Adrenalin!

Trip Start Dec 03, 2004
1
19
85
Trip End Nov 31, 2005


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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

When Kate and I showed up at the abseiling company at 8:45 in the morning the first thing we had to do was try on wetsuits to find the right fit. Wetsuits are awfully hard to put on, and there was an amusing moment where eleven people were jumping around in a small room together in their underwear, attempting to pull the damp, cumbersome beasts further up their legs. Eventually we were outfitted with packs, harnesses, helmets and gloves, piled into the back of two vans, and driven out of Katoomba to the stark cliffs that ring the city.

We had our first go at abseiling on a small, easy bit of rock. It was about 15 feet high, and about as steep as a ladder. I volunteered to be one of the first two people strapped in and as soon as I got the hang of leaning back almost perpendicular to the rock, it wasn't too hard. I shimmied down the practice slope twice without even a twinge of fear, mostly because I knew if it all went to hell, the descender snapped and my rope broke, at the worst I'd probably fall on one of the two guides below and have a nice squishy landing.

Next the guides took us to a cliff where we couldn't see over the edge, but we could tell from watching a similar group on a cliff across from us what sort of descent we were facing (ninety degree cliff wall, about fifteen meters). Just before the first person started to descend, the guideannounced, "Oh, and we've got a surprise for you on this one." I had an inkling of what it might be from watching the other group, but when you're abseiling, because you're facing upwards, anything unexpected coming up in the rocks is a surprise. I went over third, not having too much trouble with the sharp lip, but about halfway down the cliff the rock just ended, leaving me with my feet lodged on the last possible place to stand and nothing below but air.

"Now what?" I yelled.

"Just keep going," the guides called back in tandem. Abseiling is simple: the feet on the rock aren't really necessary, except perhaps psychologically. You hold the rope that you're attached to in your right hand, and by levering it away from your body you can increase the speed by which you descend down it, or by pulling it around your waist to your back you can brake. I took a deep breath and pushed the rope away. Ten seconds later I landed on my butt with a thump at the bottom.

We headed back into the vans with our gear and drove down to the town of Wentworth Falls, a about fifteen minutes away from Katoomba, where we had a quick sandwhich lunch. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from canyoning, other than that it would be cold (thereby necessitating the wetsuits). We hiked down a long, long staircase and up a trail to shallow beginnings of a canyon stream.

"Time to put those wetsuits on again," the guide called out, and we all rushed off into the bushes to find a good place to do the embarassing hopping dance of wetsuit-enrobing again.

Then we set off, shrieking at how cold the water was, even with it only up to our calves and the wetsuits on. For the first few minutes it was just like walking down a normal stream, slipping about on rocks and splashing a little, until suddenly the canyon walls tightened to a narrow crack. The only light splashed a hundred metres down from the top of the canyon and flitted through the green trees that clung to the rocky face of the canyon. I could hear the sploosh of water falling over a drop. I peered past the shoulder of the guide in front to see a six foot drop over a little waterfall into a wide, dark pool below.

"So," the guide said, "when you jump, try to land on your back, because the bag will help you float." Then he leapt off without any further ado. There was a lot of milling around on the rock, trying to decide who should leap into the cold depths first, and then finally someone did and everyone was leaping. The water at the bottom was a freezing shock, but the bag on my back did bring me floating right back to the surface, where everyone was shrieking, "cold! cold!" and flapping about for the far edge of the pool, where we helped each other up into a shallower area of the stream and continued on.

So it went on down the stream: sometimes we would walk through gold-dappled water where the canyon walls leaned back; and sometimes wade through chest-deep inky pools, which had a tendency to suddenly drop into endless, deep holes that the person in front would have to drag the person behind across.

The next thrill came at another tight little waterfall, but this time without a good place to leap from. The guide crawled out so he was suspended over the water, his back against the canyon wall and legs pressing against a boulder. The rest of us had shimmy out, climb partway down the boulder, then hold onto his legs and swing out into the hole below.

By this time everyone was excited and wanted more and more jumping and deep pools to occur; when we got to a part that the guides said was "more scenic than adrenalin," we all sighed in disgust.

I saw here why the brochure had called the experience "like trekking through the Lost World." Tree ferns clung to the walls of the canyon and heavy eucalyptus and rainforest greenery overshadowed the water from the top of the canyon walls.

Finally we came to another thrilling section, where the water had formed a natural waterslide in the rock and we could slip down on our butts into the pool below. Then as everyone clambered out the guides began to pull out the ropes and we realized we were at the final destination: the abseil in the waterfall.

Empress Falls dropped thirty metres into a deep pool below. I leaned back and went over, struggling to find footing on the slick, mossy rock. Quite a few people who'd gone done before me lost their footing and went most of the way down just pressing their bodies against the rock for grip, but I was glad that I managed to remain perpendicular, even with the water pressing heavily against my legs.

There was another drop near the end where I just had to let go and slide down, and then I was on my back in the pool, staring up at the falls and the blue sky above. I fumbled with the descender and for a panicked moment, hands freezing in the water, couldn't get it to release. I thrashed backwards through the water to get the rope to loosen and finally got the carabiner unscrewed, the descender off the rope, and swam quickly to the other side of the pool. It was over; we could get out of our wetsuits and warm up; nobody wanted to, everyone wanted to do it all over again. But of course we couldn't, and we shouldered the wet, heavy gear and prepared to climb the stairs to the car.

I later found out, from a guide that we met that night in a bar in Katoomba, that there are 765 steps on the way up from Empress Falls, and by the last twenty I was hyperventilating to get the necessary air to take each step. I was proud to be the first to the top, and lying about as cool as a cucumber as the others came panting up, muttering that the stairs had been, despite the "scary" nature of the other activities, the hardest part of our long day.
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