The Waterfall Experience: Part 1 – Escalation

The waterfall that fucked us.

Let me tell you about the time I got stuck in a waterfall. I tend to tell this story around campfires and usually preface it with: “It was the worst experience of my life.” It begins with a trip to Peru in 2004. My adventure buddy, Conny Amelunxen, was guiding a 12-day trek through the mountains surrounding the infamous Machu Picchu. I was invited to tag along and help setup and take down the expedition. Afterward we had 7 days to kill in the tourist city of Cuzco before flying home. Three or four of those days were spent partying at Mama Africa with some Australian girls we had met earlier in the trip. Conny and I needed to break the habit of sleeping all day and being reckless all night so we devised an adventurous plan to rappel down a waterfall in one of the nearby valleys. The plan was simple: taxi to the farming town closest to the waterfall, porter some horses to ride to the top of the cliff, drop a couple ropes down, do 3 or at most 4 rappels, then taxi back in time for drinks. We eventually got those hard earned drinks – 2 days later…

I might as well throw in some photos of our Peru trip here:

The first complication was that we invited José. He was a Peruvian local who did walking tours around Machu Picchu, but had zero rappelling experience and had never been in a harness before. The second complication was that our plans were based off some brochure we found at one of the adventure tourism spots in Cuzco. It had a picture of the waterfall and it advertised a rappelling experience, but that was about all the information we could gather. Regardless, we put our plan in motion the next morning.

The three of us arrive at the top of the waterfall. We change into rental wetsuits with the expectation of getting a bit wet. In some trees we find an anchor system, which tells us we’re in the right place. It’s encouraging, but we decide to build a bolted station closer to the edge so that it’s easier to pull our ropes from below. From there we can see the stream funnel down a slab to a point about 10m below where the water actually starts to free-fall. Because José can’t rappel, Conny lowers him with one rope, while I rappel with the other. This way I could setup the next station and make sure José was secured. We begin our descent.

I rappel to the point where the angle changes to assess what’s below. It’s incredible. Hundreds of litres of water are pouring over the edge into a large pool about 30m below. Near the bottom, my rope is a few meters from the wall, so I know it’s overhanging. Conny is saying something, but I can’t quite hear him. The water is roaring; it’s loud. “How does it look!?” he yells, after I tell him to speak up. “Fucking awesome!” I look back down and through the mist and spray I notice the end of my rope swaying back and forth. Hmm. That’s odd, my rope isn’t quite touching the ledge below, I thought. It did touch barely, but only during part of its swing. At this point in my Peruvian trip I had already experienced some sketchiness. With the knowledge that this rappel is sold to tourists on a brochure and the fact that I could see the next anchor station near the pool of water, I naively decide that this is another one of those sketchy things. Obviously in Peru they just rappel off the end of the rope onto the huge ledge below. “Let’s do this!” I excitedly shout back at Conny.

Conny begins to lower José over the edge and I help guide him in very basic, broken Spanish. The overhanging wall quickly leaves us and José can no longer touch it with his feet. I rappel past José to about half way then stop to admire the raging water falling beside me just meters away. I look down again and realize that the huge flat ledge that I saw from above is actually more like a 30° slope covered in wet moss. Oh shit. I look up and see José slowly making his way closer to me. The wind picks up to a gust and suddenly I’m pummelled by frigid water. José, in his unfitted harness isn’t seated properly and his 30lb pack is making him top-heavy. He’s laid out almost horizontal taking body shots from kilos of water pouring onto him. We endure 30 seconds of water torture then the wind stops and the waterfall leaves us alone. Holy fuck; we’re fucked. “Holy Fuck! Conny! STOP!” José steadily progresses lower; Conny can’t hear me.

José’s loose-fitting wetsuit is full of cold water that is slowly emptying itself on me like a trickling stream of urine. Fifteen minutes earlier I had been sun-drenched, now I’m being pissed on. How quickly things escalate. Survival mode kicks in and I look for escape. Near the end of my rope I can see a dry grassy ledge that is too far away, but just below it is an outcrop that’s within reach. I begin to lower with the intent of building a bolted station on the outcrop. With the slippery wet rope, my stiff cold hands, and just a single line through the ATC, friction is scarce and I slide out of control. Luckily I recover with barely enough rope left to wrap around my leg twice so I can tie a knot at the end, which I neglected to do before the descent. Idiot. That was close. I’ll relive this moment from time to time and shudder thinking about the near-death experience.

Next: Part 2 – Escape

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