Years ago, I was climbing a coastal cliff in Dorset, high above a fissure known as 'Conger Cave'. At the time, I wondered if the cave really was replete with congers; I remember thinking how nice it would be if I could just go for a dive there and then, combining two of my favourite outdoor activities. This year, I finally returned to the spot to see if there could be a future in abseil diving.
Of course, it would be perfectly feasible to access the site by RIB, but given that these are ideal cliffs for climbing, I wanted to use the dive as an exercise to see if I could carry out a completely different sort of shore dive. The plan was to abseil to the sea, dive the cave, extract myself back up the rope and nip back to Swanage for tea and medals. I packed my equipment into a rucksack: my diving equipment, climbing kit and ropes weighing in at about 60kg. I volunteered Bex, my long-suffering girlfriend, to carry 15kg of the equipment.
Even though it was early March, there were still patches of snow on the ground. Still, the sun was beating down as we followed the coastal path from Anvil Point, trekking westwards for a mile and a half. Leaving the track, we headed down a steep grassy slope to the top of the cliff – this was pretty steep so we took our time and proceeded carefully.
At the top, I chose my launch point and Bex headed off to take some photos, pausing only to zip me into my drysuit. Once the ropes were secure, I put on my diving harness over the climbing and chest harnesses, then clipped on my two seven-litre cylinders so that they hung low and clear of me, along with the rest of my kit.
The abseil went reasonably smoothly, apart from the abrupt start where I was forced to jump clear of the initial overhang. This had my cylinders clanging like church bells – hopefully not for a funeral, I thought. After descending for about 25m, I hit the water, quickly unclipped myself from the rope, moved my cylinder up into side-mounted mode and tested my regulators.
Setting off into the cave, I peered into the gloom, searching for the tip of a mast or, perchance, some giant man-eating eels. Alas, I spotted neither. The swell was picking up, and as the water bucked inside the cave, it was churned and aerated into a thick, milky blue. I picked my way between some boulders at about 6m, which may well have held the beasts that gave the cave its name, but if they were present they weren’t out to play. The light was better nearer the surface, but after a battering against the cave walls, I dropped back down to relative safety and exited the cave.
I surfaced and swam back to the rope. Here’s a bit of advice for anyone considering an abseil-entry dive: if you start at high water, make sure there’s sufficient excess rope to account for the change of tide, or you may find yourself facing the athletic challenge of having to reach a rope that is now hanging three metres above the sea. It could make for a great anecdote at your club night, but it’s a long wait for the next high tide…
It took a bit of time to clip the ascending devices in place, as I was buffeted by the swell. Finally, all set, I started the long shift up the rope. I’d left my weight belt and cylinders attached to the rope’s end to weight it, a tactic that makes climbing the rope easier. Besides, dragging my sorry backside up the cliff in diving gear was going to be effort enough without a load of steel and lead lashed to me.
After a couple of rest stops to admire the view, I finally made the last overhang. I swung up over the ledge – a manoeuvre that required a bit more gymnastic flexibility than my drysuit seemed willing to give – and rolled unceremoniously onto the top. I hauled the metalwork back up and stood there, triumphant but alone.
Now, the more astute among you will have spotted a tiny flaw in my plan. I stood atop the cliff facing the prospect of carrying my kit back without the help of Bex. What’s more, I don’t suppose even the great Houdini could have extricated himself from a tight-fitting drysuit without an assistant on hand to undo the rear zip. Resigned to simmering in neoprene, I packed my walking boots, diving and climbing kit into my sack, humped the straps over my dump valve and set off scrambling up to the path.
With a mile and a half of undulating muddy path to negotiate, sweat was soon pooling in my drysuit boots, which were definitely found wanting in the grip department. So, at regular intervals, I would lose my footing and slump down on the muddy track, my progression earthwards assisted by the fruit machine-sized pack on my back.
I finally made it to the car and, well… never has an unzipping felt so good. Steam billowed from the suit as Bex peeled it off my sodden body. I sat in the car park overlooking the lighthouse in my dripping pants, chugged a bottle of Lucozade and tucked into a paper bag of assorted sweeties, ruminating on my experiment in abseil diving. While such techniques are used in cave diving, most people prefer to take it easy after a dive. Still, for a bit of Saturday afternoon adventuring, you can’t beat it. My only advice is to have a team on hand so that there’s someone available to unzip your drysuit...
Obviously, this sort of entry should not be attempted without the requisite training, fitness and experience. I established anchors in the rock using climbing nuts – fingernail-sized cubes of metal on a wire loop. These are wedged into cracks in the rock and the rope is attached for abseiling down to the water. Ascending is a little more technical, and involves a harness and a device that allows you to propel yourself upwards, but has metal teeth that ‘bite’ down on the rope to prevent you slipping down. For this feature, I had the luxury of a safety boat, from which the process was photographed. Otherwise, this is best approached as a team endeavour, and solo diving is not recommended.