A first-time canyoner in the French Alps attempts to overcome her trepidation in order to enjoy increasingly difficult jumps.
Don’t let go of the rope.
Keep your feet on the wall.
So far, our guide had offered us little more instruction than this. The canyoning expedition had begun about an hour earlier, but up here where rock and water, trees and sky careened in every direction, time and distances seemed inapplicable. What had sounded like a refreshing escape from the heat wave pummeling the French Alps had turned into an unrehearsed spacewalk with ill-fitting suits.
Having recently left steady, paid work to pursue writing full-time, I was no stranger to the sensation of wandering through new territory without a map. As usual, I tried to create my own manual as I went.
Thick neoprene cocooned our bodies. Harnesses hugged our hips like big, stiff diapers. From our belts dangled carabiners, the unlikely key to this whole activity. In the beginning, the suits had weighed us down as we hiked fifteen minutes or so up the side of a mountain. But they held the needling cold at bay when we jumped into the stream.
After the hike and the first dip, the guide had herded us back down the canyon in the direction we had come. Positioning himself near the top of a small waterfall, he pulled some ropes and hooks out of his backpack and attached them to a small ring drilled into the rock face.
We had arrived at our first challenge.
He clipped the first volunteer to the rope and sent him walking backwards off the cliff. One-by-one, my companions disappeared.
The guide’s face showed no emotion as he waved me forward.
“Don’t think. Just go.” He checked my belt one more time and nudged me gently toward the edge.
The rope felt too thin to hold the weight of a body. The bald soles of my sneakers had little traction against the wet stone. The twenty feet of empty air behind my back offered no support. My hands and feet locked in panic.
But, with people waiting above and below, I had no choice. I slid one foot down, released the rope an inch, brought the other foot down to meet the first, and leaned back. My heart flipped.
About halfway down the rock face, the fear turned into adrenaline, the desperation into focus. I gritted my teeth and talked myself through the rest of the descent. At the bottom, everyone yelled at me to let go of the rope. It slipped up and out of my carabiner, and the icy water swallowed me whole.
The challenges grew incrementally higher and more convoluted. The guide interspersed rappelling with climbing through holes and sliding down boulders. But every mission landed us back in the stream. My arsenal of instructions grew accordingly.
Keep your knees bent when jumping into shallow water.
Plug your nose.
Keep your elbows in.
I knew when to let go of the rope so the guide could pull it back up for the next person, and how to identify the deepest spot to aim for. Sometimes water still went up my nose, and the rough rock scraped my skin. Yet floating through underground caverns, feeling the heat of nerves flushed out by the current, and gaining confidence after each drop made up for any momentary discomfort.
Finally, the descents got so high and the pools so deep that the guide presented us with the option of jumping rope-free. At first, I stuck happily to the system we’d practiced. The sensation of walking backward off a cliff now felt like a walk in the park. But as we came up against more of these challenges, and as more of our group switched to free-jumping, curiosity crept in.
Keeping my mind as numb as possible, I approached my first free jump, propelled myself off the edge, and hit the water ten feet below. I surfaced cold and terrified, but unscathed.
Still, it had passed too quickly for me to record the steps for future reference. And the river deposited us back near our starting point before I had a chance to jump again.
After a hasty lunch, our guide hurried us to the cars to find higher descents further up the mountain. This was the big leagues. The ravines were too narrow, ledges too treacherous to allow views of the bottom before launch. Jumpers just had to trust. The group ahead of us crowded as close to the abyss as possible, clinging on to nearby rocks for stability. When someone took off, their yell lasted several long, pregnant seconds. Then, silence.
A few of our own group members had bowed out after lunch, but everyone else had fully transitioned to free-jumping. The empty space beyond the drop-off pulled at something in my chest. But the mechanics of how to launch, the correct positioning once airborne, still didn’t add up. So, while they got in line, I shimmied down the rope into the first ravine, dropped into the water, and watched the rope disappear above me.
The group ahead of us had already congregated at the far edge of the pool, perched like birds on the rocks. Then, one after another, they dropped off the next ledge, as if they had found a portal to another dimension.
For the first time all day, I was alone. The cliffs pressed in on all sides. A patch of sky hung somewhere overhead. Distant voices rang down and across the angular rock surfaces, but nobody would hear me if I called up. All I could do was wait.
An unfamiliar French family began plunging down in front of me. Their words were unintelligible, but their body language said everything the guide hadn’t: the nervous laughter and horseplay as they waited for the next jumper to come hurtling through the air, the silence when the shoes of that jumper appeared, the bated breath before the head broke back through the surface of the water. And the smiles, the return to laughter as the newly emerged swam to safety. There was no formula to follow, no guarantee of safety, but a pattern had developed. We were here to touch something beyond words, beyond a set of instructions. And then celebrate once we had accomplished it.
Finally, that family moved on and the jumpers from my own group began to descend. A few seconds of a scream, a splash, and a moment of silence as the water boiled over them. And then came the grin as they burst back into view.
Jumping still terrified me, but I wanted that smile.
At last, my chance came. About two times the height of the original jump, easy approach, big ledge to tarry on. But I didn’t tarry, didn’t think. The guide finally offered words of encouragement: “It’s wide and deep, no danger.” And I trusted his words, fixed my eyes on the darkest blue in the pool below, and leapt.
I don’t remember what I did with my elbows or the angle at which I held my legs as I hit the water. The fall passed so quickly that I didn’t have time to register anything other than a sense of release. The water’s embrace felt warmer this time, like reentry. And when I came up, my smile buoyed me downstream to join the others.
I used to think that achieving what I wanted to in life would feel like climbing a mountain. But adult life has actually felt more like falling. Canyoning this summer in the French Alps made me stop and think. Or rather, it made me want to stop thinking and jump like I mean it.