Lessons Learnt: Shortcuts Ain’t Always Easy
Artwork by Elena S
“It has to be easier than the usual walk out”.
It started with those words. It was the first time I ever used them, and unfortunately, not the last. The idea had sprouted when I looked down the steep rainforest covered slopes above a local canyon.
We had been canyoning in this particular canyon many times, making it seem familiar and welcoming. But we didn’t feel the same about the walk out, or the ‘exit track’ as we called it. A hard 4 hour uphill hike was the way out after abseiling the last 60 meter waterfall. It was our least favourite part of the trip. Obviously.
What if there was a way to shorten the walk out, I wondered? With the idea kernel bursting in my head, it came to me.
Setting up ropes from the top before we started the canyon, and before the last waterfall into the deep, inescapable valley, we could ‘ascend’ out using rope grabbing devices and haul ourselves out, avoiding that 4 hour slog. A short spurt of energy followed by victorious cheering. It should shave hours off the usual time, and be much easier.
That was the plan.
I enlisted my good friend Josh for the adventure. Always up for some action, he was still new to rope skills, like I was, but we figured we could do it.
Packing bags that now weighed far more than on our average trips, after all, we now had double the amount of ropes, we set off one cool winter morning full of excitement about our adventure.
SETTING UP FOR SUCCESS
Before we started the canyon, I had to secure our ropes to ascend out. Smiling from ear to ear thinking of the sheer brilliance of my plan, I wiggle into my wetsuit and buckle up my harness.
This was going to be so easy!
Abseiling down the steep, heavily vegetated slopes, I find the best tree to use as an anchor. It takes one 60 meter rope to get down to the canyon edge, and another for the vertical 40 meter drop into the dark blue waters below.
Peering down, I am amazed to see the canyon from this new angle. Usually we are swimming below through the deep pools while we look up at the high rock walls. I lower the rope down the final vertical section.
I triple check the tree and the rope, making sure it was safe from any nasty sharp edges. I then ascend back up the slope to Josh and we begin the canyon as normal.
IS IT USUALLY THIS COLD?
We carefully walk into the first pool. A few steps in we know we have to, there's no point delaying the inevitable. We jump into the frigid water. Slowly, water seeps past the back zipper on our wetsuits and we gasp at the sudden piercing cold.
Despite it being winter, I was enthusiastic to do the trip. Winters in Queensland weren't that cold anyway, surely a 10 degree difference wasn’t that bad?
We continue on and do the first jump, a nice 4 meter drop next to a huge log wedged in place.
Canyons are amazing places. Like playgrounds, they offer up an abundance of fun that takes you back to being a kid. But while they are spectacular, they hold many dangers to the inexperienced. You need the skills, gear and teamwork to tackle any obstacles you find. Once you commit, there's only one way out and only one way to escape: Finish the canyon.
Soon we reach the major abseils. We had already done a few smaller ones, now the main show awaits. Throwing our ropes into the darkness below, we abseil next to the pounding waterfalls, occasionally brushing close enough to feel the pinpricks of the high speed water droplets.
Once the last abseils were done, we had the final 100 meter swim to where the rope hung from the trees above.
Nearing the dangling rope, I figure out the plan to get up. We only had one set of ascenders. Knowing this from the start, the plan was for one person to go up and slide them down again to the person below.
It'll be easy, right?
I had only bought my ascenders a few weeks prior so had a basic idea of how to use them. But Josh hadn't so a crash course was needed.
I quickly run him through the steps. There was a body ascender, and a hand ascender for the foot loop. Two different devices, two ways of attaching them to the rope, both doing the same thing. Helping you get up!
The water was cold and we were keen to get moving. We were starting to shiver.
I spot a small ledge 5 meters above the water. If we could both get on that, the other person wouldn’t have to wait as long in the icy water. I go first, as I would be better able to help from top should Josh have trouble with the ascenders.
We leave our floating bags attached to the end of the rope and I make my way upwards to the ledge.
Ascending was tiring. Moving the hand ascender up, I would stand up in the foot loop attached to it and take up the slack with my body ascender before repeating the process. After 5 meters I've warmed up significantly.
But Josh hasn’t.
It doesn’t take long for the onset of hypothermia to begin. It is one of the dangers in canyoning. Leading to a loss of mental and physical capacity, and eventually death, it’s important to be aware of it. Generally, as long as you keep moving, you stay warm. But stand still, or worse, float in the cold water without moving for a while, and it can begin very quickly!
I slide the ascenders 5 meters back down to Josh in the water. He struggles to open the carabiners with numb hands. Confusion begins and his speech is slurring. This is not good!
I talk him through the steps again. He needs to get up here quick!
Fighting through the mental fog and numb fingers and body, he finally gets the ascenders onto the rope. Like I did, he warms up again by the time he greets me on the ledge. Hypothermia avoided. I relax a little.
The next part is another hard decision. For the moment, Josh is ok on the ledge, and if I go first I can always help him from above easier than from below. We have a chat and agree this is the best option.
I start upwards again, working furiously to get to the top as fast as I can. Step up, take the slack, and repeat. Only 35 odd meters to go.
I reach the top, sweating, gasping, and exhausted. My biceps burn and my legs quiver. I feel worked. I'm done.
I detach my body ascender after clipping my safety to my anchor around the tree, and yell out to Josh to get ready. Using a jacket, he would catch the ziplining ascenders as they zoom down the rope. After 35 meters, they would be travelling extremely fast and hit with incredible force.
I send the first ascender, the one used for your body and your main attachment point, down on a carabiner hooked on the rope. Josh catches it without issues.
In my tired state I leave the foot ascender clipped to the rope and prepare to send it down with the progress capture teeth disengaged. The teeth sit less than a centimeter away from the rope allowing it to slide down.
But there is a flaw with my method. Tired, and without another thought about it, I send it down.
The word escaped my mouth before it had even happened. As the ascender screamed down the rope, it whipped back and forth. And those teeth that were so close to the rope, were just waiting for a taste.
A loud crack echos through the canyon. Those teeth got their taste and the stop was so violent, the rope bounced. The teeth must have brushed the rope and caught. It was 3 meters above Josh’s head, out of reach, and stuck.
The word made it out again.
There was a better way to send it down, by just clipping it to a carabiner. But I hadn't. Now, we had more trouble. This was all new to me. And to Josh.
At worst, the rope may have been badly damaged. And at best, a small nick. I rest my head against the tree I'm anchored into, close my eyes, and take a moment (of swearing uncontrollably).
When done, I focus again on our situation. At least he has the rope in his hand. Without that, he would have been truly stuck. I yell down. The moment of truth. Did he have his prussik loops?
Prussik loops are used as a emergency ascending method. Slow and physically demanding, its a backup option using loops of cord. They require practice to know how to loop around the rope and ascend up with them.
After some tense searching, he locates them on his harness. Thank god! But in the meantime, the cold had once again started its sinister work on him. Not only did he have to remember how to attach the prussik loop, he had to do it while fighting the cold gripping hold of his mind and body.
With some coaxing and yelling on my part, he finally manages. He now has to ascend on the prusiks 3 meters to the hand ascender and hope it isn’t permanently jammed on the rope, or worse, damaged the rope or itself.
Those 3 meters felt like an eternity as he slowly moves up, bit by bit. My mind played horrible scenarios of being stuck in this canyon and having to be rescued. That is, if we could even get a signal out on my personal locator beacon!
As he finally reaches the ascender, relief washes over me as he reports a little nick on the rope, nothing too bad, and the ascender is fine. He can now continue with the hand ascender which was much more efficient.
The day was starting to take its toll. My stress levels were off the charts and I was tired. I just wanted the day to be over. But it was now my turn to feel the cold and its icy embrace. I started shivering, then stopped and felt very tired. Just a little nap is all I needed...
Josh joins me at the tree, bringing me back to the present. There was one sure way to beat the cold so we set about our next task. Hauling the bags.
AND YOU THOUGHT THE HARD WORK WAS DONE?
Setting up a basic pulley system, we start to haul the bags. We have since upgraded to specialised canyon packs which drain the water through mesh panels, but on this day, we hauled two 60 litre, water logged fabric backpacks.
And it was killing us.
If I thought I had worked hard on the ascending, I had been dreaming. Steam fumed from our wetsuits as we heaved, again and again. Countless times the bags got stuck on some unseen edge. It felt like we were hauling gym weights and it was a never ending session of pain and swearing. So much swearing.
With a final pull, the bags reach the anchor. We drag them in and with dismay I see water slosh out. We had hauled our already heavy bags up 40 meters with some extra water inside.
Pulling up the rope dangling in the canyon and packing it away, we still have to ascend the steep vegetated slopes to the trail above. Averaging 50° with some vertical rock steps, we had our work cut out for us.
As I had weaved the rope around trees in the beginning while I set it up, there was no clear way to pass the ascenders back down other than to attach yourself to a tree and slide them down again. A process that had to be done on each tree. A common theme was forming.
And now, carrying heavy water-soaked, rope-filled packs, it wasn’t any easier. With each bit of progress we become more and more exhausted. Muscles ached and cramped. Our brains felt like mush. We were 5 hours past the original estimated time I had expected it to take.
By the time we reach the top and touch the hiking track, savouring its familiarity, the sun was setting, the last rays touching the tips of the trees. But the day was not done with us yet. With 4 wet ropes, wetsuits, and our usual canyoning gear, we still had another hour of ‘gentle’ uphill track to get back to our car.
Because I had anticipated an early finish, Josh hadn’t brought a headlamp and mine was almost out of battery. So through the black rainforest we trudge as all the wildlife awakens for the night, a stark contrast of energy levels.
As we approach the car, the only one left in the car park now, our moods improve and we had to laugh out loud.
Compared to our 'shortcut', the walk out was probably the easiest part of the trip!
Lessons Learnt is a series documenting or telling the story of the adventures and epics that could have been avoided, done differently, or at least, provide a lesson on what not to do. Some details or events may be simplified, left out, or added for story telling purposes, and the sole purpose is to provide entertainment, not instruction.