The acid test had arrived and it was time for me to chicken out! It was a quick reflection of thought backed by simple logic that triggered my decision actually: I feared for my life! I had no clue what it was like not to have firm ground under my feet. I felt that such situations were easily conducive to a quick heart-attack and thereafter, an unwelcome grave deep inside a Costa Rican gorge! And so, I was NOT going to be suspended from a rope facing a 100-foot cliff in the name of a fancy kind of adventure-tourism called ‘Canyon Rappelling.’ Period!
Year: 2010. Location: Hinterland Costa Rica, an adventure trip for four cousins – me, Moondada, Babu and Rudy. I had expressed my fears to the three and found that two had turned deaf - Babu sported an inexcusably contentious smirk (I wanted to punch his face!) and Moondada did not even look at me. Rudy was sympathetic. He very kindly said, “Perish the thought!”
And sure enough, I found myself part of a motley group of tourists out to find some morbid thrill from an activity that seemed a life-threatening nonsense to me. A large group of native youngsters formed the team that controlled and executed the rappelling activity; their captain Mauricio trained novices like us. They handed out our rope harnesses teaching us to wear them correctly, ensuring that the specially designed loose, ‘ropey’ contraption wrapped itself tightly around the vital body parts. A pair of well-worn rappelling gloves fitted my hands snugly and a tightly strapped miner’s helmet sat on my head. “Smile!” barked Moondada at my sullen face. I did but his reaction told me that whatever contortion my face acquired from that ‘smile’ made me more facially-challenged than ever! My mind going completely blank at that point, I found myself hustling along with our group to the first canyon. As we saw the canyon-drop, its rappel boarding plank in solid readiness just slightly ahead, Mauricio directed us to huddle around and concentrate on the demo that he would be giving. I forced myself to be attentive. Desperate as I was to see the logical end of this rappelling stupidity, I felt that I’d better learn the ‘ropes’ to survive first. The thrill would hopefully ensue!
Mauricio’s demo started. “See guys, it is all about your knees and your feet. Always remember that the canyon is at a fair distance from your body when you rappel down, but there is a 100% chance that you will swing towards it. So what you have to do is be alert and swing your legs up from your hip towards the front of your body and take the canyon by your feet like this (he demonstrated exactly how it was to be done). Keep your knees loose and flexible - like a car shock absorber. Let it bend as your feet hit the canyon like this . . .!”
Mauricio man! It all looked as simple as eating jam out of a bottle with a toothpick! So that was the simple trick, huh? Dangling on a rope, keep hitting the canyon with your feet, the hundred feet of death below you was not worth any consideration! Obviously unmindful of my thoughts, Mauricio continued, “If you somehow turn around and your back is towards the canyon, don’t worry. Your back is the strongest part of your body after your legs. Even if it hits hard, only a little blood might flow but our assistants on the level below who will be controlling the rope will soon turn you around.” Blood? Mauricio!!! I was ready to throw up now! Mauricio continued, “Now the most important thing, your left hand is always holding the rope above your head - it is the navigating hand. Keep your palm loose when you are going down but tighten it if you feel you are losing control and turning. Your right hand is your accelerating hand: keep it free and you are going down, keep it tight and you stop and hang in mid-air. Is it clear???”
What the bloody hell had I got myself into? I again caught Babu staring at me with that same inexcusable smirk. Go on, punch him - right on his nose, I said to myself! Obviously I couldn’t do that; we cousins were too old now for settling issues with fisticuffs! Pitying myself I ambled along with the group, my mind thoughtless, and suddenly, horrifyingly in fact, found myself at the top of the group; I would be the first one to rappel down! Moondada would be next on the twin rope beside me. Lump in my throat, I found myself uttering my last prayers to God - a long life to my wife and son back in Guwahati!
It was then that Babu came up to me and said, “Bro, just keep your mind calm; remember the instructions. In fact, shift your brains to your knees and loosen your spinal cord from the new brain to your feet. That is exactly what I am doing.” There you go! My little brother, for all his smirking, had come to my rescue just when I needed it. My mind suddenly, inexplicably cleared; my doubts about myself stood answered and I took up the challenge as a real man. I was helped into position on the platform and I latched onto the rope, my ‘navigating’ left hand above my head. My ‘accelerator’ right hand gripped the rope below. I looked down - my mind reeled for a second at the 85-foot drop; the assistants seemed so tiny below! My rope was in their controlling hands but they looked just as big as ants! I placed my feet firmly on the platform and heaved my body out from it, my buttocks suspended in mid-air, knees bent for the proper launch stance. Moondada on the parallel rope was doing the same; about as ready as I was. “Go,” shouted Mauricio and I pushed away from the platform launching myself into mid-air even as I consciously noticed the drained-out look of Rudy and Babu, agape at my sudden courage. Moondada, I did not remember, apparently did the same.
Down I went and I immediately tightened up: it was sheer fear! In those crazy initial moments, I found myself hanging in mid-air and not moving, my hands too tight on the rope, my feet firmly perched on the canyon I had somehow swung forward to. For the huge possibility of a fatal cardiac arrest, I refused to look down! And then, Mauricio’s instructions rushed rapidly into my mind. I let loose my hands consciously thrusting away from the canyon with my feet and found myself slithering further down. As I went down a few feet, the canyon again suddenly came close to my face and I instinctively swung up my feet and blocked the imminent disaster tightening up everything and stopping in mid air. And thereafter, abruptly, it all became conceptually clear. I found myself rappelling down fast swinging away from the face of the canyon and then, swinging close to it instinctively bringing up my feet onto it and absorbing the shock on wobbly knees. In between I also had the temerity to stop and look down as to how far more I had to go and then let go again. As I gathered momentum, I reached an incredible speed – the touch and go with the canyon attaining orgasmic proportions! I touched ground 85 feet lower from where I had started and looked up. Moondada had already reached that base 30 seconds back and came up to congratulate me. Shortly, Babu and Rudy followed suit. Success! The sweet taste of unqualified success! It was indeed one of the most joyous moments of my life.
That rappel and five more (two of these through waterfalls) thereafter taught me a profound lesson: fears are often irrational. Succumbing to them is foolishness. And my heart? Leave alone being arrested, it never felt better!