“It’s great. Great hike. Do it.”
I waited for more detail, perhaps a description, at least an impression: but none came.
The uncomfortable silence ended with more practical questions—how long? where do you start? Is there a path? Each had a vague but acceptable answer. A day long. Start at the reservoir. Just follow the stream up and climb over the rocks as necessary.
The hike to the base of Rat Tail Falls, the bottom of a 975 ft. sheer drop waterfall, seemed a relatively straightforward hike, and vaguely “great.”
“And you should take a rope...”
To hang ourselves with?
“… as parts might be difficult to get up without one.”
This was unexpected advice. My adrenaline glands perked up. School hikes were all along paths and to places that nearly anyone with two legs could reach. Sure, there were dangerous spots, cliffs, rotten bridges and slippery rocks; but nothing that required a rope. This hike would be a new kind of challenge—it sounded like serious stream rock hopping, maybe climbing.
I organized a bus, encouraged fellow hikers to join, and awaited the day thinking about the hike.
The destination itself offered some mystery. A year ago, two Western tourists fell from the top of the Falls. The story went that a Forest Officer had seen their bodies floating in a pool. Peering over the ledge at the top of Rat Tails I tried to see a pool far below where tourists might float. But even with binoculars it was hard to make anything out: snippets of water, rocks and mostly jungle canopy. And while the drop off is sheer, there is just enough slope to prevent seeing what lies directly at the bottom, presumably where the hikers would have landed. The bodies must have been washed down to a lower, visible pool. But visible from where?
A path from the top of the Falls leads along a slope to the South. At certain points you can look back at the falls, feathery silver threads cascading over one another, but the stream at bottom is even more hidden than from above. The water seems simply to fall into a green forest canopy.
The Forest Officer must have had some other path or trail that gave a view down to the base. Then again, the valley was entirely uninhabited, and there was likely no trail leading near the base. I couldn’t completely understand how he discovered the bodies of the hikers. But as with most gossip, I’m sure I didn’t have an accurate or complete story. But more so I was curious what the base of the Falls looked like.
In the days leading up to the hike, our group grew from five, to eight, then finally fifteen. One couple claimed to have hiked it already four times and loved it. They were planning on bringing their five-month old son along. Another had hiked it and remembered it was fun. Neither mentioned rope. I began to wonder if I should bring it at all.
One hiker had a small fear of heights, and asked me a worried question about the difficulty. I told her that one hiking companion was five-months old. As we would hike out the same way we hiked in, she could just stop at any time if it got too hard. Her worries evaporated.
Then I began to worry that it would be slightly boring. This was allayed by an argument that we shouldn’t hike it now since the water levels were high and it would be dangerous. That set us to the task.
The morning of the hike only ten showed up. I climbed on the bus with a 100 ft. climbing rope and a knapsack filled with breakfast, lunch, tea, insect repellent, a change of clothes, lots of Frooti and water.
As our bus pulled onto the path along the top of the weir, I looked out over the calmest water I’d ever seen. There was not a ripple save for two ducks swimming. The early morning light was softened by haze and cloud. The hills surrounding were vague but mirrored in the water.
“This is unusual, this haze. Back in Canada, we’d expect it was caused by a forest fire or something.”
Was it unusual? The clouds were very low and the air was hazy. The hills came in and out of view. It didn’t seem unusual.
We descended from the bus, bundled the baby and began the walk to the other end of the reservoir. It was a long hike along dead-flat plains, well over an hour of dusty path to reach the stream. We passed mango orchards. Buffalo plowed a field with a farmer following them standing on a harrow. Women in bright saris bent over rows of potatoes, pulling them up one by one. They stopped to smile and wave at us.
In between two orchards we reached our first stream crossing, from left bank to right bank. It was waist-deep and the current pushed at us with vigor. The water was icy cold and a real relief in the humid, hot morning air.
The group spoke of school politics and personal struggles. Voices were loud. Opinions were strong. I tuned in and tuned out to make statements, observations and the like, but only with effort. Mind was softened with the morning. The issues that would set my blood boiling on a school day were mostly irrelevant and relegated to the back of thought. What administrators did or didn’t do had no force in the world around me, the huge canopies of ancient tamarind trees, the vague hills still covered in morning mist, the dark clouds threatening rain to the East, the patchy fields, the yellow-brown sand underneath.
My mind was filled with the surroundings. I looked up at the hillsides that loomed close and tried to figure out which ones they were. The one to the right must be a Northern slope, but it didn’t look right. I wanted to get my bearings, but couldn’t. The path was clear, though, so I gave up and walked.
We came to a shrine, dedicated to Meenakshi, in the middle of a grove of teak trees. A faded paper image of her, bird in hand, smiled from a tree. Below was a precious piece of cloth draped around the trunk. Hers was a welcoming face, in a welcoming grove. The teaks towered above, their canopy made a huge auditorium space sheltered from the growing strength of the sun.
“Past this point, the villagers don’t go. We have to start rock-hopping as there are no trails to the base of the Falls.”
A shiver of glee ran through the group. This was where the fun started. No path meant every step was a calculation. Can I jump that far? Will my foot slide on that rock? How deep is that murky water? Should I wade or should I jump? Is the left side a better bet or the right? The river turned puzzle.
In the first few rock jumps I felt the weight of that rope in my pack. I couldn’t jump as far, and the shifting weight pushed me around annoyingly. Maybe I’d ditch a few things when we got far enough into the woods away from the paths of people. Then I could pick them up on the way back.
The sun came out. It livened the forest, livened my spirit. The joy of being on an adventure in the woods blossomed fully. I stopped to try and take in take the many sweet especial scenes, the rocks that jutted out of the stream, created eddy patterns of specific beauty, the intertwined root balls that required study to unwind and the occasional peek over the trees at the ever approaching Falls.
The rock hopping was of medium difficulty, and I marveled at father and five-month old son bouncing along at a great pace and with great ease. He was a natural at it. Some in our group began to fall behind, careful with the rocks.
The group spread out, the faster hikers disappearing upstream. We had agreed to go our own paces. A couple agreed to bring up the rear, not leave anyone behind. All had fun at a different pace.
We came upon a lovely swimming hole with a smashing view of the nearing Falls and waited for the last group to catch up. One told a tale of a lost a shoe, a chase downstream, a successful salvage operation. Sweaty, we plunged into the icy water and lolled about. We almost forgot our quest, distracted by the simple pleasures of being there, in the water, the sound of the rush of the stream blotting out most thought.
Rested and wet, we embarked the next stage, up ever steeper sections of stream bed, over ever larger rocks. I stared at a giant, hand-sized spider in a head-level web, then couldn’t find the words to warn a fellow hiker backing into it. He turned to find out why I was sputtering, and looked the spider right in the eye, inches away. His expression was priceless.
Only the leaves on the trees remained the same size. Otherwise the evidence suggested we were shrinking.
The steeper rocks created crashing water sprayed everywhere around us, feeding slippery algae and moss on the rocks. The less confident hikers turned green in color. I’m not sure what color my face was, absent a mirror.
With each jump I’d remember the weight in my pack. It would shift and throw off my balance just a bit. And thinking of balance, I’d think of the weight. The rope was not light.
I kept the rope in my bag. Then I thought of the baby. Effortlessly, he had been a passenger, up over the rocks, through the pools. I forgot my pack.
We came to another pool and gentle rocky slope. The Falls towered above us. The noise was strong. We were close.
“It will get a bit tougher up ahead.”
“Will we need the rope?” I asked.
Mother and baby stopped at this point. Dad set up a hammock under a shady tree, and baby went to sleep. This was a sign, but I didn’t read it.
I was beginning to get tired. Immediately we started ascending rocks more than hopping them. One 20 ft. high boulder had to be scaled via a tree next to it. Thin crevices between rocks offered the only hand and foot holds. The climbs up and around the slippery rocks were treacherous. It wasn’t five foot falls we risked, but 10ft. and 20 ft. falls down into the stream. A simple slip could mean death. It was fantastic.
The exhilaration was tremendous but not conscious. The focus necessary to cheat death was everything. I would look at a hand hold and realize that if I let go, I would probably lose all purchase, then fall with no control down to my death. I would trust that hand hold on the basis of will alone. I did not want to die. I was not going to let go. My fingers would not slip. Then up and over, I would sit and marvel that I hadn’t let go. My will had triumphed. I was alive. But what had I triumphed against?
The eeriness of the stream valley crept up on us. This was no place for humans. The giant boulders were indifferent to our presence. They did not feel us climbing as they slept for millennia covered in moss. Our presence was insignificance. The joy of our will, the conquering climb, was a song drown out by the crashing water and wasted anyway as the stones were not listening nor remembering.
Higher up the stones changed character. Most were not rounded with wearing water over the ages, but freshly jagged, balanced so precariously on one another a little kick would dislodge them. I looked up. The cliff sides looming closer had nothing growing on them. The strata were nearly vertical. I considered the violence necessary to raise an ancient seabed and tilt it vertical, and I felt a deep seated humility. The house-size fragments around us were mere dust specs fallen from the cliff faces.
We made our way to the bottom of a house-size rock angled sharply down. It seemed to be balanced on two or three very small, sharp rocks that seemed freshly wedged and not particularly well. I climbed under and found another hiker stopped, shaking with fear. I could see in the dark profile of a face that realized what I hadn’t felt yet: the huge rock above our heads could slide at any moment, reduce each of us to a thin paste in a heartbeat. My fear met hers, and I felt the urge to urge her on up and out from under, so I could escape fate too. Thankfully I bit my tongue and breathed carefully. A few seconds, an eon, a timeless moment biding existence before death, we stood breathing hard from the climb, under the dark rock. She collected herself. She moved up. I paused a second longer and contemplated if that second was the fatal one before I could make it out from under.
I recall now a television series about an attempt on Everest. In one episode, the team leader spent an hour trying to convince an exhausted hiker not to use his last bit of energy to summit, but to use it to come back to camp. The hiker, so close to his goal, wouldn’t agree for some time. Finally his sherpa got through his desire and helped him see that his life hung in the balance. The man relented, descended, and stumbled back into camp on the very last drops of his energy. He nearly died from exhaustion as it was. His lack of clear thought nearly killed him.
Three of our group of nine reached their limits, and decided to have their lunches just above the balanced rock. The rest moved on. I moved on and wondered if the swimming sensation in my head meant anything important.
A fellow hiker seemed to have a lot of trouble. I offered to take her pack. I hung it over my chest for the most part, but took to throwing it up on ledges before ascending, then picking it up when I got there.
Up another twenty-foot tree to swing over onto another building-sized rock, I heard the hiker up ahead say:
I clambered up the sloping edge of the boulder to reach its height and took in an overwhelming view. There before us was the full face of Rat Tail Falls, all 975 ft. of it looming directly up. Fifty feet below our boulder was a lake, 100 ft. by 50 ft. wide. The cascade thundered into the lake, pushing mist at 30 mph across the surface.
It was 1 pm. I watched the sun set over the ridge above our heads, casting the valley into shadow.
The black wet rock walls of the cliff face looked like fragmented obsidian. The water of the lake was steel-black. The cascade roared so loud, we had to shout to be heard. The vertical water raged down jagged face, slapping the protruding rocks and fragmenting into mist. The curtain of water obscured the rocks behind. What was there? We had arrived at the Gates of Hell.
I sat down and ate my lunch, a cheese sandwich. I drank my Frooti. I caught my breath.
The tourists had fallen the full height and into this lake. The cascade smashed against several sharp rocks jutting out from the cliff face. Did the tourists hit them first, and die before they hit the water? At the base of the falls was a huge triangular pile of freshly fallen rocks. When would the next rock be added to the pile from above?
“Let’s go swimming!”
We climbed down our boulder to the edge of the lake. Boulders just jutted down in, there was no shore. Could we get back out? We jumped in. The icy water was over our heads. We swan ten feet and I collided with a submerged rock, cut open my shoulder.
Wind blew water in our faces, little waves slapped us. I swam on my back. The current pushed me away from my goal, the base of the falls. I swam harder. I turned to swim face forward. I swallowed water. I struggled. I couldn’t touch bottom. I reached the end of my endurance and felt I couldn’t swim any more. Exhaustion owned me. I had to rest. My arms and legs were done. I would slip beneath the waves and that would be that.
But I was not going to die. I refused to stop moving my arms and kicking my legs. I ordered them to move. They moved. I swam on. I touched a rock, covered in black slime. I grabbed it feebly, but made my way on top of it. Gulping breaths as fast as I could, I found rest. I sat on the rock as the others swam all the way to the falls. They climbed up and stood under the cascading water, yelling something back. I sat huddled on the rock praying for the strength to swim back. There was no other way to get back. I had to swim back.
I swam back.
As I go to the rocks where we jumped in, another hiker was floating playfully in the water. She smiled and flicked water at my face. Then my toe found mud and sand. I smiled back and flicked water at her. There is infinite life in a smile.
Back up on the rock overlooking the lake, we rested. I gasped for breath. Others stared.
“Just … got … a … little … winded … while … swimming” I explained.
We sat, ate, thought. Conversation was sparse.
“Do you know the Lord of the Rings? I think the rock faces look like the sides of Orthanc, you know, Saruman’s tower.”
“More like the mountains around Mordor.”
“Yeah. It does look spooky.”
Staring at the steel-black lake I remembered almost drowning much the same way when I was 11. It was during a canoe trip in Northern Wisconsin. We had paddled all day. The others, all older than me, jumped in for a swim. I aimed to follow, not having any clue how tired or how bad I swimmer I was. I got part way out when my arms and legs ceased to function. I called out just as I went down and tried to hold my breath. I was pulled out moments later, sputtering and alive. I was still that same swimmer. And I had cheated death again, this time without calling out.
But perhaps I wasn’t really near death. Perhaps I was only as exhausted as I wanted to be. The understanding that one day we will dies makes us human. This knowledge differentiates us from all other animals. Animals may fear pain, and know when a loved one is gone, but they do not fear or understand their own death. This knowledge of the self’s death is the wellspring of faith, and from that the practice of religion. While we know that we shall die, we don’t quite know what comes after. Through faith we get a kind of understanding, but how many people have real faith? Far too many practice religion without it.
One way we contemplate and understand our own death is by cheating it. We climb rocks to exhaustion. We race cars. We fly planes. We walk out our doors in the morning and go to work. These adrenaline-based activities don’t give us any intellectual understanding of death, nothing we can put in words. Rather the closer we get to our own death, the more easily we can feel it, sense it from within a hidden corner of our brain. The knowledge of our own death is not an intellectual knowledge: it is faith, for what mind can contemplate its own inability to think? We can only feel death with faith.
Cheating death sharpens the contrast between what we are now, alive, and what we will be, not. The closer we get, the more we know, and the more control our will has over the greatest mystery of all, which brings peace.
“Hey. Do you see the face?”
Someone pointed up at a large divot in the cliff face. There was a face. A half face. A nose to the right of it. A lip. An open mouth. A cry of pain face, half of it washed away by the falls.
“No, no, the other way too.”
There was a woman’s head, an African stylized head facing the other way. But the other face captured me. The sadness was right. But what did it say?
We packed to go. I lurched my heavy pack on. My head swam. The rock under my feet felt wobbly, uncertain. My depth perception seemed oddly pinched. Was I dehydrated? No, I had drunk steadily. I was just tired. Each step had to be a conscious, forced choice. I wanted to make sloppy footfalls. I said no.
I stared back at the huge wall of black wet rock. It said nothing I could hear. It was indifferent. The Gates of Hell could care less about our presence. I smiled back.
The descent began, down a tree, across a boulder, through a crevice. I came to many precipices and thought—no, this must be the wrong way. It’s not possible to have come up that. But then one of us went down without a problem. So I followed to another dead-end. But no, it really was the way we came up. So down we went.
I saw the giddy heights better than coming up. They were impressive. We made our way down bit by bit. My legs shuddered. I did not slip. I wouldn’t let my foot slip. Time slowed down. A step could take an age, time enough to contemplate the color of the moss to one side, the curve of a banyan branch.
We came upon the group that had not continued. They were finishing a leisurely lunch. Sweat on our faces, we smiled back and shared a story or two.
At our first steep, slippery section, I looked up to see a face filled with fear, grit teeth, sweat. At the bottom of the slope, the grimace was exchanged for a smile just as intense. There it was—our common joy at cheating death. Why would she climb these rocks, fearing them so? Fear is a lemon-tart pleasure. Her face alternated all the way down. I’m sure mine did the same.
I did not slip. Not once. I didn’t believe it at the time. And I don’t believe it now. I gained energy as I descended. The rope got lighter. I carried another’s pack as well. I smiled often.
As the rocks reduced to cars and trucks in size we came to a water slide, thirty feet of relatively smooth rock on a gentle incline down to a pool, missed or ignored on the way up. We all threw down our packs and slid down, face first, screaming, laughing. There’s not enough death to cheat in climbing. We have to slide down the waterfalls too.
But I had a belly full of death, and chose to carry packs down the slope rather than swim.
The stream grew tame as we descended: the rocks smaller, the forest more civilized, the current slower. Two hours of steady walking later, we came to the placid, horizontal surface of the reservoir, just as mirror smooth as we had left it in the morning.
We waited for our bus on the weir, seated on a neat wall, looking over the water, eating raisins, talking about nothing much in particular, what dinner awaited us, if the traffic would be heavy on the way back up. The sun settled into the haze behind our backs, then fell below the hilltops. The reservoir didn’t move. We all agreed it was the best hike.