London: Abseiling the Orbit

The Orbit has taken off. Two years after The Games, Anish Kapoor's giant Olympic Park sculpture has finally lived up to its looks.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 28 Oct 2014, 12:16 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 14:48 BST

Standing high above the stadium like a supersized, fire engine-red helter-skelter, never before had a structured promised such high-octane fun and delivered almost none, turning out to be a rather tame, if uniquely positioned viewing platform. As athletes ran, jumped, dived and leapt for the stars, we pressed the button and waited for the lift.

But not any longer. Now you can jump off the top of the UK's tallest sculpture. Or rather, abseil over the edge, attached to a professionally monitored safety rope. But still: an 80m leap into the void with the southeast London landscape swooning at your feet, certainly feels fittingly Olympian. And for those, like me, who need more visual units of measurement, this is about the same elevation as a 25-storey building or six vertically stacked Angels of the North. In short: v high.

Londoners have a thing about being high, sometimes even legally. From rooftop bars to sky-scraping Shard hotel rooms, when it comes to a view, we like it eagle-eyed. But this new vertigo-inducing Orbit vantage point beats that of even the biggest birds – almost including those coming out of City Airport, down the road. And the best bit of this view is the sculpture itself, at least initially when you have face, limbs and hands pressed somewhat frantically against its fiery red pipework. Never has this giant Meccano tower looked so impressive: industrial yet elegant, curvaceous yet reassuringly unyielding.

Stepping out of the service window usually reserved for the Orbit's team of abseiling cleaners certainly puts this carefully engineered joyride into perspective, but it also provides a uniquely sculpture-centric vista. Its guts and intricately woven core cannot be seen this intimately from any other vantage point. My first task: a somewhat ungainly clamber down over some 4.5m of pipework supporting the viewing platform, guided from above by a nice man in a hard hat who swears he's done this himself. Cue gawping from the crowds in the gallery – children wave, parents gasp, a few people go a shade of grey that matches the ominously gathering storm clouds.

Once clear of the top, it's a leap of faith or rather a commitment to an angle of dangle that puts nothing but the capital's carbon dioxide-thick air between me and the ground, now some 70m below. And how oddly serene, this turns out to be. With control of the rope that governs the speed of your descent, it's tempting to take a thrill ride down at Spider Man speed. But apart from risking being pulled to a sharp stop by the chap at the top, you'd miss the chance to take in the views – on a good day stretching some 20 miles to the horizon.

Regardless of weather, the abseil will have you on eye-to-eye level with the crane-spiked docklands skyline, the Dome, Shard and Gherkin. London's green and watery patchwork, too, comes sharply into focus and with nothing but your heartbeat and the rhythmic scuff of gloved hands over rope this is a surprisingly meditative experience… perhaps London's ultimate natural high.

Abseiling from the ArcelorMittal Orbit can be booked for select dates in 2015. The approx. 10-minute descent costs from £85 per person.


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