Descending The Shard for Outward Bound

NIckBarrettNick Barrett, Chief Executive of The Outward Bound Trust, reflects on The story of the Descent of The Shard.

The Outward Bound Trust is a charity and as such is always looking to raise money. In our case we need money to ensure that young people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit from an Outward Bound experience and to ensure that our wonderful but battered buildings in the various mountain ranges of the country are kept in good repair.

The Trustees of the charity had decided that they would become directly involved in a fundraising event, as a way of demonstrating their commitment to the work and to encourage others to donate during this period of economic austerity. Thus it was that I was tasked to attend the Board meeting armed with a number of ideas as to what they might actually do by way of a fundraising challenge.

My list was of ideas was worthy but a bit dull. I think the best involved the Trustees ascending Snowdon on a given day from all possible angles and by every possible means – on foot, by climbing, by train and so forth. I was conscious that our Trustees encompassed a wide range of people from those who had climbed Everest and the Eiger to those whose lifestyles were a little less hearty.

The Board meeting took place at Buckingham Palace in December 2011 and we went through the agenda, eventually coming to my paper outlining the Board Fundraising Challenge. No one exactly fell off their seat with excitement as I outlined the options. At this point The Duke of York made a quiet but (as events were to prove) spectacular and decisive intervention. He leant back in his chair and simply said, “I know what we should do. We should abseil down The Shard”. The impact was electric in the way that only happens when someone comes up with a genuine “killer idea”. Enthusiasm was enormous and in the clamour my ideas were unceremoniously booted to one side.

I must confess that I left the meeting convinced that whilst HRH had come up with a truly great idea, we had absolutely no chance of getting the necessary permission. Later I emailed The Duke and asked him to give it his best shot – but if that night someone had told me that nine months later we would have undertaken the longest civilian abseil in history, raised over £2.9 million, generated publicity that was valued at over £2 million and had the most incredibly motivating experience, I would have thought they were totally insane.

But that is exactly what happened. HRH secured the necessary permission and announced that he would be the first over the edge. He said that he wanted two charities to benefit – Outward Bound and the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund. Now it was down to us to get it organised and make the most of the opportunity.

I’d like to think we did a pretty good job of it. There was much to organise and the planning meetings took place at no less a venue than Buckingham Palace. The stakeholders in this venture were numerous and included The Royal Household, The Duke of York’s Office, Sellar Property (the developers of The Shard), Mace Construction (the builders of The Shard), The Qattari Investment Authority (the majority owners of The Shard), The London Borough of Southwark (the location of The Shard), Pelham Bell Pottinger (providing their PR services pro bono to assist everyone involved) and the Royal Marines and The Outward Bound Trust. The fact that the project went ahead without a single document being signed, without recourse to liability disclaimers and without any contracts is simply extraordinary in this day and age. Instead we relied on the old fashioned virtues of trust and doing what you say you are going to do. Perhaps the Monarchy brings out the better nature in us all?

The technical side of things was not without interest. The Shard is Europe’s tallest building at just over 1000 feet. Outward Bound provided the internationally qualified mountain guides who designed and ran the operation. The Royal Marines provided additional skilled manpower from their mountain and urban warfare sections. We ended up using caving rather than mountaineering equipment because of friction, heat and weight (of rope) issues and we divided the journey down The Shard into three spectacular segments. First up was a one hundred foot abseil from the very top – awesome and airy – down to a spot where a window had been removed and the where the second section began. This was a huge jaw dropping 700 foot abseil down the centre of the building before leading to another removed window and the final relatively short section down to terra firma. No group of civilian abseilers had ever done anything remotely like this before.

On the day itself, things could not have gone more smoothly. The Duke was as good as his word and at exactly 7am on September 3rd he was the first off the building. The fundraising value of his abseil alone was nearly £300,000! I was down at the bottom with a somewhat impressed paparazzi pack whilst television helicopters buzzed around in the early morning gloom. Deputy Chairman Ffion Hague followed HRH and by 8am the sun was shining bright and warm and the abseiling went exactly to schedule. All the 40 abseilers had attended a day of training prior to the event and as a result they were familiar with the equipment and knew by name and face the guides and marines stationed at the various stages of the descent journey. That being said, abseil training off a 60 foot wall in Canning Town is not quite the same thing as teetering at the brink of a 1000 foot sheer drop with all of London spread below your feet. Not a single abseiler lost their nerve at the crucial moment – deeply impressive.

And the rest really is history. We raised money to help rehabilitate Marines wounded on active service in places like Afghanistan; we raised money to help Outward Bound develop confidence, resilience and aspiration in young people from all walks of life and we generated terrific publicity for the charities and London’s latest iconic landmark. We also had a great party that evening.

Nick Barrett, Chief Executive, The Outward Bound Trust

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