After about a half-hour of stewing in deep thoughts, I pick my way back across hundreds of yards of slick breakdown to the bottom of the rope. I’m ataxic, and it takes forever. Once I finally get there, I look up, tracing my lifeline until it vanishes into the luminous immensity above.
Soon I too will vanish into that glorious down-pouring of light, one sorry muscle spasm at a time.
My brain starts to smolder and fissure again at the thought of what lies ahead of me. The visual distortions and internal choir return. My mind, strained to the breaking point by stress hormones, scatters to the four winds. Another flashback: this time to my last visit to another big ol’ stupid hole in the ground — the Grand Canyon.
Coming Up Is Mandatory
Specifically, I recall a sign I saw on the south rim emblazoned with the following warning: “Going down is optional. Coming back up is mandatory.” It is a spare yet effective reminder.
Like the inscription at the entrance to Dante’s hell, it implores would-be entrants to stop and consider the risks of descending into one of the largest gorges on the planet.
Every easy step you take down towards the Colorado River now, you’re going to have a much more arduous step to take upwards later. It’s like a high-interest payday loan. There’s a lot that could go wrong along the way too. Everything from blisters to heatstroke to falling off a cliff.
What’s more, owing to the extreme terrain, no one’s going to be able to help get you up and out of the canyon but you if you do run into trouble.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
“So too with the sótanos of San Luís Potosí,” I say to my myself in a voice like God’s, neck still craned upwards. When you chose to rappel 485 feet down, you’re chose to undergo the tribulations entailed by a 485-foot ascent as well. You’re the only one who can get you back to the surface. You and your pathetic skin and your pathetic bones — all of which, evolutionarily-speaking, aren’t really optimized for climbing. This isn’t going to feel good at all, but you have no choice.
In an attempt to focus myself, I exhale forcefully, and the sibilant sound of air through teeth and lips resonates for what seems like a few minutes. I imagine the sound to be fine silt settling slowly out of still water. This calms me down a bit.
As I fumble with my mechanical ascenders and confirm that everything on my harness is as it should be, I consider that maybe I should just stay down here forever and while away the days and years bouncing noises off the walls of the most spectacular oubliette imaginable. Anything would be preferable to hauling myself up all that way.
But the longer I procrastinate, the longer it’ll be before I’m on the surface and safe and happy again. So with one more gear check and one more loud exhalation (the loud breathing amused my travel companion to no end), I start inching up the rope.
My movements are bionic, the result of a strange wedding of anatomy and mechanical ingenuity. The details of the ascending system I use would be annoying to write down and even more annoying read, but suffice it to say that the way things are set up, you basically end up doing the same frog-like movement over and over to gain altitude. (In fact, the ascending system is called a “Frog System”.)
First you pull and kick down to lift yourself up a little ways. This is sort of like an engine’s power stroke. The second step, then, is a compression stroke. You let an ascender on your harness hold your progress while you move your arms, legs and the ascender they’re attached to back up in preparation for the next stroke. Again you pull and kick. Again and again and again.
Slowly, features on the floor of the sótano begin to recede. Slowly — almost imperceptibly — the annular entrance above begins to dilate.
Fine… At First
For the first hundred feet or so, you’re actually feeling pretty good. You’ve settled into a rhythm and you chug along confidently like a little locomotive. Even though you didn’t do any rope ascending practice leading up to this trip, your past rock climbing experience has given you strength and endurance enough to climb rope a fair ways without much trouble.
But then you hit the hundred-foot line. You realize that for all your hard work, you still have close to four hundred feet to go! It’s at this point the real drama starts. You’ve started to pant and perspire. The nylon straps on your chest harness are beginning to saw into the thin skin covering your clavicles — each stroke scraping away a few thousand more skin cells.
It smarts, and your technique starts to suffer as you modify your movements to accommodate the new discomforts. As with limping, your efficiency drops off markedly. Moral right along with it.
“Why am I doing this?”
Two Hundred Feet And Counting
At the two hundred-foot mark, I’m back to full-on freakout mode. A mental video is looping in my head: a water balloon plunging into the void and splashing grotesquely onto the floor below. I try to calculate how long a fall from this height would take, and I think about how time seems to slow down when you’re in a near-death situation. I conclude that the fall would take a long time and that it would feel even longer. This rope climbing business is far worse than the rappel I’d done about forty-five minutes ago, and that had been about the worst thing I’d ever experienced.
Breaks are more frequent now, and so I’m spending more and more time hanging limply, twirling a bit, watching liters of sweat pour off me and feeling sorry for myself.
Then, to make matters even worse, I suddenly feel movement in the rope that’s not coming from me. Someone up top is yanking the rigging around! All my team members are still down in the pit, so I’m very concerned. Who’s up there, and what are they doing? Hopefully it’s the guides, and hopefully they know what they’re doing.
A fresh surge of adrenaline unlocks hidden powers, and I start to climb ferociously until the burn of lactic acid in my muscles forces me to stop and rest yet again. There’s a choke in my throat now, and tears are welling up in my eyes. I can feel the thump of my pulse in every part of my body. How could I have been so stupid?
“If I survive this,“ I promise myself, “never again!”
I close my eyes for a moment, and listen to all the voices in my head — the angels and the demons, the hecklers and the cheerleaders. I think of the lively debates you see in the British Parliament, everyone talking over each other. As I focus on my breathing, eventually the voices recede. Panicking won’t help me one bit. Quiet your mind.
What seems like thousands of years later, I hear a rush of wind above. Slowly I open my eyes and train them upwards towards the entrance.
The first thing I notice are tree branches thrashing wildly a hundred and fifty feet overhead. The sight of them and sound of them renews my energy yet again. I’ve always loved watching wind blow through trees. I’m feeling good enough to continue climbing now, slow and steady and metronome-like.
Thousands of golden leaves, shaken free by the wind, are tumbling into the sótano. They are like paralyzed butterflies. At a certain point, they are above, below and all around me. I am floating in a galactic snow globe, drifting amongst nascent stars with no clear sense of up and down. Another lump in my throat. For the umpteenth time this week, I’m seeing one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Fifty feet to go.
But the universe has one last joke to play on me. Twenty feet from the rim, I notice something I’d not seen on the way down — a beehive. We’d heard rumor of Africanized bees in the area, but hadn’t seen any during the rappel. Now was a totally different story. Now bees were pouring out of the hive in droves.
They come right for me in a murmuration of humming, buzzing doom. Within a few seconds I’m covered with them, waiting for stings. “It’s gonna hurt like crazy, but I can climb through the pain. I’ll have to climb through the pain. I’ve got Benadryl in my bag.”
The stinging never begins, however. I can see and feel them crawling around on every square inch of me, but no stings. Looking up once more, I see one of our guides on the edge.
“No pican las avejas?” I ask. [“Do the bees sting?”]
“No. No pican.” [“No. They don’t sting.”]
At last, I’m at the rim. I haul myself over, remove my ascenders and collapse on the forest floor, still covered with bees. The guide pulls a jar from his bag.
“Hacen miel rica. Quiere probarla?” [They make delicious honey. Want to try some?]
“Porqué no?” [Why not?]
- El Yoyo, Part 1: Going Down (Farther Still)
- El Yoyo, Part 2: At Bottom (Farther Still)
- Vive el Sótano de las Huahuas (YouTube)
(The above photo of the pit’s rim from below is courtesy of Jesse Barden. Follow him on Instagram: @jesse.barden.)