Chapter 4: Getting Down
I could see the other side of the ravine. It was lower and about 150 metres to 200 metres away. Looked like some god had cut it with a great axe. The sides were smooth. I stood on the very edge with my toes curled over the edge and looked down. I felt like I was going over falling … I had to force myself backwards before I did fall.
I lay on my stomach and crawled to the edge and looked over. It was vertical and very smooth: not a handhold to be seen anywhere. I was just looking at the other side of the cut … and as the sun got higher I could see a set of stairs in shadow on the other side, which would mean that the positive profile would be on my side. I could not see a thing from here and went off to the left to have a closer inspection of the cliff face. I found the corresponding positive steps on my side. They were only inches wide but thirty or forty feet down. It was around 400mm wide: I would be able to stand on it without a problem. If only I could get there. Nothing else for it: I would have to try or stop up here. I had not seen or heard anything: no planes in the sky, no traffic, no house lights anywhere. Cold water and one egg would not keep me going for any length of time. I had to get down and find help.
Standing on the edge I could see the start of the steps or at least the step-resembling rock face under the cliff edge only four or five metres down. Problem was … it was not 300mm wide at the closest point, and a straight drop of several hundred metres for me under it (should I miss). The steps were getting bigger as they went down, so all I had to do was first get on to them and then go down about a hundred steps to where they were over a metre wide.
After another cold night with no dinner and only very cold water for breakfast, I would have to get down soon and find help of some kind: some food and clothes. My naked butt was starting to complain about the exposure to the sun. It was quite pink.
I dithered about for quite some time, looking at the only way down from several angles. I even went to the extreme edge of the valley but the sheer cliff edge proved impossible to climb without climbing gear. Rope, crampons, and boots would be required at the very least. I even had a quick look at the edge of the glacier but found it was way too cold to even attempt trying to go over it.
I did get a good view of the cliff top on this side. It was exactly the same as the other side of the river on the left. It was a series of folds: sharp ridges and deep valleys, and it looked impossible to get across even if I had been able get up there. The right side was almost flat, like a table top. From my very cold vantage point I could see this side of the cut was the same as the other side, but higher. The cliff had been made when the lower side had slipped down and the gorge had opened up. The dry stream bed could be seen clearly going down the valley on the other side of the gorge: it was not so green now and the stream bed now had scrub growing in it.
It was early afternoon when I decided it was time to go by sliding over the edge (which was almost square) and, hanging from the very edge, I could see the first ledge down between my toes – only a drop of three metres. With my heart in my mouth I let go, and dropped down the cliff face and landed on the step with a jolt.
I automatically bent at the knees to absorb the impact. First big mistake, as my knees smashed into the rock face. My bottom went out, followed by my feet – and I dropped again this time, but only to my waist. I grabbed the ledge with both hands and stopped the downward movement, but was stuck. There was no chance of climbing back on to the ledge. It was much too small. I managed to move sideways and down on to the next ledge: it was a small drop of 100 mm. This ledge was also only 300 mm deep, but a good metre long. The next one was shorter but wider and the lower ones were progressively getting wider
I could see that by the time I got down ten or twelve ledges I would be in a position to get on to the ledges and made my way along the steps, as hanging of the side of a cliff was not a nice position to be in. The pressure on my fingers and toes was enormous. I did not want to be hanging over the side when I got to the wet section, which I could see would be soon.
When the ledge was over 400 mm deep I managed to get on to it and sit down with my feet over the edge. By this time my arms were shaking due to the effort of hanging on to the side of the cliff, so when my arms stopped shaking and my fingers stopped cramping I was able to stand up and make better progress down the ledges.
The section under the waterfall was very uncomfortable. The water was very cold but the area was quite wide and extremely cold due to the wind blowing it across the face of the cliff. The sun was hot and helped me dry off quite fast. It was close to evening by the time I got to the last ledge, which was the largest so far. Under it was a four-metre drop into the river.
There was an eddy under the ledge and the river looked deep, with no obvious means of getting out. I would have to go downstream quite a distance before gaining an exit. I could swim, so there was no problem that I could see … it was just that the thought of the cold water did not appeal at all. I could see a place where I could get out: about 100 metres down from the cliff edge there was a small beach of sand and pebbles. The current did not look strong along the cliff edge but I would wait for the new sun, as I did not wish to be cold and wet. So … another cold night with only water to drink and nothing to eat.
When the sun eventually got to my ledge it was mid morning. I noted that the sun had reached the beach as well, so it was time to go. Again, I slipped over the edge and hung to the edge with a deep breath and, pushing off the cliff face, dropped the metre to the water. Damn, it was cold. But I was expecting it, so not a real shock. It did not take much to reach the beach, and getting out was easy. The beach was short, leading to a lightly wooded bank. I managed to find enough wood and tinder to make a fire after rubbing one stick against another for what felt like a very long time before it started to smoulder.
With the fire going it did not take long to get warm again. The sun helped as well. I stopped by the fire on the beach the rest of the day, reluctant to venture far from the fire. As the sun disappeared behind the mountain I built up the fire, fearing the cold.
It turned out not to be that cold except that the wind, when it got up in strength, blew really cold air off the glacier. When the direction changed it was quite pleasant, except for the hunger … one egg was not quite enough to fill me up.
I had seen the volcano from the top of the cliff and decided to head in that direction. It was as good as any and had a good chance I would find habitation I sat by the fire well into the night thinking about food and where to get it. And clothes. I would need clothes.
Should I meet anyone this would be embarrassing, and it would be hard to explain being naked. I had a really good look around when the sun had gone and the moon was up but I could not see any lights of any kind. I thought, “If anyone was around there would be light.” You could see light from a really long way away. Even a camp fire would show up, but so far nothing.
… Could be that I was not near where anyone was. I would head for the volcano. People always congregated around volcanoes, as the ground was productive. That’s where I would hope to find people. When the sun came up and the day had warmed up I headed off the beach and into the trees, keeping the river on my right. The trees were strange to me, not quite like trees back home … but they were still trees, just not like I expected. The colours of the leaves were not quite correct: the broadleaf trees were more yellow than green. I wondered if it was fall time or if this was their natural colour.
I was looking for fruits and/or nuts but I did not see any, or more likely did not recognise them: unless it’s small, round – and red or green, it’s not an apple. I had an orange tree once grown from seed so I knew what an orange tree looked like (what colour the leaves are), and these trees were not that colour. The wood was almost brown but it looked like a child had coloured them. It was just too brown.
I walked for the best part of the day. The hunger was getting worse and I was looking for something to eat. I found some fruit on a small tree. It was yellow and green. I found it by standing on a very ripe one: it squidged between my toes very unpleasantly but the smell was wonderful … very sweet. It had my mouth watering right away.
I had to look hard to find the fruit as it was the same colour as the leaves and almost the same shape, but when I got my eye in I could see there were a lot of trees which had fruit hanging from them. I picked fruit from several of them: each fruit was at a different stage of growth from very obvious new growth to squidgy old overripe growth. I found the new growth to be very bitter, but I also found that several of the older-looking fruits, past perfect or overripe, were better – less bitter, so I had several of them. They helped quench my thirst as well as my hunger. I found to my horror that they were also a very good laxative, which helped get rid of the yellow gungy stuff that I was still passing.
I thought I could take some fruit with me if I had a bag. “Make one,” I thought … Make a bag … how hard can it be? Damn hard. That’s how hard. I looked around at what was available … not a lot, but there were trees and grass, and by the river or stream there were reeds. I collected what I could and attempted to weave a bag. Total failure, so after several attempts I tossed the mess away and tried again. This time it was bag-shaped and would hold several fruits, which was good. I attempted to make a fire again, only this time my hands were so sore I could not manage it.
So, with nothing else to do, I went to bed – or sleep, at least. I was cold when I awoke and got up with the sun, which was hidden by clouds. The day was starting out cold, with the promise of rain. I could smell it in the air. “Just what I needed,” I thought, “a good soaking.” The rain held off but I did not like the look of the clouds rolling in, dark and menacing. It was going to rain, and soon. I was reminded of an expression from home: If you can see the hills … It’s going to rain. If you cannot see the hills … It’s raining. I could see the hills but, more importantly – judging by the colour of the anvil-shaped clouds – it was going to be a big storm.
I would need shelter. I found a big tree that had blown down at some time in the past, and it had a small space which was quite sheltered under the main trunk. Down one side it was overgrown with ivy or a plant very like ivy with very bright flowers. The leaves were yellow-green with a very dark outline. “Variegated,” I said to myself. “That’s what they are called. Variegated.” Like ivy, it was a creeping vine-type plant. With the wind starting to pick up I thought, “This will do. Just need a windbreak and a fire.”
There were lots of trees for firewood and I could use some to make a windbreak, which would reflect the heat from the fire. The windbreak was the easy part. Starting the fire with my bad hands was not so easy, but with the rain starting and the blood running down my hand from burst blisters I got smoke from the dust and soon a fire could be started – small, at first – but it was soon burning bright … and not too soon, as the rain came on with a vengeance. I do not think I could see five metres through it.
The rain was coming from the ivy side of my shelter and being driven almost horizontally by the wind, so the fire was protected. The ivy was a very good windbreak. I was quite comfortable, considering. I was looking at the fruit and the fire and thought, “Why not?” So I picked up a thin stick, skewered a fruit on the end, and placed it over the fire and started to roast it.
When the skin had turned black and started to burst open I gave it a try … tasted just the same, only hot – but I thought it was better just for being hot. The rain and wind stopped suddenly. One moment it was howling and then, as if someone had flicked a switch, it stopped. All that could be heard was the dripping of water from the trees.
The ivy was a good windbreak but gravity prevailed, and water dripped down through the leaves. The first big drop of cold water landed on my neck. It was quite a shock. I had been surprisingly dry and warm until the rain stopped. Now I was getting wet and cold. It was late in the day so I decided to stop here. It was a good shelter and I had a lot of firewood, most of which was dry. I could do with something to eat but I only had two bits of fruit left and I thought, “Breakfast. I will keep them for breakfast.” It was a short walk down to the stream. When I got there it was three times its previous size and muddy, with twigs and grass flowing down it.
“Not drinking that,” I said to myself. I found a small hollow in a rock by the side of the stream, which was overflowing with rainwater. “Nice,” I said and drank my fill. The night passed without incident. The fire had burned down but not gone out during the night. It did not take long to get it up and going again. Breakfast was roast fruit. I did not know what to call them. They had three stones or nuts inside them, thick skins, and quite a lot of flesh, which was better when hot and overripe.
I tried younger fruits, more green than yellow, but they were not so nice – bitter, and hard to eat. I could really do with some meat. If I could find another bird on a nest I would not hesitate: just a tap on the head and lunch is served.
I could still see the volcano. It did not look any closer than yesterday and I headed in that direction. It was easy going as the valley headed in that general direction. It was late morning or early afternoon when I finally gave up the fire. It took a lot of persuasion. I had to talk strongly to myself to get going.