Party: Tim Vollmer and Dyson Vollmer – photos
Last year I picked up a harness for my eldest child, who was seven at the time, but I’ve been putting off teaching him to abseil because I was concerned about whether he had the upper body strength and coordination required to do it safely.
This weekend I finally decided to bite the bullet — given Dyson asked once again when he could start canyoning with me — so the family headed up to Yellow Rock in the lower Blue Mountains to a great beginner spot where there are a range of abseils in close proximity and with an easy walk out.
Part of my concern had been that while I’ve taught plenty of adults to abseil, I’d never taught a child, so I wasn’t sure what the best and safest way would be.
I rigged Dyson up in his harness at home — a Petzl Simba which goes over the shoulders for added safety — and lifted him up to ensure it was secure, comfortable, and he was happy with it. He kept it on for the car ride up and when we arrived I quickly rigged up myself and set up two drops.
We had a bit of a walk along the cliffs, looking at the drops and admiring the views over the Nepean, before we got ready for business. As we approached the top of the first abseil Dyson broke down.
Through the tears he was saying he was too scared and didn’t want to do it any more. I gave him a hug, told him it would be okay and said he just had to do one drop — if he didn’t enjoy it we would go home.
I knew I needed to be at the top to get him on the rope, but I also wanted to belay him, and while Michelle had gone down the bottom it was hardly ideal as she had to keep the younger two in check as well. The solution was to use single rope technique.
I tied two alpine butterfly knots, used a carabiner to lock the two strands together (after all the load on the two ropes was going to be VERY different) and rigged up each of our Hydrobots appropriately. For Dyson, who is eight years old and only about 25kgs, I rigged it as you would for double rope with extra friction, while for mine I looped the rope through both sides which actually gives more friction than double ropes rigged normally.
My one concern with Dyson’s harness was that the design places the descender higher on the body than for a conventional harness, so while there is no chance of flipping backwards, it looked more likely to pull him forward into the wall. It turned out not to be an issue, although I’ll re-examine that on wet, slippery rock.
Going over the edge for the first time I went about a metre behind him, using my right hand to abseil and belaying him with my left. He was a little tentative, but moved fairly well and despite being nervous leant back enough to walk slowly down the rock wall.
After a few high-fives at the bottom and a moment to sit down and catch his breath he was asking if I wanted to do it again, so we went up for a second run down the same abseil. He flew down it the second time, confidently pausing to smile at his mum or look around, and doing a much better job of looking at the rock to ensure good foot placement.
We moved on to a few other drops, including one with a tricky start from an anchor over the cliff edge, and several with overhangs. He must have managed at least eight abseils. Best of all he watched closely how the descender worked and was soon getting himself on and off the rope.
Finally we finished on a big 18m drop which had an awkward low start then a large free-hanging drop. Both times I had to move well away from him, wanting to ensure my rope was firmly on the rock before he crossed the edge to reduce the risk of little hands getting caught.
On his first go he had trouble on the edge, ending up partially upside down, but without any assistance other than a few verbal instructions he had himself back upright in no time and continued down, seemingly unfazed.
The last attempt at it also had some difficultly, thanks to the awkward start, but he simply called out to ensure I was on belay then sorted himself out.
As we got back in the car he was already asking when we could go and do a canyon so he could try his new skill out. After watching him handle some difficulties on the rock while staying calm, I’m more confident taking him than some adults I have seen.