Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Scarily prescient

Last Friday's haiku, that is - one I'd written and 'pre-posted' some three weeks earlier. I depicted my life as a steep cliff-face on which I had lost my grip... little realising that I was soon to be confronted with such a terrifying scenario for real.

Ten days ago, some of my adoptive in-laws (my Chinese friend JP is very insistent on extending 'family' privileges to me) took me on a pleasant Sunday morning ramble in the countryside. I have in the past scoffed at the Chinese propensity to describe any country walk as 'mountain climbing', even though it's almost invariably on a road or path and seldom very steep.

But that's the way your soft, big city folk talk. They're made of hardier stuff out in the countryside. My 'brother-in-law' kept describing the expedition as a 'walk', but in fact it pretty much was 'mountain climbing', at least in parts. Dawu County in northern Hubei province is not really mountainous, more hilly; but although the elevations aren't that great, it's pretty rugged, rocky terrain. I found myself trekking up a steep and often trackless river valley to check out this remote scenic spot below, the Yanqing waterfall (as I believe it's called; Google Earth is unavailable to me at the moment).  The last quarter of a mile became particularly gruelling - and anxiety-making, for me - because we had to scramble up a few near-vertical stretches of path, using tree-roots and so on for handholds. My gammy legs (loose flap of cartilage in the right knee, and mysterious muscle-wasting problem in the left thigh) just can't bear any weight when bent, so I was finding this a real trial. And I was wearing an ancient pair of trainers with just about no tread left on the soles - that didn't help, either. I had a couple of very unpleasant moments, finding myself slithering helplessly down a slope, literally clawing at the earth with my fingers to try to regain a grip.

Still, it was worth it when, after 90 minutes or so of arduous clambering under a baking sun, we arrived at this charming little spot and were able to cool our feet in the rockpools.

Unfortunately, our guide (a local mayor - friend of 'the family'... and a serious mountain climber) decreed that the only convenient way to bring our expedition to a conclusion and return to the road was to continue to the head of this valley. Yes, he wanted us to climb up this waterfall.

Now, in fact, this wasn't so bad. Just out of frame to the left of this picture there's a tumble of boulders which enable you to get about a third of the way up the cliff quite easily. Then there's a path of sorts through the adjacent underbrush - very nearly vertical, but not nearly so bad as some of the sections we'd covered just before the waterfall. But then came the point where we had to traverse the rockface to get back down to the riverside above the waterfall.  We had to get across about 7 or 8 feet of the cliff (not sheer, but very, very steep), edging our way along a narrow crack in the rock (it didn't protrude more than an inch or so from the cliff above, but provided a ledge about two inches or so wide if you managed to jam your feet in under the overhang). I'm not sure if the place is visible in this photo or not: it would be right up in the top left corner, somewhat above the top of the waterfall. One by one, we shuffled gingerly across this gap, pressing our bodies flat against the gently curving cliff-face, trying to get as much of our shoes as possible on to the narrow ledge (scarcely more than half the width of our feet), trying not to look down (at the 50 or 60 ft drop into a very shallow rockpool).

It was a dumb thing to do, but we didn't seem to have any choice. Without proper climbing shoes, or ropes, or any kind of safety equipment - it was a sickeningly dangerous thing to do. I would imagine that a 'walk' like that - never mind the cliff traverse at the end - might produce a significant injury at least one time in ten. The stunt on the cliff could well lead to a fatality rather more often than it is comfortable to think about.

But, oh yes, it felt mighty good to have survived the ordeal.

Although I didn't recall my foolish little haiku at the time, I did briefly wonder, while in the midst of crossing the cliff-face, what I'd do if I lost my foothold - would I see how much I could slow my descent by scrabbling at the cliff, or would I just give up.... and try to enjoy the fall?

Choose your next metaphor carefully, Mr Froog. It may be your last.

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