The Waterfall Experience: Part 2 – Escape

My mind is reeling as I envision the alternate reality where the tail end of the wet rope slips through my frigid right hand. I look down again at the rock slabs through the spray and picture myself tumbling to the valley bottom where it’s warm and dry. A shield of goosebumps attempts to protect me from the frightening thought; or perhaps it’s the intensifying wind. My consciousness returns to the present moment and I tense with anticipation. I hear José bellow out a low guttural scream. Round 2 with the waterfall begins.

This post is a continuation of Part 1 – Escalation.

All thoughts of falling to my death are thoroughly washed away. I realize that all I need to do is continue with the plan: Get to the next rappel station, secure José and I, wait for Conny to descend, then repeat. It’ll just be a wetter and colder experience.

I have a meter or two of rope left, which is thankfully just long enough to reach the outcrop where the wall begins to slab back out. I’m able to get some purchase with my feet to stabilize myself. I need both hands, so I check the double-fisherman’s I had frantically tied moments ago, take a deep breath, then let go. The remaining 12 inches of rope slides through the ATC and stops at the knot with a few inches of tail to spare. Let’s get to work, I say to myself.

We had the foresight to send me down with a bolt kit in case any of the rappel stations needed reinforcement. As I’m looking down into my pack, drips of water splatter onto the back of my head, I look up to see José thrashing around trying to sit up in his harness. He’s about 8 metres above and unable to reach the wall with his feet. And, I realize, he’s not progressing lower. “Conny! Keep lowering José!” I scream, but I don’t think I’m heard. Then it hits me. José’s rope is probably shorter than mine! This very fact means José cannot get to my anchor, which means his rope is useless, which means he has to somehow either go back up, or transfer onto my rope.

Those thoughts are pushed aside as I fight another 30 second battle with the waterfall. I look up again to check on José. His situation is dire. Every encounter with the waterfall makes him tip back so that his core is directly exposed to the cold water. He’s mumbling in Spanish, which I don’t understand, but still recognize it’s incoherent gibberish. We need to get this guy off the wall, fast. As quickly as I can, I begin the process of hand drilling a bolt station.

I know that Conny is trapped above without a rope to descend with. My goal is to get off my rope and onto the bolt I’m placing. Conny can then rappel down to deal with the José situation. For 20 minutes the process of hammering, waterfall domination, and listening to José’s groans repeats itself until I finally have a 2 inch hole. Good enough, I think as my frigid hands can barely grip. A premature sense of admiration for my own work passes as this is actually my first time placing a bolt. Remembering the steps I witnessed as Conny placed the bolts above and recalling him saying something about threading the nut half way before hammering the bolt in, I give the bolt/hanger/washer/nut combo 5 good whacks until I hear a distinctive ping. I attempt to hand tighten the nut, but it won’t turn.

Even with a wrench, the nut won’t tighten. What have I done wrong? Then I realize my mistake: “threading the nut half way” meant half way down the threads of the bolt, not half way through the nut! There were probably only 4 threads holding the nut in place before I fused it to the bolt after bashing it with the hammer. At least I also can’t loosen the nut, I consider as I secure myself to the hanger with a quick draw and unclip from the rope.

I look up to see Conny at the top of the waterfall assessing our predicament. “Save José, then get to me,” I yell up to Conny. He rappels down to José and I begin working on a second, more secure bolt. At this point the frequent, yet unpredictable encounters with the waterfall have become just a nuisance. I’m cold and miserable, but determined. Conny gets his first hit, with poor José at his side. “What the fuck are we doing here!” He yells, which somehow perfectly describes the mess we are in.

José suddenly let’s out a piercing scream and I look up in time to see him falling toward me. He then pendulums underneath Conny; the two of them are tethered together. Conny had no choice but to cut the rope José was on in order to transfer him to the other line. They lower toward me and secure themselves to the immaculate bolt I had just finished placing. We’re reunited, but the success of it is fleeting. José is bleeding all over the three us from a huge gash on his thumb. No matter, once again we’re cleansed.

The ledge I had spotted earlier is only a few metres away, but to get there we have to traverse through wet mud, rock, and grass. With the short piece of José’s rope that Conny had cut tied to the tail end of our long rappel line there is enough for me to lead out to the dry ledge. I get there without incident and drench myself in the warm sun. My reverie is broken when Conny reminds me to “hurry the fuck up, and get that bolt in!”

A fixed line is created between the two bolt stations. We now have to somehow get José across. He is borderline hypothermic, can barely use his right hand, doesn’t know how to climb, and is scared shitless. It seems to take forever, but with the combination of Conny pushing/supporting José and me pulling, he makes it. Conny follows and finally we are all free from waterfall tyranny!

José is shaking uncontrollably. The relentless cold and perpetual water torture have taken their toll on him. Conny and I strip him down out of his wet wetsuit and we’re able to start a small fire from the bushes surrounding the ledge we’re on. He recovers fairly quickly and the supplies in his pack elevate all of our spirits: cigarettes and Oh Henry bars!

Now what. With a smoke each, we contemplate our escape while sharing 1 of the 6 bars we brought with us. We’re essentially stranded on a ledge that is about 3ft x 6ft. The line Conny and I used for rappel, which is fastened to the first anchor I built, is our only way out. But it means ascending a wet rope through that bitch of a waterfall. There’s no chance José can do it and neither Conny or I want to. We decide that Conny will ascend, take the trail back down to town, taxi back to Cuzco, find longer ropes, come all the way back, and then rappel back to us, but well away from the waterfall. But all of this will have to wait until morning; the sun is disappearing fast.

We spend the next 10 hours feeding a meagre fire with diminishing twigs and grass, spooning each other to share the wealth of warmth. Consciousness fades in and out; the persistent roar of falling water haunting our dreams. Eventually the sky begins to lighten, the sun’s energy cannot penetrate our bones any sooner. We prepare for Conny’s epic ascent; I’m a little uneasy being left alone on this ledge for the day.

We hear someone calling out to us from the valley bottom. He’s surprisingly yelling in english; we strain to hear his words. “… do you need help!?” Conny and I look at each other, look at José, look at the fixed line currently being doused by the waterfall, then look back down. “YES!”

Next: Part 3 – Rescue

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