THE scariest moment, says Ben Heason, came about 500 metres up when he realised, if he fell, his safety rope was too long to protect him from hitting a sharp out jutting ledge 30 metres below.
“If I’d have fallen then it would have been game over,” he says. “There was this really difficult stretch of the wall before I could get to a relatively safe point. But you stay calm. You work through it. You man up.”
Ben Heason was ‘manning up’ all the way to the top of Angel Falls. This unassuming 36-year-old, of Woodbank Crescent, Meersbrook, was lead climber with the first ever team to scale the world’s biggest waterfall.
For 19 days he and six others – including fellow Sheffielder Miles Gibson – spent their waking hours inching closer to the 979 metre top, never knowing what obstacles would be above the next overhang; never knowing, even, if what they were attempting was physically possible. They barely ate because they had to carry their food, and they slept on ledges half a metre wide, still roped up, in case they rolled over in the night.
Now he is to use his mammoth achievement in Venezuela as a backdrop for a series of in-school motivational workshops. “Speaking in front of children is probably more terrifying than the climb was,” he says today. “But, you know, I’ll just...man up.”
It was 2005 when professional Ben made his record smashing climb.
Why? Because it was there?
“I’d been travelling round the world, doing a lot of climbs,” he explains. “But I’d got to a point where I wanted to try something that hadn’t been done.
“I had a couple of friends who’d attempted Angel twice before but they’d had to abandon both times. They were giving it one last shot and asked me to join them. It was a perfect challenge.”
It was the climax of a lifetime obsession.
Ben was just five when his parents, both amateur climbers, themselves, took him out on the rocks of his native Snowdonia.
From there, he spent much of his teenage years clambering about at various locations.
At Birmingham University he joined the climbing club – “every Friday, 6pm, on a bus somewhere, night in the pub, day on the rocks” – and slowly became hooked.
After graduating in 1996 he moved to Sheffield to spend that summer out in the Peak District. And never left.
“The idea was train to be a teacher that September,” he says. “But a room in a flat with other climbers came up, and I just thought I want to carry on climbing.”
It’s not always been smooth sailing, of course.
There was the time at Froggatt Edge he broke both his ankles after losing his grip and falling 10 metres.
Did it put him off? “Only until my ankles had recovered,” laughs Ben, brother of Matt Heason who organisers Sheffield’s annual Cliffhanger festival.
And on four separate occasions he’s had to be rescued.
“The worst was probably in Cornwall where I did a manoeuvre I couldn’t reverse, which essentially means I got to a point where I couldn’t go back down and then I realised I couldn’t go up either. So...yeah, I just stayed hanging on for 30 minutes until the guys I was with could send a rope down.”
But such incidents have not put him off.
“I love it too much,” he says. “I like the exercise, the social aspect and the feeling of achievement.”
And never has that feeling been greater than when he hauled his aching body over the top of Angel Falls.
“How did I feel?” he ponders. “Relief. As you get closer to the top you get more tense because you know just one impossible stretch could mean everything you’ve achieved so far is wasted. So...relief. And exhaustion. But also excited.”
It is that excitement he will share at his motivational talks.
A dry run at various schools in Bradford last year went well, and he’s now got slots booked at school’s around the UK.
All he needs to do now is man up.