Dangling at the end of the rope, half-way up the rock-face, I was shaken by my fall, but confident in the knowledge that I was secure. The rope, fastened to the cliff above, and held by my invisible instructor, had held fast. There was no longer anything to fear because I had proof of its dependability.
Months earlier, I had applied for, and been granted, one of four scholarships funded annually by a local benefactor. I was now committed to four weeks of canoing, rock-climbing, orienteering, and assault courses at an Outward Bound Activity Centre on the West Wales coast. I knew little of the challenges and ahead of me.
Aged seventeen, we travelled by train, negotiating several changes, until we arrived at Rhowniar Outward Bound Centre, near Towyn. The previous few weeks had involved hurried preparations, putting together the kit I would need; several pairs of trousers, cotton and woollen socks which had been knitted for me in royal blue, bright green and red; Perhaps I figured that my socks would be spotted were I to get lost. I remember with horror how the colours ran on their first wash. I also had a brand new pair of climbing boots, and applying surgical spirit to my feet to harden them up, per instructions. To this day, surgical spirit instantly reminds me of camping stoves and sore feet.
We were shown our dormitory accommodation, we were allocated to different ones to gain maximum benefit from the experience. Many of the bunks had been taken by those who had arrived first, and I was surprised by the number of police cadets from places like Liverpool. This quiet schoolgirl from Devon, who had recently become a Christian and wanted to read her Bible, had been thrown in at the deep end.
One of our greatest challenges was the assault course high in the trees, where a jump of a few inches, many feet off the ground was scary, but exhilarating when achieved. Canoeing began with being capsized and taught to breathe the air in the space within the upturned boat. My fear of being under water, and an earlier perforated ear-drum came to the fore.
I particularly enjoyed the orienteering as I was keen on geography. Using a compass to plot a route and reach a planned destination. This was a group activity with each of us taking turns to lead, and an assessment given of our leadership skills. Other challenges involved a three-day hike, carrying all our camping equipment, covering some forty miles. The achievement of climbing a summit and
discovering the most spectacular view made the effort worthwhile.
For some reason, probably the good-looking instructor, I relished the challenge of rock-climbing and abseiling. Sometimes these were rocky outcrops, sometimes coastal cliffs, but the most scary was a cliff, down which we had abseiled, only to discover a cave at the base which was unseen from above. No doubt part of the challenge was our response to unforeseen difficulties.
The day on which I received a new level of confidence involved a fall on one such climb; We were ascending a cliff, using ropes and carabiners, and had been taught to move only one limb at a time, so that we always had three points of contact with the rock. Somehow I slipped; whether I overstretched, or simply missed my footing I do not know, but after a sharp jar, where the rope took the strain under my ribs, I found myself dangling unceremoniously at the end. It was a momentary realization that the rope had held, and I was safe.
Taking a few moments to find new holds for my hands and feet, and reassured by instructors, I began my assent again. But now everything was different; despite being shaken by the fall, the change in mentality was noticeable; my worst fear had been faced and the rope held fast. I climbed with renewed confidence, and much greater enjoyment in the knowledge that if the worst happened, I might be bruised, but I would be alive.
I really appreciated the lesson that I learned that day, and have sometimes used it as an illustration of faith in a God who, though we cannot see Him, keeps us safe, even if we fall.
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