“How do I stop?? How do I make it stop going down?!?” I shriek frantically at my husband, who is calmly dangling in mid-air a few feet below me. I can’t make out his response through the roaring, cascading waterfall that we are both being drenched in as we rappel down a sheer rock face 250 feet in the air, but it’s probably something like “Use the rope, idiot!” Right. Obviously. I rack my brain trying to remember if you pull up on the rope to go or stop – or maybe move your hand up or down – or is it out to the side? What did the guide say? I cycle through each of the options, with no results. Instead of NOT spiraling towards my impending doom, I keep slipping further and further down the slippery rock face, scrabbling around like a panicked kitten clinging to a curtain for dear life. Except the curtain is freezing cold gushing water, and this isn’t cute at all. In my frenzy of attempting to gain control of the situation, I fail to notice that the slippery rock wall my feet have been uselessly tap-dancing down ends suddenly, giving way to an overhang. Mid-tap-dance, my foot touches … nothing. I swing helplessly into thin air, no longer a panicked kitten scrambling for a foothold but a fully grown woman with nothing but a tiny, stupid, probably fraying rope preventing her from falling to her death. I hear myself scream. And scream. And scream.
Waterfall Rappelling: The Beginning
We are in San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. I like to think of myself as the adventurous type: I enjoy a good thrill ride, I like to explore the outdoors and test my survival instincts, I enjoy a challenge and a bit of an adrenaline rush. “A bit” being the operative term, it turns out. During our week in San Gil we had gone paragliding – which was an absolute blast and actually quite relaxing – and white water rafting in level 1-2 rapids, which was fun but not, like, scary fun. During an adrenaline filled 10 minutes after our easy white water rafting adventure, we signed up for a level 5 white water rafting course, giggling to each other over our newfound bravado. But as the adrenaline faded, my mind instead filled with flashbacks of a high school white water rafting trip involving my classmates floating downstream past jagged rocks, crying out for help (in my mind, this was definitely life threatening, a la Titanic but with more rocks, and it’s a miracle nobody died or was arrested, … but that’s probably entirely inaccurate). My bravado disappeared and was replaced with a much more familiar feeling of dread and anxiety. I quickly wimped out. This should have been my first clue that maybe I’m actually not the adventurous type. Unfortunately, I have terrible judgement and am capable of learning only by trying and completely failing.
My husband opted not to go white water rafting on his own, because he’s sweet and darling (please note that since this
disaster episode, he’s gone on solo adventures without me a zillion times, so I haven’t totally ruined his life by being a big chicken). Anyway, we had a whole day free in the adventure capital of Colombia. The possibilities were limitless, but we wanted to go with something a bit more relaxing. Walking tour? Nah – TOO relaxing. Mountain biking? Goodbye, crotch. At last, we settled on going to Juan Curi waterfall. Let me repeat: we wanted to go to the waterfall. Not die there. Not jump off anything. Not even have a particularly newsworthy day. Just a tranquilo day swimming under a waterfall together, like a couple of young(ish), newly-married backpackers on their travel honeymoon, bla bla.
Then, Jeremy decided that he wanted to try waterfall rappelling.
It seemed like a good compromise: I’d swim at the bottom, safe and sound, while he dangled on a rope 250 feet in the air on his own exciting adventure. I wish this was a boring post all about my relaxing day at the waterfall and how cool it was to watch a tiny little red-haired speck in the air make its way down to me, but as you’ve probably guessed, that’s now how things worked out.
Getting to Juan Curi Waterfall from San Gil, Colombia
To get to Juan Curi waterfall from San Gil, we hopped onto a bus (one of those random buses in Colombia that you just find by the side of a specific road at a random time by doing a sort of hand-waving ritual and looking lost). It was supposed to be a quick 30 minute ride, but due to the Colombian space-time continuum where everything takes roughly 8x longer than expected – or in this case, construction traffic – it ended up being 2 hours. In the heat.
The last rappel time was 11:30 am. We watched from our idle bus as time crept well past that, poor Jeremy feeling more and more bummed with each passing minute. To make matters worse, we were sitting in front of one of those travel couples – you know, two complete strangers with nothing in common but their mutual gorgeousness and love of travel who have just begun hooking up in their hostel and are so enamored with each other that they think they’re being sly when they grope each other and giggle dirty nothings in English right behind the only other gringos on the bus, who have absolutely nothing better to do than eavesdrop. This PG-13 rated entertainment was the only thing distracting us from the 2+ hours of traffic on the sweltering hot bus we were stuck on. By the end of our bus ride, Jeremy and I knew just about as much as the 2 tanned travelers making out behind us as they did about each other.
Finally, we pulled up to the entrance of Juan Curi waterfall. We disembarked … and so did the lovebirds. Of course they did. All gringos in South America are pretty much always headed to the same spots. We struck up a conversation and carefully tried to avoid letting onto the fact that we’d heard absolutely everything.
The entrance fee to swim beneath the falls is only 7.000 COP (about $2.30 USD), but the kid (like, literally a child) at the desk selling tickets told us that waterfall rappelling was open until 1:30! Jeremy was ecstatic. Waterfall rappelling costs 50.000 COP each (about $15 USD). Jeremy pulled out 57.000 COP to cover my swim … but in a snap decision I still don’t fully understand, I said “Dos para torrentismo, por favor.” I still have no idea what I was thinking – I think my goldfish memory actually just forgot what waterfall rappelling involved. Or that I hadn’t planned on doing it. (And for no good reason, my husband didn’t think to let me know that I was having a temporary bout of insanity. So this is all his fault, really.) So much for a relaxing day of swimming, I guess. We all hiked towards the majestic waterfall looming over us, enchanted with the peacocks, turkeys, cows and a solitary llama dotting the grounds on our way up. (Note: we later learned that it was a guard llama, like all the other llamas we met in South America. How adorable is that?! One of those things that nobody tells you before you go backpacking in South America!)
We parted ways with our new travel couple friends as the path veered sharply upwards. Apparently, waterfall rappelling also means that first you must hike to the top of the waterfall. Damn. Jeremy and I huffed and puffed our way up the our slow climb through the jungle, pulling ourselves up using some helpfully provided ropes tied to trees on one side of the steep trail. It was like a fun test: if you can pull yourselves up using these mangy, slippery, algae-covered ropes, you have earned the right to rappel down the insane waterfall of doom.
Or maybe it was: if you bothered to get yourself up this stupid hill, you might as well take the shortcut down.
After about 30 minutes of grueling climbing, we are greeted by our guide. He cheerfully finishes the rest of the trail with us like it’s nothing, chatting amiably in Spanish as we breathlessly attempted our own conversational niceties.
At last we reach the top, and are struck breathless (ok, we were already breathless because we’re really out of shape and climbing up a hill, but what I’m saying here is that we weren’t able to catch our- look, it’s a turn of phrase, just go with it) by the view. We are so freaking high in the air.
It is at this point that fear begins to creep its way into my head: am I really going to go up to this cliff face and just …. what, casually stroll down it!?! I peer over the edge – allllllllllll the way down – and it makes me dizzy. This is insanity. This is nothing like rappelling down a wall during indoor rock climbing, which I am used to (but still makes me a little nervous sometimes, if I’m being honest). This is a prayer, a test of human mortality. At the risk of sounding dramatic: this is laughing in the face of death.
Waterfall Rappelling: The Descent
As I peer over the edge of Mount Doom and see watery death laughing up at me, Jeremy is cheerfully chatting with our guide, who is demonstrating proper waterfall rappelling form. Oh, shit, I should probably pay attention to this. OK: legs straight out on the wall in a V formation, feed the rope through the rappelling device to slowly descend, walk straight-legged down the wall, do something or other to halt descent, don’t die, stay tranquilo, bla bla bla. Seems legit. Jeremy and I both nod with understanding, but I’ve already forgotten everything that I’m supposed to do. Instead of thinking about proper waterfall rappelling form, my heart is clenching with fear every time the guide takes a demonstrative step over the edge of the waterfall and towards the looming nothingness below. Jeremy is excited. I am terrified.
“You don’t have to do this, honey,” Jeremy reminds me, noticing my stricken face growing even paler than usual by the minute. “You can just meet me at the bottom!” I think of the 30 minutes of grueling climbing we just completed, and decide it is easier to grit my teeth and rappel down this stupid waterfall than hike all the way back down again. “Climbing down sounds like a whole thing,” I warble. “I’ll just do it. I’ll be fine.”
Laziness (or maybe stubbornness? No, let’s just be honest. Laziness.) results in a lot of terrible decision making in my life. Like…let’s just zoom in on this idiotic decision for a minute. I hiked for thirty minutes up a steep hill. That’s what…15 minutes downhill? Tops? Sure it was slippery, but so is the giant fucking waterfall behind me. Maybe I was holding out for a Door #3 option. Like is there a llama up here I could ride down, maybe? An elevator? Look, I have no excuse. I’m an idiot. (Side note: how cute would a llama in an elevator be?!)
Having made my severely misguided decision to see this thing through, I step into the harness and try to pretend that I’m just going to go down a really high up rock climbing wall. After the first few steps I’ll probably get the hang of it and have fun, I think, determinedly. The guide doesn’t seem worried by my fear. “Tranquilo,” he says reassuringly. Tranquilo: Colombia’s national state of being.
I take a deep breath and try to channel tranquilidad as I turn my back to the horrifyingly high-up view to take my first practice steps. I lean backwards to let the
shoestring rope fully take my weight (all 200+ pounds of it, oh god, does this thing have a weight limit?!) and let out a terrified little squeak. Tranquilo. I can do this. Summoning my courage, I let the rope out about 1/4 of an inch and take a teeny step downwards, then another. Feed the rope, one, two. The guide tells me “bueno, perfecto” and moves towards Jeremy to watch his form, which is a lot less squeaky than mine. After 10 seconds of practice, we are apparently fully qualified waterfall rappelling experts.
Jeremy goes first. I watch him disappear over the edge, judging from his lack of panic that things aren’t as bad as I’m imagining them to be. I can do this. Tranquilo. I take a deep breath and let gravity (and physics, apparently) take me over the edge of the waterfall.
Roughly a minute later, my 10 seconds of practice have already been forgotten, and I have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing. The harness is positioned in such a way that I’m unable to straighten my legs into a V shape to walk down the wall. The best I can manage is sort of a crawl, on my toes, with my knees bent – if it sounds like the fetal position, that’s because I was totally in the fetal position – which is exactly what the guide said NOT to do. My tranquilidad flies out the window.
“How do I stop?” I scream down at Jeremy, tears already springing to my eyes. It occurs to me – very logically – that this rope has probably taken decades of abuse. Clearly THIS is the moment it will finally call it quits. Hundreds of people probably do this every day – hundreds of tanned, fit backpackers who all weigh less than 200 pounds – but I will definitely be the one that this stupid rope will break on, because that would just fucking figure.
It is at this moment of calmly accepting my inevitable demise that I suddenly find myself spiraling downwards with nothing to stop me, my feet bicycling in midair, crashing helplessly into cold, wet rock. I hear myself scream, over and over. I try to stop myself from screaming by taking a deep breath, and find that my breath is wracked with sobs. I am having a full blown panic attack.
Waterfall Rappelling: The Panic
I am an accident prone person. And although I am active, I am very slow, terribly clumsy, and horribly unathletic. As such, I tend to get myself into slightly dangerous situations whenever I try to do something that is only dangerous if you happen to be clumsy/slow/unathletic. Several times, I’ve found myself unable to hike fast enough to escape approaching darkness on a hike that I was supposed to finish hours before (like the Valle de Cocora. Or the Quilotoa Loop. Or the Inca Trail. I could go on, but this is getting embarrassing). And although I am always tempted to panic in the face of certain death by coyote pack, dehydration, or jellyfish, (my husband says that the jellyfish were harmless, but everyone knows that jellyfish are NEVER harmless) I remember that the worst thing you can do in a life or death situation, or any kind of crisis, is panic. As soon as you panic, you’re dead. You have to keep a calm head, regain control of your situation, and think logically. This is usually a piece of cake for me because I’m generally logical as shit.
In the back of my panicking mind, a little voice remembers this fact and helpfully reminds me. “Remember, dude, you’re logical as shit. So don’t fucking panic. If you panic, you’re dead. The worst thing you can do right now is panic.” OK, I think. I’m OK. I’m not panicking. I’m just going to cry the entire way down this stupid waterfall, and that’s fine. Crying is fine.
Sobbing, I try to find a place for my feet so I can continue descending. With every jerk of the rope or missed footfall, I find myself screaming again.
“No, bro, this is chill,” my brain says, trying to get ahold of the rapidly escalating situation. “You’re TOTALLY not panicking. These are tranquilo tears. Things are FINE. Everything is FINE.” I take a few shaky deep breaths.
After a few moments, my hand accidentally finds the “stop” position of its own accord, and I’m not moving. I relish this. I never want to move again.
I look from side to side, trying to find an escape route: a llama with a parachute, an escalator, a little sign saying “this way to safety,” anything. But this isn’t a Disney ride, and there is no escape route. To either side of me is nothing but giant gushing death waterfall and sheer slippery death cliff face. I try to will myself to move again, but can only manage to cry and hold on tighter to my rope.
“Look, Lia,” the calm and logical part of my brain tries yet again to reason with me, “You have two options here. You either rappel your ass down this fucking waterfall, crying and screaming the whole damn way, or you will fall the fuck down it. If you try to sit here stopping yourself, your grip strength will eventually give way, and what little control you have over your descent will be gone. You will fall down this fucking waterfall and break every bone in your body, and then you will die a horrible, mangled, and painful death.” The absolute logical certainty of my inevitable painful death only makes me grip harder to the rope and scream louder, sobbing hysterically in between screams.
The logical part of my brain throws up its hands in defeat and instead devotes itself, along with the entirety of my being, to screaming and crying. I have rappelled a total of 10 feet down the waterfall, and I cannot make myself move any more.
For the next 15 minutes, which feel like an eternity, I stay in my little fetal position, hand frozen in terror in whatever position made the rope stop moving, screaming until my throat is raw, and crying until my face hurts.
Unbeknownst to me, Jeremy is finishing his rappel, unable to do anything to help me from below on his own perilous journey. The minute his feet touch the ground he runs toward the guide controlling the ropes from below, yelling for someone, anyone, to help me. The entire swimming hole is watching me in the air, frozen, bloodcurdling screams ringing out over the valley (and if you have ever heard the roaring of an enormous 250-foot tall waterfall, you can imagine how loudly I was screaming). The guide, in the most Colombian fashion, calmly tells Jeremy, “tranquilo!” and radios to the guide at the top of the waterfall, who casually ties on a rope and begins descending to rescue me. Fun fact: according to Jeremy, it is difficult to be tranquilo while your life partner is having a panic attack in a legitimately dangerous situation. Go figure.
Through my tunnel vision of terror and gushing water, I saw the guide’s rope fly past me as he threw it down. My logical brain, which had checked out for the day, registered only that a rope was falling, and then reasoned that it was either my rope or Jeremy’s rope, and if someone’s rope had fallen, and I wasn’t dead yet, then my rope was probably about to fall, too. This sent up a new wave of fresh screams, faster and more desperate than before. I realized vaguely that my hands were going numb.
Waterfall Rappelling: The Rescue
It is in this condition of screaming, sobbing, and screaming more that the guide reaches me. He carefully makes his way to to me, telling me, “tranquilo! Recuerda!” I take shaky breaths and stare uncomprehendingly as he demonstrates correct waterfall rappelling technique once again. I have curled into the tiniest, tightest fetal position possible, hugging myself into the rock face as if trying to slip into a crack and disappear (is that where the fucking elevator is hiding?!) The guide tries to tell me to extend my legs on the wall.
I try, I really do. I fumblingly attempt to push myself outwards, but my hand moves accidentally – losing my accidental “stop position”, which I still cannot recall for the life of me – and I feel myself sliding down the rock again, which sends up a fresh wave of screams. “Tranquilo,” he says again and again, trying to talk me through rappelling myself. But I was well past instruction. I was unable to control my own movements or reactions. If you’ve ever had a panic attack before and experienced that odd feeling where your hands go sort of tingly and numb and you can’t do much with them other than make hideous gargoyle claws, then you know what I mean. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to rappel myself down this damn waterfall with my ugly crying and gargoyle hands.
After a few more failed attempts, the guide gives up and instead positions himself underneath me so that all of my weight is on his legs. He takes hold of my rope and tells me to grab onto my harness. He was going to rappel both of us down.
As we flew down the waterfall, all I remember was screaming and holding on for dear life to the poor guide as he calmly reminded me to be tranquilo yet again (Colombians have a never ending supply of chill). You’d think this part would have been a little bit fun: I was under the calm control of an expert, flying down a waterfall in the safest possible way. But I was too far into my panic for this to register. I screamed the entire way down. I screamed when our feet touched the rocks at the bottom of the falls. I screamed when I forgot how gravity works and fell flat on my face in a pitiful attempt to stand. And then I screamed some more.
After pitifully laying on the ground for a few moments, I finally downgraded from screaming to plain old sobbing. I sobbed as my guide and savior cheerfully told me “Ya estamos aqui, el fin!” I sobbed as I vaguely heard the hollering and cheering of the swimmers who had been watching me from below. I sobbed as the gorgeous travel couple from the bus flashed me matching pearly white grins and thumbs up. I sobbed the hardest when my husband wrapped in his strong arms around me and whispered “it’s okay, you did it! you’re okay! everything’s okay.”
I sat shaking for a good hour, watching two other people cheerfully embark on their own waterfall rappelling adventures (with no issues – though I’m sure watching me didn’t help their anxiety levels at all). As I watched, I asked the friendly guide if this kind of thing happened a lot – having to rescue people, like me. He very nicely said, “No.” Apparently sometimes people get scared, but no one ever actually needs to be rescued. I guess I’m just a record-breaker.
I could not get my legs to function properly. It wasn’t until it started raining and I realized that our trip back down could be dangerous that I was finally able to will my legs into propelling me forwards. I wobbled all the way down the path, holding on to various things for dear life – Jeremy, the ropes, the kind guides who hiked past us offering more friendly assistance, an obliging cow or two. Finally we made our way out to the bus station to go back to town.
Waterfall Rappelling: The Aftermath
In the days after the incident, my hands were so cramped and sore that I could barely type. My legs ached. My entire body was tensed up and achy, as if I’d been in a car crash. Jeremy and I tried to watch the Go-Pro video that he had taken of his descent, cringing as we heard my screams. I was screaming so loudly that a tiny Go-Pro was able to pick up the noise of my screams over the gushing water of a 250-foot tall waterfall. It took me a few days to process things, to reduce it from something larger than life, a real life nightmare, to just a funny story. I still got a little bit teary and shaky as I wrote this, just remembering how damn scary it was. Months later, editing this post, I STILL have to fight back a few rogue tears, even while laughing at my own ridiculousness.
But look: I know that this wasn’t actually a crisis situation. It wasn’t REALLY life or death: the guides did such a great job rescuing me, and as it turns out, I could have let go entirely and they would’ve just lowered me down slowly (you know, like that thing I do ALL THE TIME when we go rock climbing. I felt like such an idiot when I realized that). And frankly, I’ve been in scarier situations – like, ACTUAL life or death situations with real danger, and no, I don’t just mean the stupid jellyfish – and handled myself fine. Waterfall rappelling was just too damn adventurous for me.
As it turns out, I am not REALLY an adventure seeker. I only like adventures when they’re actually pretty tame. Like a roller coaster that undergoes daily safety checks and tests. Or an extreme sport during which I am firmly strapped to an expert with hundreds of hours of experience who is in control of my safety, such as paragliding or skydiving. Or maybe easy white water rafting in which I am unlikely to hit a rock and will be able to swim until the guide pulls me back in the boat. I like having a backup plan – or 2 or 3. I don’t like being out of control, especially when there is no expert to take control for me. I am only able to enjoy something scary, and adventurous, and thrilling, when something in the back of my mind can remind me that I am safe. That hundreds of people do this every day, and it is very unlikely that anything will happen to me. When I can logically evaluate the best course of action to take. And apparently waterfall rappelling does not meet my criteria.
I do not have the desire to challenge death, to face my own mortality. I will never want to climb Everest, or do something stupid and dangerous just for the fun of it. I like my life. I want to keep it as comfortable and secure as it is. I enjoy taking risks, but I like them to be evaluated, vetted, safe. Practical. And I can safely say that the rest of my adventures on my travels and in the future will be strictly tame: the sort of things that are more fun than scary, more exciting than dangerous. I can now check “waterfall rappelling” off of my adventure list, and I’m so glad I never have to do it again.
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