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SAS Climbing Secrets

I felt oddly conspicuous in camo face paint, and combat fatigues have never been my idea of acceptable fashion. But here I was, practically invisible to the naked eye and lying still as a possum, eyes focussed down the sights of my semi-automatic rifle while Shane stealthily scaled the slab behind me.

photo: John Arran

The intimidating fighting force; Gavin, Richard and I take a break from shooting

We couldn’t really avoid the shooting, on account of us being paid to be there. And it was only by a harmless TV crew, though the cameraman was hovering within inches of my face for so long I didn't know where to put myself. I contrived to fix upon my face a look of concentration, alertness, and other expressions I presumed an SAS serviceman would be showing. In reality I will have looked like a civi with no military experience at all pretending he was highly trained and fearless. Hopefully with enough editing they'll make me look tough, but it'll not be easy.

We weren't really prepared to be actors; Shane, Gavin, Richard and me. We thought we'd just turn up and do a bit of scrambling up a rocky hillside for camera long-shots. They'd get proper actors to do the close-ups. After all, we weren't being paid enough to do anything skilled or dangerous. Except Shane, who by virtue of being our contact-person, had secured for himself the fun (and rather better paid!) role of fearless free-climbing solo-man. Me, envious? Whatever gave you that idea?

Not that there was anything really dangerous to do anyway, but we weren't going to tell them that, were we? Though as it turned out we ended up coming perilously close to seeing Gavin land in pieces at the bottom of the wall later in the day. Lesson for the day: never mistake confidence for proficiency.

photo: John Arran

Filming the invisible: Shane stealthily scales the impossible face under cover of broad daylight

The recce had been a bit of a hoot. Shane and I had been taken along the Gower coast path and shown the 40ft slab they hoped we would be able to ‘scale’. We looked down at it, then cast nervous looks and sharp intakes of breath back at the shoot co-ordinator, before conceding it might just be possible. Whereupon we scrambled down the bank at the side and almost ran up the wall in our trainers, laughing all the while at what a cushty couple of days we were in for.

Eddie wasn't impressed. "You wouldn't be doing that so easily in combat boots and full kit", he told us in fluent Glaswegian, “and with a 50kg Bergen on your back.”

Eddie was a real SAS serviceman, or rather he allegedly had been at some stage in his fast-receding history, before beer had convinced his barrel chest to head south. But he still talked a good campaign. So much so that he'd become something of a TV celebrity in that medium's new-found fascination with all things SAS.

photo: John Arran

"This is how you put cams in really badly"

The other ex-regiment servicemen were different. They had eyes that told of things we didn't want to hear, and physiques that suggested winding them up too much may not be the healthy option. But they were surprisingly ‘real’ and in their own way likeable people, and not the military pseuds we had begun to expect. On the popular topic of killing, one talkative ex-member told it to us straight, “The Paras and Marines are the worst,” he said, “once they get started you cannae stop ‘em. Men, women, animals – anything that moves they'll f***ing shoot it. Even if a guy's dead already, they'll bayonet him anyway.” But we weren't easily impressed, and vowed to wind up the SAS boys at every opportunity.

The following day the scene had been transformed. The safety crew had fixed a rope down the grassy bank, with shunts and slings in place so nobody got hurt walking. And nobody was to go within three metres of the cliff edge without being ‘roped and harnessed’, which sounded rather fun. Gav and Rich soon got told off for wandering unroped halfway up our fearsomely hard rock climb, even though they were careful not to go within 3m of the top!

We had a laugh, we scaled fixed ropes four abreast, knocking loose holds off onto the nervous crew below. Shane demonstrated leading, and cunningly placed gear that was so bad he could walk back down and pull it all out with a quick tug on the rope so he was ready for the next take. We spent many a free moment shooting each other with our plastic guns (“Dance, mo-fo, dagadagadaga”) and getting sternly castigated for it (Oh, you mean the real ones are dangerous? Thanks for telling me – I never would have realised). We even did some abseiling which, as every non-climber knows, is what climbing is all about. We abbed side by side, conveniently ignoring the fact that if our sacks were full of anything heavier than pillows we soon would have been upside down and scraping our way painfully down the wall.

We had a hostage; Gavin became a mad scientist with cuffs on and a pillowcase over his head. The SAS were to be lowering him down, which worried us not a little so we talked it all through and made sure the right people had the right knowledge.

photo: John Arran

Gav's alter-ego: a mad professor hostage with a bag over his head

Eddie was to be abseiling first, then controlling the rope while Gav was bundled over the edge in abseil mode but with his hands tied. We should have seen the warning signs as Eddie jerked his way down the rope and lost his balance upon contact with terra firma, comically rolling down the bank while still trying to look professional. But how hard can it be to belay someone down? He knew if Gavin was going too fast he just had to pull harder on the rope, and we really couldn't see a genuine problem.

When it came to Gav's turn we stared like hawks at the way the harness was put on and the abseil device attached. All went smoothly and I ran around the side to watch. He rounded the edge safely enough, and I remember felling relieved that all was well. But then he started accelerating fast, dropping as though completely unattached. Time stood still as he fell ten feet or more. We watched in horror. But then he stopped. Just as suddenly as control had been lost it was regained again. He'd insisted on keeping his hands pretend-tied ‘just in case’, and managed to grab his own rope shortly before going so fast he wouldn't have been able to hold it. Eddie was at the bottom pulling on the wrong rope.

photo: John Arran

Thankfully Gav was able to arrest his own fall

We could barely believe our eyes. We were relieved and angry, and not slow in making our feelings known. People had to know how close Gavin had come to major injury. Not surprisingly there became no need for a second take. It was a wrap.

The next day's climbing scenes suddenly became non-essential and were written out of the script. Thanks to Gavin's misadventures we got to play around in inflatable landing craft all day, still trying to look tough and alert and all things we weren't but this time acting out a clandestine beach landing. Eddie tried to convince us it would take five days to rig ropes up our little slab and haul gear up, and as he didn't listen to us at all anyway we found we could say pretty much anything. So we told him how crap the SAS must be, but he wasn't listening.

We decided to squeeze in a few routes at Oxwych Bay after the shoot, which everyone except us seemed to think was pretty strange behaviour. After all, we hadn't been climbing for two days and it was a much better way of unwinding than the alcohol-laden alternative. And it was good to feel like we were back in our version of normality, though I'm not sure whether it was the military version or the TV production version I found the more strange. I am looking forward to seeing it on the telly though, and it's probably no bad thing we can't take SAS celebrities seriously any more.

The Cliff Assault episode of SAS Secrets was first screened on BBC2 in February 2004

This article, by John Arran, first appeared in the February 2004 issue of On The Edge magazine.