You’re standing at the highest point of the Cayman Islands, a bluff that rises from the sea and ends 141 feet above the surface of the water. It’s a peak nearly as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty from feet to outstretched hand, and you’re supposed to walk off the edge. Backwards.
No matter how many times you’re assured it’s safe, you doubt your instructions. You’ve been told that twin ropes secured to your harness can hold up to 5,000 pounds each. You test your weight at the top, leaning backwards and straining against your security mere feet from the edge of the precipice.
But until you take that first step over the edge and into the air, you don’t know what to expect. Your natural instinct is abject fear, even though you know your guides have diligently trained in safety. When you look down, you see nothing but rocks and waves and perhaps a plummeting cormorant.
And then, after your mind wages its fierce internal debate, there’s nothing left but trust.
If you can climb a ladder, you can rock climb.
How did you get into this mess?
Maybe you’re looking for an adventure in Cayman that doesn’t include a scuba tank. And perhaps you’ve seen the advertisement for Rock Iguana Ltd., the rock-climbing company run by Angel Robledo and brothers David and William Verhoeven.
You certainly can’t doubt your guides’ credentials. Rock Iguana is the first rock-climbing company in Cayman. The guides are certified in safety techniques by the American Mountain Guides Association, and they are also trained in Wilderness First Aid.
David Verhoeven is a structural engineer by trade who was educated at Cardiff University and the Imperial College of London, while Robledo has scaled Denali, the tallest peak in North America. They’ve drilled and taught you all the knowledge you can retain before you experience the drop.
And what if rappelling from great heights doesn’t appeal to you? Rock Iguana offers more tranquil climbing, caving and hiking tours that take advantage of the natural beauty of Cayman Brac, and they have training sessions designed for beginner, intermediate and advanced climbers. The company does climbing tours which require no training at all, but they also do Introduction to Climbing courses in the first week of every month before hitting the rocks of the Brac.
The proprietors of Rock Iguana are trying to appeal to tourists and to younger Cayman residents, and they’re hoping to spur a rock-climbing boom before it becomes an Olympic event in 2020. Toward that end, they’ve designed more than 90 climbing routes of varying degrees of difficulty.
All geared up with nowhere to go
The instructors outfit you with gloves, a helmet and harness before you begin a long trek over sand and rocks from the Cayman Brac Lighthouse to the edge of the Bluff. Then, when they sense your anxiety, they go over in great detail how the ropes and harness work to prevent you from a perilous descent.
There are twin anchors at the top of the rock, and both are built from two titanium bolts that can hold up to 11,000 pounds apiece. One rope is fixed at the anchor and fed through your rappelling device and harness, and another one – a redundant backup – is attached to an anchor and your instructor.
The student is told they have full control of the speed of descent, but just in case, the instructor can correct any mistakes with their end of the rope. And then, like a mother bird pushing its young from the nest, they nudge you toward the edge of the Bluff with kindness and encouragement.
No handholds and no footholds
When you go over the edge, there’s a ledge about six feet down where another instructor is stationed. They correct your posture and your positioning, exhorting you to keep your legs straight and horizontal to the rock. At the final ledge, where you pause momentarily, they unclip one rope and reclip another.
Now as you descend, there is nothing for your feet to brace against. It’s like going down a ladder with nowhere to put your feet and with your hands only controlling the rope from your waist. If you move too quickly, there’s the potential hazard of your gloved hands being caught in the belaying device.
Slowly and methodically, you make your way down the rope, feeding it hand over hand and trying not to look down too often. After all, you’re still 110 feet up, high enough to inspire fear in any rational soul. Your instructors remind you to breathe, but they’re really telling you: Don’t panic. You’re safe.
I might not die after all
Down the rope you go, descending faster and faster and trying not to twist your torso.
Maybe halfway down, you actually begin to lose your fear and enjoy yourself. The rappelling technique ultimately becomes second nature even though it’s your first time down the Bluff, which means that you’re progressively becoming more free to take notice of your surroundings.
The sea is green near the shore and gradually deeper and deeper blue as it stretches away from the rocks, and the Bluff, acute obstacle at first, becomes smaller and smaller as you near the bottom. Your guides, essential talismans at the top, become more of an afterthought. It’s just you and nature.
Now, the only scary thing that can happen is twisting away from the rock and losing your bearings. But the guides still have control of the rope, and the bottom is getting closer with every stroke.
Conqueror of the Brac
You’re close to the bottom, but you’re not out of danger yet.
Dropping too quickly onto the rocky shore could mean a sprained ankle or broken leg at the very least, so the guides up top make sure to act as a parking brake. You only have control of the rope until you’re about six feet from the bottom, and then another guide emerges to help you with your footing.
Finally, you’re down on the ground, and with a new respect for the fear of heights and the fear of falling. You may not be over those anxieties just yet. You may be itching to do the whole thing again.
But the day isn’t over yet! The Bluff rappelling tour, which is the most adventurous tour offered by Rock Iguana, ends with a brief visit to a cave and some rock climbing along the beach. The sheer bluff face, so imposing at the top, provides a sturdy challenge for both beginner and intermediate climbers.
After that, there’s a longer hike off the beach over rocky shore and past the protected habitat of the brown booby before you’re picked up and hauled back to the lighthouse. The whole process, from lighthouse hike to the Bluff through release at the bottom and return hike, takes maybe a few hours.
But the memory will last the rest of your life.
For information, visit www.climb.ky or call 936-BRAC (2722).