Dictionary says: is the controlled descent down a rope.

AJ says: going down a wall a long way on a tiny rope for the sake of it, paying for the opportunity. Bonkers really.

Some people like to sleep in on their Saturday mornings. Not us. Not on this day. 

Alyce, Justin, Rogers and myself formed an intrepid crew of adventurers willing to test our mettle by descending the world’s highest commercial abseil – Gordon Dam in Southwest Tasmania.

We make the very early morning drive from Hobart Town to Strathgordon to complete a task that had been a plan for ages. Hobart Town was very much a-slumber at 5.45am when I crept out the front door and pressed the Escape Hatch’s ignition key. 

We rendezvous at Alyce’s place for a wake-up-coffee and hit the road around 6.30. Driving north we take the pleasurable drive through New Norfolk and Bushy Park, going directly through Westerway and Maydena, the last town before Strathgordon. Any thoughts of another coffee or extra supplies disintegrates as the Mountain Café at Maydena has not opened for trade. 

The scenery changes from lush green bush, to eerie burnt out charred blackness at The Needles where recent and ongoing bushfire is wreaking havoc. 

The Needles Escape Valve
The burnt out remains of forest and vegetation at The Needles

Driving into the Southwest Tasmania World Heritage Area we are greeted with ranges of mountains and catchments of water.

On we go to our destination, Strathgordon. 

Read about my kayaking session on Lake Pedder here: https://wp.me/p8IeV8-eM

Arrival at Gordon Dam

Four sets of legs emerge from the Escape Hatch wondering what awaits. 

Gordon Dam is covered in low fog at first sight. On cue the fog quickly clears and it is a magnificent sight to behold.

Gordon Dam is a double curvature arch dam. It is 2.5 metres (m) thick and 200m long at the top and 18m thick and 50m long at the bottom.

Gordon Dam Escape Valve
Gordon Dam reflections. Photo credit: Alyce Fenton

Soon we are greeted by the Aardvark Adventures gang of Phil (the outrageous ringleader), Dillon and Sam.

Aardvark Adventures are Tassie extreme sport veterans. If abseiling, white-water rafter, caving or kayaking is your pursuit of interest, these are the guys to see in Tasmania.

There are six others on todays abseil. More the merrier!

The Gordon Dam abseilers Escape Valve
The mongrel horde of wannabe abseilers

Quicker than a whippet with a bum full of dynamite, we’re kitted out in helmets, gloves and harness and we are as ready as we’ll ever be. Gulp!

The Aardvark boys are quick on the chat amongst each other. Ordinary quality Dad jokes are Phil’s specialty. As we discover, so are taking selfies. Loves a photo does Phil. Loves a photo.

Sam and Dillon play off the banter with some quality remarks – they help keep the mood jovial. A few jokes about safety and technical skills and lack of experience are thrown out there to keep everyone on their toes. It’s all a good natured ploy to keep nerves in check while they set up the abseiling for the day. This Aardvark crew is a well-oiled machine. 

Free Solo Moment

Sometimes in life there is no turning back. Where it’s harder to retreat than to advance. I recently watched the documentary Free Solo (spoiler alert) where professional free solo rock climber Alex Honnold became the first and only person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – all 900m of it. Incredible. No rope to bail him out if he got stuck. Alex HAD to go up. Mental fortitude at its finest.

This was my going to be my Free Solo moment.

I wasn’t in the first couple to go down. Or the second. 

Keen-as Alyce goes in the first group with 71 year old Thelma. Age is no barrier! 

I get the opportunity to learn the art of belaying (controlling the speed of the rope for somebody else while they are abseiling) in the descent of fellow abseilers.

Alyce makes the first abseil a success for our crew.

In the retrieval of rope from a successful descent I learn how to pack a rope in the rope bag without knotting it. I find a sense of involvement makes the whole experience more inclusive and educational. 

Phil takes me through his eight check system of hooking up the ropes to each descender. It is definitely a muscle memory skill. 

Justin goes in the second lot. He reaches the ground safely. It averages roughly twenty minutes between each abseil pair.

Standing on a Ledge

Now was my time.

“If you had one shot. One opportunity… one moment. Would you capture it?” 


My palms are sweaty. My knees are weak…

Unlike Alex Honnold, the situation I found myself in was that I had to go DOWN. Plus I had rope. Smart move on my part.

Ready to descend Gordon Dam Escape Valve
Ready and just about set to drop 140m at Gordon Dam

I ungainly clamber over the railing of Gordon Dam, get hooked up, set, checked and rechecked. Touching off from the wall, I release the white rope through my right hand that is stationed behind my back. I am on the long journey down to the amphitheatre below.

There is no film crew trying to capture my success and turn my story in to an award winning documentary. I am just trying to achieve a personal goal, a task I had set a few years ago to prove that I can do it. 

Feat of Engineering

The setting of the Gordon Dam abseil is surreal itself. A big old dam wall in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of the world. Construction of this feat of engineering was completed in 1974 as part of the Hydro Electric Commission’s Gordon River Power Development. The dam wall contains over 154,000 cubic metres of concrete. The amount of water it holds is more than Sydney Harbour.

The location is simply so stunning. You feel all alone as you descend. Everything fades away. The muffled voices from above, the railing, time. Even the fear.

Going Down Gordon Dam Escape Valve
Myself (left) and Rogers (right) descending doooown.

140 Metres

It is easy to lose track of how long the descent takes. So much of the abseil is a free fall. Because of the curvature of the dam, I lose foot contact with the dam wall after no more than 15-20 metres. The rest is just me and rope. 

About half way down I stop for a breather. I take my first proper look around. The enormity of the wall, the specks of the two who abseiled prior down below. My new abseiling mate, Rogers, who is above me about five metres across on the next rope.

The hydroelectric workers doors and tunnels are visible in the rock walls,  and the ladder enclosure to the left is the way back up. My main concern becomes how many ladder rungs back to the top.

TIP: On Wednesdays, the hydro engineers are on site and they run the adjacent lift. You can sometimes get a ride up. 

The Gordon Dam Wall Escape Valve
The Gordon Dam wall close up

Although I am a long way from the ground, I feel at ease. Too much at ease. I lose my form and start to sprawl like a plump dried out star fish for the last quarter of my descent. Elegance is my middle name.

The damp ground finally greets me softly. Relief is my overriding emotion. Not excitement. Accomplishment washes over a minute or two later when Rogers hits the bottom too.

Unhooked and untied, the ropes and bag are soon hoisted back to the top of the dam by the belayers high above.

I had done it! I had abseiled the world’s highest commercial abseil. Most importantly, I proved to myself that I could do it. 

Mission accomplished Escape Valve
Mission accomplished at the base of Gordon Dam

Post Abseil Sobriety

Each member of our awesome foursome successfully negotiated the 140 metre abseil.

Alyce and Justin took the opportunity for a second go, and the stakes were raised with a race. Alyce winning the showdown due to a small hitch with Justin’s rope. 

There is a little known record – the ascent from the base to the dam wall via the ladder. We had a record break on the day. Justin made it up in 6.51 minutes. I was closer to 15 minutes. Reckon you could do quicker? One way to find out…

Time for a bite to eat and a beer.

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