how much money I had raised for them I felt a lot better, and as I made my way to get my harness fitted, passing people who had already completed their jump and who seemed to be not only in one piece but smiling and happy then I started to feel a lot calmer, and that actually, maybe it would be okay. A group of 4 of us made our way up to the top of The Orbit in the lift, and even getting to the top, standing on the platform and looking down I felt fine. We were enclosed by wiring and although the drop was obvious (and steep!) the views were incredible and the people starting their descent before me all seemed calm and I kept thinking, this really is going to be fine.
However stepping onto the abseil platform itself was a completely different story. The first thing the instructors told me was to “not look down” so of course I instantly looked down and without hesitating said, “I don’t think I can do this”… without even skipping a beat that was my first reaction once I got up there. On the abseil platform itself the wiring/panelling is of course removed and there is literally nothing between you and the 300ft drop. It really is just you and the rope making your way down with nothing in between. When I looked down (against their advice) I noticed that you couldn’t even make out that the people on the ground were people – they were merely dots – that’s when the fear really started to take over, and as I look back now I can see it was totally irrational but I had zero control over it. I went from calm to crazy in about 5 seconds and despite testing their patience at the time I can only hope I gave the instructors a really good laugh with my hysterics!
In order to start your descent, you have to first stand on the very edge of the platform (yeah the one that is completely exposed with nothing at all behind you to prevent you from falling off the top of The Orbit), backwards and with your heels hanging off the ledge. Your harness is attached to a guide rope which is anchored to the ground, and in order to begin making your way down you first have to lean back, body completely straight, until you have enough slack on the rope. I pride myself on being very body aware – when I am in a fitness class and the instructor tells me to put my shoulders down, place more weight into my front leg, tuck in my chin or whatever it might be, I respond pretty well to physical cues and how movements are meant to feel. So you would think the instructor telling me to straighten my legs and lean back would be pretty easy, but gripped by fear it was anything but. I literally couldn’t keep my legs straight and I have never, ever seen my body shake so much, but I couldn’t do anything about it. The instructor kept saying, keep your legs straight, why are you bending them, just straight and lean back, but I just couldn’t do it and every time I got close my knees gave way and bent, or I edged my way back onto the platform. He kept asking what I didn’t get and I kept asking him to please, please help me – I was on the verge of a full on panic attack – just over straightening my legs and leaning back! It seems ridiculous when I write that now, but at the time I can say I felt genuinely terrified. After several failed attempt to start to descent, the instructor very kindly said to me that I should give it one more go and if I was unable to do it that was fine but that I’d have to get off the platform and go back down as there were other people waiting to abseil. The thought at that point of having to get back in the lift, go down to my husband and the fundraising team at The Mayhew and tell them I couldn’t do it, not to mention having to explain to everyone who so kindly donated that I failed them and they’d pledged money under false pretences just wasn’t an option. I just said to myself, there’s no way I’m going back downstairs having not done it, and somehow managed to pull myself together and give it one last proper shot. I hung my heels off the platform, despite the uncontrollable shaking I kept my legs straight, I leaned back until the rope was totally slack (and guess what, it didn’t snap and I didn’t fall) and I gingerly edged my feet down the platform, kicked off with my legs and started my descent.
And you know what? Once I was actually abseiling it was actually pretty cool. It was calm, it was peaceful and the views across London were amazing. The only person in control of my rope was me, all the way until both my feet were back on the ground (around ten minutes later – the descent really didn’t take long) and I felt the most overwhelming relief wash over me. But once that had subsided all I could feel was pride – that despite saying several times I couldn’t and didn’t want to do it, and despite being extremely close to having to give up, that I dug deep, steeled myself and just went for it.
You can see a full video of the abseil itself – including GoPro footage from my helmet camera here (thankfully it wasn’t turned on when I was having my hissy fit at the top….!) – but if you’re scared of heights it probably won’t be the most comfortable watch!
A week on I still can’t quite believe I actually did it, but every time I think about it I smile a little to myself because it reminds me that I took on a challenge, I pushed way, way outside of my comfort zone, and I did it. I did something I thought I wasn’t capable of, I faced up to a lifelong fear, and in the process I raised awareness but most importantly vital funds for an incredible charity. Would I do it again? In all honesty probably not! But you know what – I have done it – and I can always hold my head up and say that I didn’t give up and as a result I’ve completed the UK’s highest freefall abseil.
Every single time a client or a class member tells me they can’t my instant reaction to them is yes, you can. You’re stronger than you think, and you won’t ever know how strong you truly are until you take yourself outside of your comfort zone. If only I’d been calm enough to remember my own words at the top of the jump because guess what? They’re true. We’re all capable of so much more than we think, and sometimes to really make a breakthrough – whatever it might be – you just have to get a little bit uncomfortable.
To learn more about the work of The Mayhew and if you missed the chance to sponsor me but would still like to make a donation, you can do so here.
Thank you to everyone who supported me and everyone who believed in me – I guess Wildcats really do always land on their feet!