The Sunday Times, October 26, 2014pdf_icon

Look out below — I’m coming down from Orbit

Fancy abseiling off Britain’s tallest sculpture? High above east London, DUNCAN CRAIG buckles up for a preview

The Orbit has always provoked strong reactions. Until now, these have stopped short of hurling yourself off it.

As of next year, all that will change, as the adventure company Eight Point Two starts offering arguably Britain’s most spectacular urban abseiling experience. Certainly its strangest. I’m here for a sneak preview — though the degree of stealth inherent in swinging off one of the UK’s most conspicuous structures while squealing like a lost toddler at the funfair is limited, to say the least. We’ll come back to that.

Arriving at the entrance to the Olympic Park, the Orbit is pretty much the first thing you see. Measuring 376ft, this mangled, blood-red structure rears up behind the Aquatics Centre and effortlessly dwarfs the adjacent Olympic Stadium. A rollercoaster having a seizure? A bungled attempt at architectural balloon art? Most have a view, and it’s rarely complimentary. Anish Kapoor, the co-creator, said he had wanted to focus on creating something asymmetrical; “unbalanced” as he called it. Given what I’m about to do, the description seems entirely apt.

Waiting for me in the bowels of the £22m building is Ian Loombe, 44, the hands-on managing director of Eight Point Two. His handshake is firm — reassuring, given that he’s going to be manning my safety rope. I’m presented with a harness, a helmet and a pair of heavy-duty gloves.

We step into the lift and begin to rise. Visible through the portholes are brief snapshots of the London skyline, wrapped in a tangled web of red steel. The doors open onto the higher of the two viewing galleries, and I’m ushered past Kapoor’s two £1m concave mirrors, which cleverly invert the London skyline, to the outdoor walkway for my safety briefing.

Had I abseiled before? No, not exactly. But my cinematic training is exhaustive. Clip on. Descend in a single, fluid motion. Free the hostage/take out the high-value target. How hard can it be? The instructor’s look says it all.

The bright red safety rope is attached, then the abseil line, threaded through a figure-of-eight “descender”. I’d expected a fair degree of kit and gizmos, but that’s really as technical as it gets. Ian calls me forward and I step out onto the ledge. And that, you won’t be surprised to learn, is when it hits me.

Far below, a schoolchild waves at me. Yeah, I’m not falling for that one

This is really, really high. The concourse and neatly manicured grass of the Olympic Park seem an improbable distance away. Certainly not in the same postcode. I can see a school party arriving. They’re a stream of small dots. To make the rope taut, it’s necessary to sit back in your harness. Over the edge. This, as any abseil aficionado will tell you, is the hard part. Balls-on-the-line time. Almost literally. My self-preservation instinct requires a firm, protracted talking-to before it relents.

And then I’m off. Most commercial abseils are largely “in contact” — that is, there’s something to put your feet against as you descend. In the case of the Orbit, this is limited to a yard or so at the start, when you also must work your way, inelegantly, around two chunky red supports — an amusing spectacle for those taking in the views from the lower gallery. Beyond that, it’s all “free-hanging”, which is pretty much as it sounds.

With my arms at my right hip, I start to feed the rope gently through my hands. The descent is not exactly how I envisaged. For one, I don’t recall special forces tittering weakly at the sheer, implausible exhilaration of it. And instead of a neatly satisfying zip, my technique seems closer to a ham-fisted removal man winching a piano from a top-floor window. Jerky, precarious, the odd strangled note. But I’m loving it.

At one point, the rope gets away from me and I drop a few feet, letting out a yelp that attracts the attention of a passing schoolchild. She waves. Yeah, I’m not falling for that one.

As I begin to relax, I finally get a chance to take in the views. The distant arch of Wembley, nearly 12 miles away; the Square Mile, its Gotham-like towers crowding the cowering dome of St Paul’s; the shiny cluster of Canary Wharf. Closer to hand, the O2, Greenwich Park and the 560-acre Olympic Park — all snaking waterways and expensive landscaping.

And, of course, what’s left of the Olympic Stadium. I can see workmen on the part where Usain Bolt blazed a trail two summers ago. When West Ham finally take up residence in 2016, this could be the best seat in the house (despite being neither).

And then I’m down, into the arms of the company’s chief abseiler, Matt Abbott. He’s been sliding down ropes for 30 years and thinks this is among the best routes he has been involved with. What does he love about abseiling? “It’s a lot of adrenaline for not a lot of work.”

When the Orbit was first opened for the Olympic Games, the mayor, Boris Johnson, was breathless in his praise. His one regret? That it didn’t have a slide. This goes some way towards remedying that oversight.

Matt unhooks me and offers a firm slap on the shoulder. “Not bad. I’ve had people who have been physically sick on smaller ones than this, so well done.”

The 52-year-old is a Hackney boy, and can remember when this part of London was such a no-go zone “that even the dogs went round in pairs”. “It’s not necessarily the most beautiful building to abseil,” he says, helping me off with the harness. “But it’s huge, and a beautiful setting all right. It’s so quiet and peaceful. You’d never guess we were in a city.”

A nice place to hang out, you might say.

ArcelorMittal Orbit will offer its abseiling experience on selected dates in 2015, from £85 (0333 800 8099; arcelormittalorbit.com). The tower itself is open daily, from £15