Tree climber, rigging specialist and Mirror Wall expedition team member Waldo Etherington shares his field notes from his recent adventure – rigging some of the world’s most powerful waterfalls.
The pre rig – Guyana Feb 2017
After fiddling with the broken latch on the airplane door and giving the sun bleached plastic dashboard a light tap, which promptly shifted the entire dashboard housing an inch to one side partially obscuring a very important looking dial, the pilot turned to Ian who was sat in the copilots seat and said in a thick Caribbean accent “Ma name is Jimmy and I be your pilot today, we have two emergency exits” he indicated the door to my right which was entirely blocked by my haul bag, he raised his eye brows and continued “we have one emergency exit” we all started laughing. I was pretty sure that we were about 50kg over the takeoff weight and Jimmy’s relaxed attitude failed to reassure me.
As the engine rattled to life the GPS, which was blue-tacked to the dashboard, fell off and as Jimmy nonchalantly reached down to pick it up I glanced around the cramped antiquated Cesna 202 aircraft; there was duct tape holding a crack in the rear window together, the beige vintage looking plastic trimmings were all hanging off and there were screws missing left right and center (one actually fell out into my lap during the flight!) I was wedged between haul bags and a roughly wrapped Amerindian bow complete with a quiver of arrows with fierce looking fishing tips on them in case we got hungry. I could see the tarmac through the gap in the door as the plane rolled forward and onto the runway. I felt like I had just stepped into the script of an Indiana jones film.
After a thrilling terrain flight over half the width of Guyana on which we saw endless forest and rivers and tepuis in all directions, broken only by the ugly scarring of abandoned gold mines, we landed surprisingly smoothly at Kaieteur landing strip.
The waterfall we were here to rig was the mighty Kaieteur Falls, the largest single drop waterfall in the world by volume. It is 120m across, 250m high and has an average flow rate of 663 cubic meters of water per second.
When we got to the edge of the falls our guide Thomas informed us that, despite it being the dry season, the falls were at 70% flow, yet another eye opening fact that hammered home the reality of the effects of climate change, but it was an impressive sight!
We began rigging. Our top anchors were mostly small trees and shaky cams. Looking through the mist at the valley floor far below we could see what appeared to be numerous car sized boulders that we figured would make solid bomb-proof bottom anchors.
We quickly constructed a focused floating anchor as far back from the edge as the vegetation would permit and then built our timber A-frame, which we guyed into position.
The following morning we lowered 300m ropes off an overhang at a nearby lookout point about 100m away from the waterfall and descended into the plunge pool area. I descended with a 120L haul bag hanging from my harness, paying out ropes, which were anchored at the top of the falls as I went. We would use these ropes to bring our trackline into position.
When we touched down on the first ledge after a free-hanging 200m abseil we were in hurricane like conditions. It was hard to stand up on the wet loose rocks in the wind caused by the waterfall entering the plunge pool and the horizontal driving splash back made it hard to see anything…it was probably one of the most intense environments I’ve ever been in.
We re-belayed the rope on a couple of sketchy nuts and some large cams and descended further into the mist and driving wet winds. We spent the next 2 hours moving slowly over difficult terrain, hauling our big pig of a bag over the rocks and paying out the track lines as we went. When we reached the anchors we had scoped from above we were surprised to find that they were more house size than car size. We secured the bag and the ropes and scrambled a few hundred meters away from the plunge pool to a place where we could talk without shouting and eat some food.
We were both overwhelmed by the epic-ness of the falls; we could make out the darkness of the cave behind the waterfall, as yet a totally unexplored place. Two scarlet macaws flapped their way heavily across the sky, completing our jungle vista experience and we made a plan for securing the ropes and making our way back up to the top.
Although our guide and food was just 250m above us it felt extremely remote down there. If anything happened it could take the rest of the day and most of the night to get an injured person back to the ropes and up to the top, maybe even longer. It’s situations like these when you rely so heavily on the care of your climbing partner…paramount to all our other safeguards was the simple yet demanding act of being careful.
We made the jumar back up the free hanging ropes in about 15 minutes with no incident and when we got back to the anchors we were able to tension our trackline system and admire the beauty of the rig we had created; a wilderness timber A frame perched symmetrically on a rock nose overlooking one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls and a double rainbow encircled the ropes that disappeared from here into the mist below. The waterfall thundered its approval. We were ready for the arrival of the film crew the following day.
It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel in Georgetown that the serene sense of accomplishment struck me. Adventure does that to you; it draws in your perspective amplifying the here and now, demanding a presence of mind that can be hard to find in the sanitized busy life that so many of us unknowingly embrace.
I step into the hotel room and pause for a moment before closing the door behind me. There are eight large haul bags with their innards spewed out across the floor in a semblance of organization. A familiar scene of hundreds of meters of rope and bags of climbing equipment laid out to dry.My climbing partner Ian returned here a day earlier and started the kit sort.
I toss my rucksack onto the startling white bed sheets take a deep breath and exhale slowly. We made it. My ears are still ringing from the helicopter journey out of the forest but as I stand there, hesitant to let my body relax, my nerves slowly adjust to a more tranquil state; the hum of the air conditioning unit seems somehow comforting.
I know that this feeling won’t last forever, that in a few days all my blisters, mosquito bites and aching muscles will be lost in memories of giant waterfalls, huge wild trees and the thrill of adventure.
Home comforts will once again become a part of my life and soon I will be scribbling down plans and logistics for my next expedition, eager to taste the next adventure and be challenged by the unknown once more. But right now, in this moment that I’ve gingerly anticipated for so long I vividly realise the paradox of my appreciation of everything that is normal and sedate and I feel privileged to be alive.