The Waterfall Experience: Part 3 – Rescue

Conny, José, and I are huddled up on our tiny ledge next to the raging waterfall that had beat us to submission the day before. We spend the next few hours watching as help assembles itself. A police car arrives at the valley bottom; the first sign that help is on its way. Shortly after that, another police car. Then a fire truck. Then an ambulance. By noon there is probably a dozen vehicles and a large crowd of people staged below.

This post is a continuation of Part 1 – Escalation and Part 2 – Escape.

Our would-be rescuers seem to be frantically organizing themselves, but from what we can see, none have made there way toward us. Another group of vehicles arrive, this time it seems like a news crew. Finally two men on horses depart from the group and make their way toward the trail that leads above us. Two more follow at a half-jog carrying a stretcher. What are these people thinking!? We begin to realize that the people who’ve come to help us likely have no idea what they’re doing. Rock rescue is not something they’ve been trained for. The sun is getting low and it’s clear that help is not imminent. It’s going to be another long night.

Fortunately we’re no longer wet, but it’s still cold. Our ledge has been slowly eroding away as we pick the grass and bushes to keep our small fire lit. We hear Spanish echoes bounce back and forth in the dark.  The waterfall provides a persistent background of white noise that is almost soothing. Grumbling stomachs periodically interrupt a delirious doze.

The sky begins to lighten. Our entourage is still below and the voices from above continue. Conny and I decide that these guys don’t have the skills or equipment to help us. So it’s time to revert back to the plan of ascending the waterfall. Once Conny is up top, he can hopefully coordinate the others to rescue José and I. We share our last Oh Henry bar for breakfast then prepare for Conny’s ascent. With slings, two prusiks, and pretty much all the remaining gear we have, Conny traverses over to the rock outcrop and bolts I had placed two days earlier. As José and I watch him setup, some rocks and dirt shower down in front of us from the overhang above. Moments later a rope comes whipping down and hangs just a meter away. Fuck yeah. “Fuck NO!” Conny yells as the waterfall consumes him.

The rope wildly swings back and forth as someone rappels down. We hear gear clanging and finally see an ass and two legs. A fireman in full uniform abruptly lands on our crumbling ledge and greets us with a huge goofy smile on his face. In a blur, he unclips from his rappel device, lets the rope swing behind him and eagerly goes to shake Conny’s hand as he explains how excited he is to see us. Meanwhile, I hustle to find a spare sling and biner to tether the unprotected fireman to our bolt station. This guy is either oblivious to the dangerous close-call he just had or a fearless pro.

Another person, this time a policeman rappels down to our crowded ledge. Conny is discussing what the plan is. Him and the two rescuers look down over the ledge and Conny laughs. “What’s up?” I ask. “They were too focused on finding us and hadn’t really planned on how to get us down,” he says. Conny and I are the only two who’ve ever ascended a fixed line before, so going up seems too challenging. Rappelling to the bottom was the obvious escape. I look over the edge to see why Conny was laughing. Their rope is long, but not long enough. We’re not too worried, because we have more bolts in our pack, but it’s ironic because if we didn’t, five of us would be stuck!

I go first. The rope is static and probably 13–14mm. It won’t fit in my ATC so I resort to a munter hitch. I fight friction and the weight of the rope to descend, but make it to a rock slab that’s great for a station. Just like before I hammer in 1 bolt, secure myself so the others can begin their descent, then work on a second bolt. However this time I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead and wish for some of that waterfall spray.

The policeman raps down next, then Conny lowers José. The fireman follows and Conny comes last after tearing down our forced bivouac. After some yelling back and forth with the crew above, our ropes comes sailing down onto the rock slabs. We setup for a final rappel and send the policeman first and lower José second. Conny and I go next and leave the fireman for last.

My feet finally touch ground! There are others waiting at the bottom to guide me through the bush and back to the staging area. I’m offered water and a bowl of hot soup, which I devour. Since I can’t speak Spanish, I’m mostly left alone to recover and reflect on the shit we got ourselves into. Although I had a big scare almost sliding off the end of the wet rope, I never felt like I was in a life-threatening situation. Just a really, really, really shitty situation.

Conny is being bombarded by questions; everyone wants to know what happened. I have another bowl of soup. José is shipped off in an ambulance to get stitches for his hand. It’s time to go. We say “Gracias!” a hundred times and then one of the policemen drives us back to our hostel in Cuzco.

The next day, Conny and I visit the fire department to once again thank them for rescuing us and to donate almost all of our climbing gear. We learn that one of the reasons why things took so long was that the police and firemen were arguing over who got to save us! Later that night José’s mother has us over for dinner to thank us for keeping her son alive. I don’t think she quite understands that we’re the ones who almost got him killed. To celebrate we have wine and a Peruvian delicacy – boiled guinea pig.

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