This is because it's located in the world's rainiest place, on Réunion Island, in the Indian Ocean. Yearly precipitation here reaches a record-breaking 10 metres.
Once, after some huge eruption, the surface of the volcano Piton des Neiges collapsed and slumped one kilometre into its empty interior, leaving behind just vertical walls covered with the most vigorous vegetation one can imagine. The monumentality of the place is emphasised by five huge waterfalls which vanish somewhere deep in the cracks at the bottom of a gigantic drop. This unusual natural unicum can only be seen from a helicopter, provided that one is lucky and the tropical clouds clear away. But there's also another option. One that is far more difficult. It's also the reason why five friends have not been able to sleep for three years already.
On the edge of the waterfall
I pat the branch of the unknown tree I sit on, while leaning over the huge abyss. "Hold please!" - I beg the branch, just like Miro did when he was the first one who abseiled from it. From the loops encircling the branch, I begin to abseil into the upright vegetation which the fierce fight for light has pushed onto the edge of the overhang. The rope weaves its way through space, but because of the dense foliage I cannot see exactly where it disappears. "Just hold!" - I keep repeating over and over in my mind. The infinite depth can only be guessed. A giant waterfall on the right thunderingly drowns out all communication efforts on the wall. Two heavy backpacks, which hang on my harness, can hardly push their way through the heavy vegetation. "They mustn't get caught anywhere!" I keep repeating to myself. Any delay would deprive us of precious minutes. We must get away with the first descent. In two hours, it will be pitch dark, and we're still only on the edge of the huge Iron Hole. If we don't intend to sleep suspended in our harnesses on an overhanging wall of the waterfall, neither of us can make the smallest mistake. Now, at the end of July, days in the southern hemisphere are the shortest and the cold nights are pretty long...
From early morning, we've been fighting with unimaginably dense and upright vegetation. It was hard to get into the riverbed of the Bras de Caverne, which feeds the waterfalls below us. The canyon hasn't been touched by anyone's feet for a year, and the foliage has dominated every free space it has reached. We wandered, chopping our way through with machetes, abseiling the jungle and swearing at piercing thorns. But then we managed to stumble at the first waterfall. We thought that the descent would be easier, but the cascade surprised us with its exposure. Overhanging abseils reached a respectable 180 metres. And they were not cost free. At least we tested a couple of new 110 metre ropes made especially for this canyon. When we finally manage to pull them down, the only way we can proceed is downwards. Return is impossible. So is escape. We leap onto the slippery boulders of the river which flows from the lake under the waterfall. How long will the whole traverse take? Two or three days? We are well aware that if it rains the entry into the bottom part of the canyon is entry to another world. Fourteen people dead from the ten expeditions which have crossed the Iron Hole until now; those really are warning statistics!
It's already our third week on Réunion Island. We want to warm up as a team in the most interesting canyons of the island. Our plan contains thirteen of them. Only then do the movements at traverses or abseils become fully automated. In critical situations, it's beyond price. We must be aware of how dangerously sharp the volcanic rock is, how quickly it abrades the ropes, how porous it is and how to fix pitons into it. Each of us must be able to tie all kinds of knots; to help oneself on the rope. In the Iron Hole, everything must work out. The logistics of traversing it are some of the most difficult...
670 Metres of ropes
We piled up 160 kg of dry material: 670 metres of ropes, harnesses, wetsuits, helmets, lots of climbing material, a cordless drill, pitons, a tent, bivouac material, a portable stove, food, first aid kit and a lot of small stuff which can save one's life in crisis situations. A small grappling iron is also indispensable. We'll need it to pull ourselves to the wall in the overhanging 300 metre deep waterfall. In the first 100 metres of the descent, the end of the rope will hang freely in space, 6 metres away from the wall. Also, we have to be prepared to move mostly in water. Wet ropes are pretty heavy. The weight, with which each of us will have to overcome the obstacles of the canyon, will be close to forty kilograms. We can expect unimaginable toil ahead of us...
The way is open
I get into the overhang, where Jaro waits for me, suspended from two pitons. The vegetation has completely vanished. A hundred-metre-long rope disappears somewhere deep into the open space. Miro is spinning at the end of it, about 6 endless metres away from the wall. He's waiting for the correct direction to throw the grapple. If he doesn't succeed, he'll have to climb up the thin rope again for about one hundred meters. So it's entirely in his hands. I believe in him, as he's an experienced climber and canyoneer. And besides, we rehearsed the throw several times before the expedition. He told me that he often couldn't fall asleep at night because of thinking about this moment. Together with Jaro, we look tensely at Miro rotating beneath us. At the ideal moment, we see how the rope detaches from him. The grapple catches itself in the wall on the first attempt. Miro carefully pulls himself towards it. "Hooray, you're good Miro," we shout happily, although we know that there's no chance he can hear us with the roaring waterfall which is falling in the space next to us. The way into the depths of the mountain is open...
At that point I'm finally starting to notice the two pitons on which we are hanging with Jaro and our four backpacks. One of them is moving a bit. Volcanic rock is very porous. Moreover, Natalie is abseiling towards us with more backpacks. Goggle-eyed, she has just emerged from the vegetation. Her weight is too much for our stand to hold. Jaro immediately switches her into the abseil. We send her as a courier into the depths to Miro, together with the ropes for the next descent. Her abseil takes an eternity. 100 metres is a really big distance. I switch on the camera on my helmet and begin to abseil down with other packs. The stretched rope starts to spin me. The heavily loaded weave of the rope is strengthening more and more, causing more rapid rotation. I'm trying to shoot a huge amount of water flying through the space. Incredible theatre. But it's turning me towards two parallel waterfalls which disappear somewhere in the depths. They bear a poetic name, "Harmony". Behind them, is a spectacular waterfall called Bras Mazerin. But my eyes are attracted by the frightening Corridor, a very narrow gorge with walls almost one kilometre high, which is over 4 km long. It's the only way through, by which we could get out of the Iron Hole. The Corridor is attacked by other waterfalls and falling rocks. The whole panorama around me repeats for perhaps the hundredth time. But I don't want to turn any more. Moving downwards at the same time, it's an abnormal experience for the body.
Diagonally from me, under an overhang, I can see Natalie in an eccentric stand. She's stuck to the wall like a spider. Below her, Miro is abseiling the third length, which is also one hundred overhanging metres long. Natalie has to pull me towards the stand by the end of my rope. If it were to slip out of her hands, I'd have no chance to get to the wall. But one has to reject such thoughts immediately so as to not go crazy from fear. After me, Borek comes to the stand, laden with two backpacks. He straddles me from behind. In the meantime, I'm preparing for the abseil. I untie myself from the stand, wanting to get down quickly. After one metre, something stops me and I can't move. I catch a glimpse of Borek's wide-open eyes. The back strap of my harness has accidently caught itself in the snap hook on his harness. Now, the full weight of my body, two backpacks and a one-hundred-metre rope is hanging only on him. Stupid accident. Borek puffs from the strain. The only way is to cut the strap. He pulls a knife out from behind his belt. A few cuts and I fall a metre lower. Instinctively, I check whether the accident has affected the pitons in the soft volcanic rock, and I quickly shoot down. Meanwhile, Jaro is fighting with the two upper, hundred-metre ropes. After releasing them, their ends wind backwards and tangle together. To pull them down, he has to separate them. Then he and Borek add one of the ropes to the third length. It's necessary to pull down the rope. When abseiling, Borek suddenly yells louder than the waterfall. It appears that he cut the braiding of the rope on a sharp edge, which caused him to drop 4 metres down... Now, the poor guy is hanging on just few unprotected strands. Litres of adrenaline rush through his veins. He comes down completely distressed. He shouts at Jaro to abseil on two ropes. But Jaro has no chance to hear anything and, puzzled, he just throws his hands in the air and eventually starts to abseil. With our heads turned upwards, the rest of us watch his journey. "Come on Jarko, carefully, come on..." I hear Miro's words which he keeps repeating to himself. After he got down on the cut rope, he shouts at us: "I almost shat myself with fear!"
Darkness in the wall
Night is coming. The delay has cost us precious light. We can't find the way down from a green shelf where we got stuck. The rock is broken here. Miro traverses into the wet wall, which is covered with vegetation. "Just be careful", I pray in my mind... Fortunately, he comes back and tries it from the other side. Finally, he finds solid rock. He takes out a drill and embeds two pitons into it. When he throws a rope into the depths, the Iron Hole is already veiled in darkness. The light of his head lamp finally disappears down under the waterfall. The noise of falling water is so strong that it swamps out his whistle. Only the released rope is the signal for the next one to go. I'm abseiling in the side waterfall that falls down onto the rough surface of the lake. From out of sight, tons of water land in the lake from the main waterfall, Trou de Fer. It creates such enormous pressure that I feel like I'm in a windstorm. Needle-like sprays of water sting my face. But where are Miro and Natalie? I can't see anyone anywhere. I'm fighting with waves, not knowing whether to wait for the boys, or to swim to the bank and look for a bivouac. I begin to shiver from the cold. I pull two backpacks onto the bank. I put one of them on my back, and shuffle the other one in front of me on huge, slippery boulders covered with some kind of high, green grass. The slope seems endless. At one point, I find crushed down grass. So the two of them went this way! The huge rock which is supposed to protect us from the water spray can't be too far away. Suddenly, I spot a flickering light. It's Miro! He briefly describes the situation: "The bivouac is about hundred metres this way. Natalie is sitting there in the dark, because my light packed up." So I leave the backpacks there and go with Miro to help the guys with the gear. Meanwhile, Borek and Jaro are fighting with ropes in the lake. In the dark and with all that stress, they probably got tangled or stuck somewhere. "One has even got worn out on the edge", Borek tries to shout down the roaring waterfall. "We have to leave the ropes for the morning. How far is the bivouac?" Jaro asks, completely frozen through.
A huge rock in the middle of the Iron Hole protects us against the flying drops of water which sputter from the five waterfalls. We cover the opening with a big blue sheet. Miro organizes our location for the night: "Natalie, Borek and Jaro will slide under the rock. Palo and me, we'll sleep at the entrance." Luckily, our sleeping bags and dry clothes survived the transport through the waterfalls. We take off our wetsuits, showing our bruises to each other. Borek suddenly pulls out a bottle of whisky. Today's his birthday. Miro takes out a can of beer. After few sips, the mood relaxes. The cooker is already heating bean soup, while Jaro is cutting a sausage. We start to laugh at ourselves and our situation. With the song by the group Elan, Dangerous Load, we enjoy the climax of the evening. I was afraid whether I'd be able to fall asleep in such noise, but my exhausted body immediately took what it needed. We're hoping that it won't rain at night. The Corridor below us is impassable in rainy conditions! And we'd have to spend more nights in here.
Morning at the bottom of the hole
The tips of the rocks around are already bathing in the first rays of the sun, but the bottom of the Iron Hole is still folded in wet and cold gloom. The waterfalls fall down to us from the edge. Billion of water droplets fly in the air. The sun paints small rainbows everywhere around us. For a few years we've dreamed that one day we'd stand here. Nothing like the Iron Hole exists anywhere in the world. It's a magical place. We can't get enough of this natural phenomenon. We soak up the atmosphere in the bowels of the former volcano, knowing that the most difficult day is still ahead of us. We get into our cold and wet wetsuits. With Natalie, we pack the bivouac. The boys are off to the lake to pull down the ropes. Miro is going to look for the best place where we can abseil in the invisible depths of the Corridor.
The boys finally manage to pull down the rope. It's worn out in two places. We'll use it for loops on the way. The Corridor is actually a very narrow gorge which swallows all of the waterfalls, but we don't have much information on it. No pictures or films exist. We only know that most people who have tried to cross it have died. A remote whistle helps us to locate Miro. He is standing over a large boulder next to a waterfall, which falls into the depths of the huge crack. Traversing on slippery rocks at the bottom of the Iron Hole, it takes us a precious half-hour until we get to him. Miro stands still and gazes into the white water about 30 metres below us. "I don't know what awaits us there," he finally says to himself, and by making long jumps he's abseiling in the roaring torrent. For a moment, we can still see his red helmet in the current at the bottom of the gorge, and soon he disappears behind a waterfall which falls into it a few metres away... A huge roar coming from the depths increases the tension. "Wow, that's powerful," Jaro endeavours to lighten the situation. He tries to hang himself on a boulder, which hangs beyond all understanding over the ravine. After a while, just like Miro, he disappears behind the bubbles of the waterfall. We don't have a chance to find out whether everything is all right. I follow them into the depths of the gorge. In white water, I disconnect myself from the rope and swim with the backpacks through the restless river. It may be perhaps 10 metres deep. I'm breaking through the waterfall. Jets of water massage my shoulders, trying to push my body under the surface. The canyon walls are completely black. The ever-present, running water gives them a mysterious glitter. The sky above us has closed. The current is pulling me in as if into some river cave. I reach the boys, at the place where the gorge narrows to less than one metre. The wildness of the water is rising. White foam disappears into the unknown blackness. From the provisional stand, we abseil about 40 metres in the wild stream. One must have really strong legs and resist the power of the water. Jaro warns me: "If the current knocks you down, you're dead." Natalie had to fight hard. Her backpack almost pulled her under the waterfall. The incline decreases, but not the speed of the water. The current drifts us through the bowels of the volcano like a massive roller coaster. Jumps and abseils gradually add up.
Foamy water and an incredible roar reminds us that we're approaching the place where the waterfall Trou de Fer i Harmonie falls underground. A mass of water has to squeeze into a narrow gorge. The underground stream changes into a wild torrent. The spray of water is suffocating us and we can't see the rocks on which we have to move along with heavy backpacks. In some places, we allow the exhausting current to drag us. Where it's dangerous, we rather abseil the waterfalls. Any injury could have fatal consequences... Suddenly, I catch a whistle; I look at Miro and lip-read his frightened cry: "Swim right! Right!!!" Just then I notice that the river disappears between massive rocks. "If anyone gets pulled down there, that's the end of them," I evaluate the situation in my mind. I swim as hard as I can to get out of the current, but with the backpack it's extremely difficult. At the last moment, I reach Miro's hand and, together, we shout at the others. The traps of the Corridor change with every year's monsoon. We keep swimming in the canyon, trying to estimate its hidden threats. The gorge slowly opens up, impressing us with its magnificence. Green vertical walls rise kilometres high. Another beautiful ribbon of water falls down from the side. Behind it, the canyon narrows again. We climb over huge blocks, pass the bags to each other, jump and swim. We've already been in the water about eight hours. We've made perhaps 30 abseils and crossed three kilometres of the canyon, but there's no sign of the end anywhere... Natalie, the world vice-champion in rafting, can barely walk on the wet rocks of the river. But we've all had enough of it.
At one point, the wall on the left finally makes a way. Miro takes out his notes. Unfortunately, they got completely wet through his damaged bag. The ink has run. The notes are hard to read, but something can still be puzzled out... If we were to get up on the ridge, we could find the poacher's trail which would lead us to civilization. With Miro, we propose to bivouac. But Jaro reports that the backpack with the sleeping bags got torn. Most of us desire to battle the expedition out today. It's not raining for the second day already, but according to the forecast the weather should change rapidly. In the end, this fact counts the most. With machetes, we turn to chop the undergrowth. The terrain gets steeper and steeper. Using the vegetation, we pull ourselves higher and higher. In front of us is a half-kilometre wall. Using roots, trees and branches, we gain altitude. It's getting dark. We should have already been at the saddle, but we're stopped by a vertical wall. Another ascent is impossible. We have to go back. We switch on our headlamps. Darkness comes really quickly here. We don't like leaving the hard-earned altitude. On trees and branches, we're getting lower to the place from where we could try it from the left. We're all still wearing wetsuits. Because of the stinging vegetation, none of us wants to take them off. Our bodies can't breathe properly. We're dehydrated. There's nothing to drink. If we were to find water, we'd probably not care that it was water from a tropical jungle, full of microbes and anaemia...
Four hours in the wall
I can't image the bivouac hanging here, in the branches of trees. The only option is to traverse the green cliff. Its depth can only be felt. It's completely dark. Not even the stars can be seen through the jungle. "Hold, please," I pray to a small plant which has to hold not only me, but also the entire unimaginably heavy load of ropes, which is getting heavier every hour. If it were to loosen, I'd fly down the green wall and nobody would be able to find me ever again. Besides, it's pretty cold here at night. Jaro tries to get back up again. I'm going last. Natalie pants in front of me. Every single step with the backpack is an immense strain for her, and she shows it clearly. "Just don't let anyone to get hurt", I repeat to myself, trying to call the guardians from space. Sweat trickles from my nose. The darkness protects us from the fear of exposure. Nobody dares acknowledge the fact that we're in a really bad situation. We climb further. We trust each other that neither one of us will make a mistake. After four hours in the wall we finally reach the ridge. We find the poacher's trail. We're saved!? Not yet!!! Several times, we lose the trail in the green wall. Wandering in the overhangs, we find some guide-ropes. Miro comments on the descent: "Really brave poachers come here." The overgrown vegetation suggests that no one has been this way for a long time. From below, we can hear dogs barking, but we also know that there's a massive rock wall somewhere beneath us that falls in the Salazie canyon. We have to continue traversing above the cliffs. Our lights are running out of juice, when we finally reach a banana plantation. We attack the unripe bananas. It's our first food for a long time. A stony path takes us out. Just before midnight, we reach a road. Natalie comes out last. She's so exhausted that she can't even speak. Tears run down her cheeks. The feelings of joy are yet to come, when we realize at rest that our common dream of crossing the Iron Hole came true and that we belong among the few people who have managed to cross one of the most difficult canyons in the world...
Knock! Knock! Knock! A hammer makes a monotonous sound, tapping away holes in the vertical wall of the canyon La Riviƚ¨re des Roches. We can still hear the words of the rescuer, who, together with divers, pulled Jirko up from 50 metres down: "Don't come to hate this island; your desires. Keep following your dreams. Otherwise, this tragedy will tie your hands and you'll have a problem achieving anything in canyoning." His words gave us a new outlook on, by then, a hopeless situation. Miro tightens the last screw on Jirko's plaque and quietly says to himself: "Now, we've made our common dream come true for you as well, Jirko!"
- Pavol Barabáš
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