I’m a firm believer in stepping out of your comfort zone. Standing in unfamiliar territory helps you learn things about yourself you wouldn’t otherwise know.
For some people, this might mean public speaking, for others it could be eating unusual cuisine. For me, it meant repelling down a waterfall and being lowered into a cave.
I have a pretty bad fear of heights. It’s not quite vertigo. I don’t get dizzy, really. I once read a list of untranslatable words from other languages and the French apparently have the phrase “L’appel du vide” which aligns more or less with how I felt about heights. Literally, it means “the call of the void,” but it’s used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places. I think lots of people experience this. People jump from planes and mountains, after all. But for me, it resulted in crippling fear.
Still, when my good friends proposed a repelling trip in the state of San Luis Potosi I couldn’t say no. It was an excuse to see more of the country and maybe face my fear.
San Luis Potosi is a state in the North-Central part of Mexico. According to my friend who grew up there, the state has one of the most diverse landscapes which includes desert, jungle and mountainous regions. Our group of friends was headed for the jungle.
Upon arriving we were driven straight to the forest, where we had to walk about half an hour until we arrived a waterfall surrounded on all sides by steep, lush, green hills. If a pterodactyl had flown around the corner I wouldn't have been surprised. It felt that much like we had travelled back in time.
The plan was for us to latch on to the safety gear, walk backward to the edge of the waterfall, and then jump off. As we waited for our turns the instructors gave us each cursory instructions on what to do which basically equated to “Squeeze. Loosen. Jump.”
I was third in line. As I got to the edge of the falls I looked back over my shoulder and could see two tiny dots below waving up at me. My friends. The mist from the waterfall made it difficult to see much. A man stood beside me, ready to help if anything went wrong. I tried to talk to avoid jumping by talking to him in my bad Spanish. Eventually, he said something along the lines of “what are you waiting for?” I held my breath, yelled a swear word very loudly, and pushed myself off the cliff.
The next couple minutes are a blur in my memory. There was a lot of water. And the wind seemed to be pulling me toward the waterfall. I slammed into the rocks at one point. For the first half of the descent, I just wanted to get down and went as quickly as possible, pushing off the rocks and sliding down the rope. Luckily though, I managed to catch myself and stop to take a look around. I was hanging mid air and begin to spin in a circle. There were people in boats below me, my friends cheering me on, the crashing of the waterfall beside me. After a few seconds, I finished my descent and waited with my friends for the rest of our group to join us.
From there we took a canoe down one of the warmest rivers I’ve ever been on. The current was enough to push us along, but not too quickly, making for a leisurely paddle through landscape I’d only ever seen in movies.
That night we stayed in a small home where we ate and drank and laughed at our scrapes and bruises and the stupidity that caused them. At some point in the night, I was told that the second day’s descent would be even more intense.
And they weren’t kidding.
The next day we parked our van at the top of a mountain and began walking down through farmers fields and dirt roads. We were told not to leave anything behind because “banditos” have a tendency to come along and steal things. (While I don’t dispute the fact that items get stolen, I suspect that what they refer to as banditos is more likely kids getting into a little trouble.) At the bottom of the hill was a pickup truck loaded up with our repelling gear. We each got dressed and then walked across another field toward a wooded area. There were 15 to 20 men milling about, smoking cigarettes, and joking in Spanish.
Just across the fence and through a thin line of trees was the hole we were going to be lowered into. At first glance, it didn’t look too big. But as we got closer it became obvious the circumference of the hole was about the size of a small house. When we got there and looked down you could barely make out the bottom. That’s when I was told it was 60 stories from the top to the cave floor.
The way it worked was, they latched our carabiners onto a rope that was weaved through a pull system. At the other end of the rope were the 15 to 20 men who would be responsible for lowering us into the darkness. Our guide leader would yell out distances to us and the men would lower us down two at a time. This was way more intense than the waterfall and the lack of control made me feel even more uncomfortable.
But we were all lowered gently to the bottom and except for an embarrassing trip and fall when my feet touched the ground it was a perfect experience. The inside of the cave could have fit a few houses at least. There was a small river that ran through it that a few brave souls in our group opted to swim across.
Eventually, it was time to return to the surface and we lined up to be raised back towards the light. Again, my girlfriend was above me on the same line, which meant I had to hang there, 60 stories up, looking down into darkness, as they removed her from the safety harness. It was not a pleasant few minutes. But back on solid ground, I was able to relax and we all began to laugh at just how ridiculous it was.
Seeing the Light
Not to sound too cliched, but I think we each learned something about ourselves. And I think it’s a lesson that can be applied to just about any facet of life.
We’re living in interesting times. The news talks about automation of jobs and artificial intelligence and security threats all the time. It can often feel like we’re standing on the edge of something staring into darkness. But there’s something to be said for standing on the edge of that darkness and stepping into it. What we find out on the other side can lead to the creation of some remarkable things.
Ty Trumbull, from his base in Mexico City, covers the entrepreneur’s journey and business continuity for ChannelE2E. Each Tuesday, he offers views about his new hometown.