“Feed, lean, feed, lean back! Vamos, Lily!”
“OK, OK, hold on, there’s no place to put my foot. Oh my God! I don’t know if I can do this.”
“It’s ok, you’re not going to fall. Just lean back, pull the rope up, feed the rope, and then you step back. Take your time. One foot at a time.”
I am 300 feet above ground level in a Belizean rainforest.
For almost thirty minutes prior, I watched each person in my group inch their way to the edge where the guides would hook them up. Fear came over most when it was time to step backwards from the edge of the cliff. And then they disappeared below the where I could no longer see them.
It’s almost my turn. There’s one girl ahead of me and she’s having a meltdown. At the start of our hour-and-a-half near-vertical hike to get to the top, she’d warned her husband and anyone within earshot that she wouldn’t do it. She’d just do the hike and skip the rest. Now she is standing on the edge, strapped up, her back to the big drop below. Her husband is ready and parallel to her but not that close. He lets out a “you can do it” but doesn’t insist. In between strangled sobs she shouts for him to go ahead without her. “I love you but I can’t do this, I can’t do this! Oh my God I can’t do this!” Her fingers are gripping the guide’s forearm. I am afraid for her now, and for me too.
The guides give up. “Okay Lily, you’re next!”
I wasn’t expecting to go so soon. Even though I knew my turn was coming, I had taken my time, watched everyone and observed the power of the human mind when faced with something uncertain and bigger: Mother Nature.
But really, how hard could it be? All those hooks weren’t going anywhere. An intricate system of knotted ropes led to two thick tree trunks. There were two guides with us up on that ledge – Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch trained, professional guides who are also medics. One of them, Arnold, gave us a demonstration earlier of the do’s and don’t’s in rappelling. The worst that could happen: losing your foot balance and slamming face first into the cliff. Nice.
For the first twenty minutes it had all looked pretty cool and adventurous from where I sat, watching everyone make their way to the edge. I wanted photos, of course. So I’d asked and the guides if I could. They hooked me up at the waist with a rope and tied the end to one of the tree trunk so I wouldn’t slip when shooting. I stood by the edge, crouched down a little and inched forward as much as I could. I was limited in my movements, like a dog on a leash. I looked down to shoot. The weight of my SLR pulled me farther forward, but maybe it was the fear. Chico assured me I couldn’t fall. I can almost hear him think, you’re on a leash remember? I had but a small bit of earth to step on. The view was incredible looking down. I snapped two, three shots. Then I felt nauseous – maybe I was tempting fate at this point. So I asked to be unleashed, and stepped back to wait on my turn.
And then within minutes, it was my turn.
I step forward. My camera is back in my dry bag. I’m ready to go.
Rain starts falling. Oh no, why now.
I give my back to the edge and I say a prayer as I get hooked and roped up.
“You know, it’s because you take the photos. You see all the way down!” Chico, who is Guatemalan by birth, laughs as he says this.
I knew he was right. I had seen too much, too soon. But how else was I going to capture this? Not while suspended 300 feet up in the air?
It keeps raining, hard. I’m not sure if you’ve experienced heavy rainforest downpour that high up but it’s not your average rainfall. Chico hooks my dry bag last, to one of the ropes on my body. I couldn’t even tell how many there were, I could see them but only felt my harness. I ask to swing the bag to my back -because if I slam into the cliff, God forbid, so would my camera. Not my D700! He reluctantly places it towards the back.
And now it’s time.
“Vamos, Lily! Feed, lean back, lean your body back, and feed! Pull the rope, little bit, little bit! Put your foot back, another foot!”
That first step back is shaky. The rain isn’t helping. The earth is a deep orange-colored mush. My right foot slips a little. It’s time for another prayer. Lord, I love my new job and my life, please don’t let me die just yet.
How am I supposed to just lean backwards into emptiness and make myself parallel with the cliff, with just a rope to rely on? My mind wanders to the liability waiver I signed that same morning when I checked into Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch. No wonder…
I make a decision. I’m not going to think. I’m going to do. Off goes my right foot and immediately after, my left follows. It’s too late to go back. All I have to do is what Chico said, and lean my body backwards slowly, put my feet parallel to the rock. Step by step. I stop thinking about what’s behind me; or what could happen if I lose balance or how long it would take to go down. I had to talk to myself — go with it, go with it, it’s okay. Focus on now!
The rope is tough on my hands when I feed it up, and the weight of my D700 pulls on my back, but I choose to not focus on it. Soon I will be able to just let my feet down and relax.
“Don’t grab too hard on the handle! You grab too hard!” How could he see that far down? Chico was still watching, but that made me feel safer. He was right, my fingers are a deep pink, I am gripping out of fear. I let go a little.
And there I am, before I know it… rappelling into 300 feet of Belizean rainforest.
Finally, I reach the part where there was no more rock to place my feet on, just an empty space where I could let my body stand, above a black hole in the rainforest where I would descend safely.The hard part was over.
“Ooookaaaay… now enjooooy the view!” I could hear Chico as if he were right beside me, but he was still up above, controlling my rope and watching.
I turn my face away from the rock and towards the rainforest ahead. What a view. I take a deep breath and take it all in. And as I’m doing this, I pull, lower myself, pull again and again all while looking up ahead of me.
A few minutes later, I am closer to the ground, I look to the right and see a magnificent cave, and the rest of my group.
My feet touch the ground, a guide unhooks me. I look back up 300 feet, stunned at what I just did. I spot the girl who had a meltdown; she was on her way down. And I’m thinking, she may have gone last in the group, but she’s the bravest.