Rappel device loaded, peer-reviewed and quintuple-checked; I disengage my safety tether and step out over the precipice. The descent is slow at first, as I ease my death-grip on the rope and walk my feet along the wall. Things don’t stay mellow for long, though. After only a few seconds, I’m completely free-hanging and rapidly picking up speed.
This pit — El Sótano de las Huahuas*, as it’s known — is by far the largest void I’ve ever laid eyes on. Now I’m about to be swallowed by that self-same void. My mind-brain is also about to do some very odd things. The following is my best attempt at a play-by-play.
That fevered sensation in my frontal lobe again. It’s like my brain is swelling, confounding my thoughts and pushing on my eyes from behind. The latter causes double-vision phosphenes to float in and out of view — a veil of dancing forms that actually makes it hard to see the real world. The former, meanwhile, makes it impossible for me to recognize the physiological basis for the visual distortions. For all I know, I’m being visited by fallen angels.
Picture aurorae presented in cross-sections or stereoscopic CAT scans slicing through vermiform intracranial tissues. Picture gasps of smoke blown into mini-blinds when the sun is low. Picture the interference pattern at the confluence of colliding universes.
Am I having a psychiatric episode? Have I finally started to unravel?
What better place than here to lose my mind! Deep in a Mexican rainforest I’m not entirely sure the name of. What better time to than now to go bat crazy! Why not have a melt-down at the very moment I’m suspended four hundred feet off the floor of an enormous sinkhole by a lousy strand of yarn? So what if the rope’s zipping through my stainless steel rappel device like a hastily slurped supersonic noodle?
“Get a hold of yourself,” squeals some impotent cognitive subsystem from the depths of my subconscious. “Your life is literally on the line here.”
My ego has other plans, though, and promptly responds by dividing into two warring me-clones. As you might expect, this is where things start to get really weird.
On the one hand, there’s the me that’s doing exactly what he wants to be — namely, yoyo-ing** into the deepest pit of his life. This version of myself is gleefully absorbed in his surroundings. Lost in tropical zephyrs tousling branches high overhead. In love with the shrinking entrance, which is an ellipsoid of brilliant blue sky that’s constricting like a python the further down I go. Enthralled by goliath stalactites matted with moss. Speed-skimming endless bedding planes of streaked limestone as if they were a text wherein one might find the meaning of existence.
Present tense and feeling mighty fine, this is Me-One.
But the other me-clone is not the least bit amused. “Why couldn’t you be satisfied with the view from the top?” Says Me-Two to Me-One. “You’re never satisfied, are you? And now look at the mess you’re in. I mean, look at how quickly the rope is slipping through your rappel rack. Look at the steam coming off it! Are you in control of this descent at all? Even if you do beat the odds and somehow survive this stunt, just think about how long and hard it will be to climb the rope back to the surface again!”
Me-One: “You worry too much. This is simply a longer version of stuff we’ve done before. Check out that massive cascade of flowstone! It must be a few hundred feet tall!”
Me-Two: “Do you know how many seconds it takes to fall a few hundred feet?”
Me-One: “Are those parrots?”
Me-Two: “Enough to regret your recent life decisions, that’s how long! Were things really so bad up on top? Were you really feeling so unfulfilled?”
Me-One: “But those ferns! Hallelujah!”
It’s like a switch flipping back and forth at two hundred beats per minute. From the here-and-now to the anywhere-but-here-and-now in the twinkling of an eye. What better time to have a psychotic break, indeed!
But then a fuse blows and everything goes dark and quiet. My mind-brain is trying to preserve itself perhaps — trying to return to more a tranquil position on the space-time manifold. Being stuck on rope, however, the only place my mind can go is into its own memory banks. Flashback to an hour ago, when I’m still safely perched on the sótano’s rim.
It’s early yet and the air is thick and cool. Leaves overlap like Venn diagrams, but there are little gaps. The result is lasers through millions of tiny apertures. Constellations of morning light dappling the sharp and strange forms of the karst underfoot.
There are five of us minus the guides, who won’t be going in. We await the mass exodus of the white-collared swifts — swarming birds this corner of the planet is most famous for. For conservation reasons, no one is allowed into the sótano until the birds have vacated. The three rookies — Josh, Jesse and I — are pacing around, chatting nervously, gurning like Emily Rose and trying desperately not to look over the edge for too long. The veterans, meanwhile, betray no emotion. When asked, Scott and Jerry insist they feel something. I don’t believe them.
Suddenly, down in the belly of the immense cavity before us, there is an audible groundswell of serotonin. Crazed cackles and chirps and spacey tone rows ricochet off the acres of cretaceous rock forming the walls and ceiling of the great sótano. The alien sounds of bird brains booting up for the day.
In my own cranium, a looping pedal kicks on. “Abyss of the Birds, Abyss of the Birds,” it says again and again through heavy reverb. Whether he knew it or not, this is the place Olivier Messiaen was talking about. Here we are, standing on the edge of time, pasted to the event horizon.
As the sun creeps a few degrees higher, a chthonic breeze wafts upwards from the depths. It is frigid and tinged with the sweet odor of guano. The rapture is nigh.
One moment there is naught but light and air and stone and void — inanimate elements eternally juxtaposed. You look away for a spell, distracted by some exotic blossom in the understory, some creeping arthropod. But when your gaze returns to the pit, the view is unrecognizable. Life has been breathed into that giant alabaster lung.
Ornithologists say “murmuration,” but “tornado” is every bit as fitting. Twelve legions of swirling swifts rise from the depths in a giant, shimmering column. As with a beehive, individuality is subsumed in a higher order, in something incomprehensibly bigger, in a spectacular daily ritual that has persisted for millennia. Wings sear the air like soldering irons plunged into ice water.
Making metaphors for the human condition is almost too easy when faced with such a sublime spectacle. Questions of purpose, of free will, of my place in the nested stories of both our species and our planet. I think of how the tornado lives on even as all its constituent parts are removed and replaced by death and birth. I think of how the particles in my body are constantly swapped out for new ones, and I puzzle over why I feel no discontinuity.
I think of the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, and I wonder how it is that there can be something in the tornado that cannot be found in any particular bird. I wonder how it is that there can be something in the bird that cannot be found in the tornado.
Eyes On The Sparrow
It’s not easy, but I attempt to track the paths of single swifts as they circle ‘round and ‘round. Beautiful little things with sleek black bodies and unblinking eyes and wings bent back like fighter jets.
Flightpaths betray a great deal of caprice at the level of individuals. Ups and downs, speeding and slowing. Imperfect circles. And yet I can say with confidence that the whole structure will corkscrew upwards counter-clockwise until every bird has left the orbit in a blazing-fast tangent vector taking them out over the forest. Prediction at the micro-scale is virtually impossible. At the macro-scale, it is trivial.
Contemplating these fleeting lives, I can’t help but get a little bit biblical. Scraps of verses and hymns spark across my synapses. “His eye is on the sparrow.” “Consider the birds of the air.” There is a choke in my throat. This is us, isn’t it? Particles aswirl. Like each of these fliers, I’m playing a tiny part in something I don’t understand very well. Playing until my heart gives out and I fall from the sky. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without the Father knowing.”
“Pop!” Me-Two seems to have found the breaker box. An abrupt return to the present. The lights are back on just in the nick of time.
Only a few more meters to go. By now my arms are burning with lactic acid from squeezing the rope and rappel rack so tightly for so long. Spit sizzles on the steel where the rope’s been rubbing. Don’t like that one bit.
When my feet finally touchdown, I’m peaking on brain chemicals, and the internal dialogue between Me-One and Me-Two has transformed from a relatively simple call-and-response duet to an exquisite polyphonic masterpiece even Thomas Tallis would be envious of. I am Legion, and for some reason I want to take off all my clothes and curl up in a ball. I want my skin to stop crawling. I want the scorpions to pull me apart. I want the noises in my head and flashes in my eyes to go away.
After what feels like years of struggling to disentangle myself from the rope, I hobble across slick breakdown to get clear of the rockfall zone. There’s serious acreage down here and it takes an eternity for me to get to where I want to go. I’m stumbling and muttering imprecations to myself the whole way. One clumsy, adrenaline-inebriated step after another.
This Is It
When I eventually make it to where I want to go, I unfold my tarp and lay down, so I can calm down and watch the others slide down the rope one by one. Gradually the chorus in my head gives way to tinnitus and then to ambient noises. Gradually my vision clears as well. It seems the demon-swifts of my mind have completed their own wicked murmuration and moved on to torment other souls.
This is it, I guess. This is what I came down here to experience: the eerie twilight and even eerier soundscape, the mingling smells of ordure and death, an unparalleled sense of remoteness. Unfortunately, I’m almost too wound up to focus on any of this — let alone enjoy it. The descent has shaken me to the core, and already I’m beginning to fret over the harrowing journey back up.
I was safe an hour ago. Safe and in awe and quite happy. Now I’m utterly drained and feel myself to be in great peril. What have I done? More importantly: Why?
- El Yoyo, Part 2: At Bottom (Farther Still)
- Exploring Mexico’s Caves — Some Of The Deepest Pits In The World (Outside)
- Caving The Grand Canyon, Part 1: Cave Of The Domes (Farther Still)
*This pit goes my many names. For search engine purposes, here are a few combinations: El Sótano de las Huahuas, El Sótano de las Guaguas, La Hoya de las Huahuas, La Hoya de las Guaguas.
**“Yoyo-ing” is caver-speak for rappelling and ascending into and out of pits of various sorts.
(Today’s featured image is courtesy of Jesse Barden. Follow him on Instagram @jesse.barden.)