Three Canyons and a Helicopter
It’s an incredibly surreal feeling to be lying on a comfortable bed of soft dirt, staring at a brightening sky beyond a canopy of dew-covered trees, listening to the sound of awakening birds and the soft bubbling of a nearby river, with a cannula in your arm and a bag of rehydration fluids hanging from the nearest tree. I strongly believe that all hospitals should be converted to outdoor spaces, with grass for beds, trees replacing IV stands, a campfire for warmth, a creek for bathing. Perhaps my memory is overly-influenced by the effects of morphine, but this was certainly a more pleasant experience than any emergency room visit I’ve ever had.
The weekend started off normally enough — an early morning drive out to the Blue Mountains, a life-giving coffee and bacon-and-egg roll combo in Katoomba, a bumpy offroad drive to a campsite on Newnes Plateau. We arrived at 8:59am sharp, a whole sixty seconds before the planned meetup time, to split into groups and head off to the first canyon of the day.
First up was Tiger Snake, a dry canyon a quick drive from our campsite. The hike in was easy enough and the canyon had the expected amount of water, easing our fears that the heavy La Niña rains of the past week would limit our canyoning options this weekend.
Tiger Snake was very slotty and great fun. I took a small fall on the first abseil, which requires a sort of awkward traverse over a slot, but sustained nothing more than a couple of bruises and cuts on my calf. There were several fun abseils and the second-to-last one was particularly fun, a 17m overhanging drop down into a narrow slot.
The last abseil was also fun, a 25m overhanging drop with a nice view. The view was made somewhat less enjoyable by my discovery that my Kong Hydrobot descender is nearly impossible to stop when descending on 8mm single rope with my full weight on the rope, leading to some pretty rope burn on my hip. Current opinion on Hydrobot: awesome on double rope, terrifying on single, annoying bordering on unusable on single rope looped over twice. Might need to try a different one (yay, more gear!).
The hike out of Tiger Snake brought an impromptu discovery by another member of the team of a cavern full of glow worms. I also enjoyed the spectacular pagoda rock formations and the incredible views of the Blue Mountains from atop them.
The next day we picked a slightly shorter canyon, the menacingly-named Death Trap. We hitched a ride in the back of Alan’s ute to the trailhead to shave off some bushwalking distance. The canyon turned out to be quite fun, full of slides and short jumps and a ton of potholes, finishing up with a single abseil down a nice waterfall. The death trappiest bit came at the end, with a scoot down a steep slope in the dark underneath a big rock, without much idea of the depth of the water beyond. It turned out that the water was deep enough that the landing was fine, and there were enough hand and foot holds to scoot down the slope under control.
Back at the campsite, we partook in some next-level glamping by showering in the shower pod that Alan had brought along, heated water and everything. Alan also roasted some lamb on the campfire and prepared a sumptuously spicy dish of mussels. Nothing quite like enjoying a gourmet meal prepared by a former chef while cozying up next to a campfire under the stars.
The next morning was crisp and brighter than expected, as the time had shifted back an hour with the end of Daylight Savings (my least favorite day of the year, for the record). We split into three groups and decided on the canyons for the day, and after much — in Australian parlance — faffing about, the reasons for which I can’t remember, we got a later than expected start to the day and headed to the pleasant-sounding Breakfast Creek Canyon.
I am still quite new to Australian bushwalking, and there are some notable differences between the Australian and Californian backcountry that I haven’t yet gotten used to. In California you usually can rely on having a lot of easy navigational landmarks, even if you’re in the forest — mountains are higher, viewpoints more distinct, and if you’re above the treeline or in the desert where the vegetation is low-lying it’s even easier. In Australia, at least in the Blue Mountains, the navigational challenges seem significantly harder, and I can tell I still have a lot of work to do to get my navigational abilities up to par. Due to the geologic age of the continent, the landmarks don’t have the same elevation as the mountains of California, and the bush is thick and the sandstone cliffs are extremely rugged. After the bushfires especially, new grass growth obscures tree stumps and branches that have been burned and sharpened into ankle-level shivs.
(Okay, I know this is from a different country, but please view this Very Important PSA on eye-level sticks.)
The track into Breakfast Creek was nearly invisible in some parts, perhaps as a combination of the post-bushfire growth and maybe being a less-visited canyon. We took a few wrong turns, but with Lauren’s expert navigation skills we eventually reached a place that matched the track notes. We rigged the first abseil around a big tree and bashed down one by one through the bush, although when we got down we saw a mysterious sling on a tree on the other side of the creek, which would have required a sketchy-looking traverse close to the top of a waterfall. Perhaps there was another access route we missed.
We had another hour or so of creek bashing through some very dense ferns, and stopped for lunch under a beautiful sandstone overhang. After lunch we donned wetsuits and finally reached the canyon proper, which was nice and slotty and had some fun abseils straight down the middle of some waterfalls. The actual slot part of the canyon was quite short. Then we scrambled out of the canyon and began our exit via a long upstream creek walk through Rocky Creek.
After 20 or so minutes of creek walking, on a track to the right of the creek, I took a foolish step on a log and slipped suddenly, hearing two loud cracks as my ankle bent sharply one way and then the other. I fell to the ground and lay there in stabbing pain, trying to justify to myself that my ankle often makes popping sounds, while also knowing full well that the sound I had heard was not a mere air bubble popping in my joint. I was suddenly very, very cold.
The next few minutes were a blur. I started trying to fashion a splint out of my trekking pole, mostly to have a task for my brain to focus on, and Nat kindly wrapped me in a mylar blanket and dressed me in three warm thermal tops donated by the rest of the group. The rest of the team took the chance to change out of their wet gear, and I just sat there trying to breathe and silently cursing my ineptitude. A plan was formulated — Lauren and Alan would hike out, Nick and Nat would stay with me. We set off a PLB, and the two headed off. Time to wait.
As night began to fall, it started to get much colder. I was still wearing the bottom half of my wetsuit, and the shock of the injury had already made me shiver. Nat and Nick got a small campfire started, ingeniously using the alcohol swabs from the first aid kit as fire starters, since the damp wood wouldn’t catch light. Night fell and stars winked on. We noticed glow worms on the opposite canyon wall. It would have been very pleasant indeed if not for the reason we were stuck there.
Just after 9pm, a helicopter started circling above. It made several passes overhead, then flew away. A few minutes later, it returned again, circled some more, then flew away again. We wondered if it would return, but after several minutes it seemed would not.
I nearly drifted off to sleep several times, awakening each time sleep came as a hypnic jerk jolted my muscles and caused searing pain in my ankle, probably as a result of my body deciding it would be a bad idea to fall asleep on the cold ground in an unfamiliar place wearing wet clothes. Each time I would yelp in pain and cause worry in my stoic compatriots, whose cheerful demeanors made the whole ordeal bearable. At one point they fed me Shapes, an Australian biscuit I had not yet had the joy of experiencing. If any meal at the end of a long day of hiking is the best meal ever, a handful of Shapes after a day and half a night in a cold canyon with a broken ankle is heaven on earth.
At two in the morning, we heard a faraway whistle. I thought I was imagining it, but it came again. Nick whistled back. Another whistle returned.
A few minutes later four rescuers appeared, bearing sleeping bags and food. They wrapped me in a sleeping bag next to the fire. They said a helicopter would come at first light, it was too dangerous to attempt a helicopter operation at night. We were in a difficult to access section of canyon. I don’t remember anything else. I fell asleep until dawn.
Vulnerability is terrifying. Putting trust in other people is terrifying. Relying on other people for emotional support, or worse, physical safety, is terrifying. I am not good at any of these things. I’d much rather go it alone and rely only on myself, even if the long-term consequences of that approach are worse than the consequences of inter-reliance. But maybe it’s through bad experiences with good people that trust can be built again.
The lead EMT, Jen, woke me up in the morning. She put a cannula in my arm, and gave me morphine and rehydration fluids. Nat doused the campfire and packed up our gear. We were instructed to put our helmets and sunglasses on to protect our eyes and heads from the flying debris kicked up by the 7,000 ton downdraft of the helicopter. The helicopter roared overhead and the trees around us whipped violently. And then it was quiet again, save for a new arrival, the helicopter EMT strolling down the track, greeting Jen and the other rescuers with a cheery “Good Morning!” like this was just another Monday morning in the office. Which I suppose for them, it probably is.
I was hauled on a litter to the access point, given instructions and strapped into a sling clipped together by massive steel D-rings to the helicopter EMT’s harness. I was winched up first. It was really quite surreal, feeling the warmth of the first rays of sun peeking over the canyon walls while zooming 100 meters straight up into the air, getting a better view than most people probably would that day. Again, perhaps it was the morphine, but I’ve certainly had worse days.
They winched up our gear, all strapped together, then Nat, then Nick. Then we zipped away, over the Blue Mountains glowing in the early morning sun, to the hospital helicopter pad where we were handed off to waiting attendants. I had two sets of x-rays while Nick and Nat were fed sandwiches by a kindly nurse and watched terrible daytime TV. My ankle was definitely broken, but not too badly. I got put in a boot and crutches and given instructions to see a surgeon the following week. Darcii arrived, we all swapped our respective stories and entertained some curious eavesdroppers in the hospital waiting room who had no doubt been wondering why a bunch of weirdos in helmets and wetsuits had been traipsing around all day. A drive home, a crawl up the rickety stairs to my second-floor apartment, sleep at last.
All things considered, it was still a great weekend, and while I’m sidelined from my favorite activities for awhile I hope that the recovery won’t be too interminable. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the NSW EMTs and Police Rescue, to the kindly hospital staff who looked after me, and to Lauren for her level-headed leadership and PLB. And most of all to Nat and Nick, for the campfire, for the Shapes, for the laughs, for the companionship and care, for the hope. Things might turn out okay after all.