In one of his previous columns for The Great Outdoors, Ed said he’s never go wild swimming again. But canyoning doesn’t count, right?
There’s a gag that crops up a lot in TV sitcoms. You don’t see it as much as you used to because it became somewhat overused but it was particularly common through the seventies and eighties. It was a very simple sight gag known as a “cut-to gag” or “refusal cut”, which involves a character vehemently insisting that there is no way in hell they’d ever do something, immediately followed by them doing the thing they insisted they’d never do. For example…
Dave: “You’d never see me wearing anything that wasn’t the height of fashion.”
Cut to: DAVE DRESSED AS A CHICKEN HANDING OUT FLYERS OUTSIDE A RESTAURANT
Brian: “If you think I’m going to go bungee jumping dressed as a ballerina, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Cut to: BRIAN DANGLING FROM A CRANE WEARING A TUTU
In America it’s known as a Gilligan Cut because it was used so often on the sitcom Gilligan’s Island. The reason I bring it up is that, while I try to be relatively original in my comedy and not rely too much on hackneyed old jokes, I appear to have actually done a Gilligan Cut with my latest two articles. Having been swimming in near zero temperatures in Red Tarn, I concluded my last piece for TGO by saying that wild swimming is the sort of thing everyone should try once but that if you’re as bad a swimmer as I am, you may find once is enough.
Cut to: ED, IN A WETSUIT, SWIMMING ALONG A RIVER IN SCOTLAND.
My life has become a bad sitcom.
I have come to Vertical Descents’ base at Inchree falls near Fort William to experience the pleasure (and pain) of canyoning. Canyoning is a catch-all term for all the mucking about you can do in a river gorge. Swimming, climbing, diving, abseiling and more. Obviously, as with wild swimming, it’s the sort of thing you can just do anywhere you like on your own, but is much safer with the aid of a guide.
Our guide for the day is Daryl, an enthusiastic and garrulous ex-military bloke with an enthusiastic and garrulous ex-military sense of humour. He starts by getting us all kitted out in wetsuits, life jackets, harnesses and helmets before marching us up the hill to waterfalls we’re going to be stoating about in. As with all group activities, there’s a certain amount of hanging about and waiver signing before the fun can begin. My group consists of a father and son who have just been sea kayaking for a few days and are rounding off their Scottish trip with one last blast, and a stag do consisting of three brothers. We all gather around Daryl as he talks us through a few safety instructions regarding how to position your body when sliding down a chute and when jumping from a height. The main thrust of the safety talk is: don’t jump into anything unless I say so.
Safety talk done, we head down to the river and hook ourselves onto the via ferrata that runs through a lot of the course. At first it feels quite restrictive and at times feels like overkill to have to clip into, but with a group activity like this, where you’re often dealing with total novices, it’s a necessary evil. To begin with, the day feels like it’s all going to be very tame, but very soon it all becomes challenging – even for somebody who has a fair amount of scrambling and climbing under his belt. After breaking us in with a gentle dip and some easy climbing, Daryl is telling us to jump into a pool next to a thundering waterfall that I wouldn’t dream of going near if it wasn’t for Daryl’s insistence that it was safe.
Another little climb down followed by a short swim and a scramble up the bank and we reach the first of three increasingly high jumping-off points. If you’re one of the cliff divers of Acapulco these jumps will seem like piffling trifles (although you’d probably be put off by how cold the water is compared to Mexico). For me, who has never been fond of heights, particularly not falling from them, they seem like difficult challenges. Daryl recaps his chat on how best to hit the water and supplements the talk with some new information regarding how best to swing your legs to get the best distance from the rocks. One by one, we all jump in. It’s not the most pleasant experience for me. You have to remember to keep your legs, arms and head all in the right position so as not to hurt anything but I seem to manage to neglect one of the three body parts every time I hit the water. On this first occasion I leave my legs open a little too wide and hurt those parts most susceptible to blunt force trauma.
After another short climb we come to a zip wire, which we individually hook onto before being lowered along by Daryl. Then, suspended above a pool, we are instructed to let go of the knot holding us onto the zip wire. According to Daryl, we’ll each “Drop straight down like a pencil.” The thing is, if you’re still swinging when you let go, you drop less like a pencil and more like a badly flipped pancake. Oof! The next high jumping point is then reached by climbing up through and behind the waterfall. I can honestly say this is my favourite bit of the day, immediately followed by my least favourite bit of the day. The climb through the waterfall is exhilarating. Clambering over the rocks while water gushes all around you and roars past your head makes you feel like Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans. As I haul my way through the torrent I have to keep myself from yelling: “Stay alive. No matter what occurs, I WILL FIND YOU!”
However, this moment of cinematic drama is followed by an even higher jump than the last one, which makes my sinuses feel like a bomb had gone off in them.
After a little bit more swimming and climbing we come to our last jump of the day, and it is pretty high. I couldn’t give you an exact height. It might have been 20 feet. Maybe less. I know it looks a lot higher from the top than it does from below. Daryl gives us all a pep talk telling us that he has had members of the parachute regiment not want to do it, and so there is no shame in giving it a miss. I’m feeling a little bit beaten up by the last jump so am seriously toying with the idea of not bothering, but as the lads from the stag do start jumping off one by one, I realise I should give it a go. Fearing that if I hang around too long I’ll chicken out, I ask to go third. I stand on the edge, getting ready to swing my leg, but the longer I stand there, the more nervous I become. “I can’t do it!” I say and move out of the way, giving someone else a go. Cursing my cowardice I watch as everybody else in the group jumps off the edge.
One after another, the entire group has now taken the plunge except me. Daryl reiterates his point about how there’s no shame in not doing it. He’s lying of course, and I know this, so once again I step up to the precipice. This time I don’t give doubt long enough to fester and swing my leg out, giving the rest of my body no choice but to follow. I hit the water with my head slightly forward and feel like I’ve knocked my eyelids inside out, but I’ve done it. I’m greeted with a small but, I feel, well-earned round of applause from my fellow adventurers. It’s a spectacular end to a fun day that I thought was going to be tame and boring, but turned out to be exciting and fear-conquering.
Confounding expectations, my life has gone from being a bad sitcom to being a quality drama.
Ed Byrne went canyoning at Inchree Falls near Fort William with Vertical Descents, who offer a wide selection of adventurous activities in Scotland and Cornwall. Contact them on 01397 747111 for more information. Or check out their website.
Photography by Ed Smith