Mastering the Maelstrom
Canyoneering San Antonio Falls
The breeze gently flirted with my bare legs. The sun caressed my exposed shoulders. Feathery wisps of clouds floated across the cobalt sky. It was a perfect 75-degree day. So why was my entire body shivering uncontrollably as if it had been submerged in ice water?
I couldn’t tell if I was cold or just plain terrified. I hesitantly stepped backward, inching closer and closer to the precipice.
I couldn’t see down. All I could hear was the deafening roar of water crashing against boulders somewhere far below. As I reached the edge of the ledge, the full scene came into focus. I gaped down the face of a 90-foot waterfall, surging through a narrow crevasse.
It was now time for me to test my harness, the rope and my nerve.
Alpine Training Services conducts guided outdoor adventure courses and extreme excursions. I’d joined one of their canyoneering expeditions, which includes hiking up mountains, and rappelling down waterfalls – plus a little bushwhacking, rock climbing, and scrambling.
Our adventure began in the quiet Southern California town of Glendora, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, where ATS was founded. We met in the parking lot of the local Sports Chalet at 9 a.m. to sign all the legal waivers and divvy out the necessary equipment. I was the first one there to meet our guides: Gavin Santillan, one of the most highly skilled ATS guides and David Redman, an avid adventure climber and canyoneer, who had started working for ATS eight months prior.
When a beat-up faded blue Dodge Neon pulled up, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my team-mates were European: Regina Heumpfner and Toby Dippert from Germany and Sandra Fischerlehner from Austria.
Regina was timid and nervous-looking, with golden brown hair. Sandra was a thin, energetic, fearless, Converse-wearing wild woman. Both work in Los Angeles as au pairs. Toby, with flawless good looks, a taut physique, and a constant dazzling smile, was visiting friends and exploring California.
We packed safety harnesses, helmets, and splash tops into our packs and started on our way. We all opted to caravan in our own cars to cut down on time getting back to our final locations for the evening.
We entered Angeles National Forest ascending a narrow winding road into the wilderness. After a few short miles we climbed the mountainous peaks along Mt Baldy Road cautiously navigating harrowing turns. We inhaled delicious gulps of smog free air and in the distance I caught a glimpse of the steel-blue sea.
Thirty minutes from our starting point we arrived at San Antonio Falls, elevation 6,500 feet. We listened excitedly as Gavin reviewed safety guidelines and outlined the day’s activities.
Suddenly, I got a whiff of something foul: The Europeans were smoking. Definitely not what I expected. I decided that I was too happy to let it ruin my day and stayed upwind from the trio.
On the Road
We threw on our packs, clipped our buckles, and started on the trail. As we hiked, I could feel the effects of elevation. I was winded, weak, and slightly mystified at how the cigarette-smoking Europeans effortlessly past me.
After 15 grueling minutes, we rounded a corner and my jaw dropped as the falls came into view. Gavin pointed out six different routes we would rappel. From where we stood, the feat didn’t seem so daunting. “They don’t look very scary,” Sandra said.
To get to the first descent, we had to trudge up the sheer rocky mountain. As we climbed carefully, reality hit. These gorges were far from the tiny mounds they appeared to be. As we approached the spot for our first descent, Regina’s eyes widened, “scheisse.”
This 60-foot waterfall was the smallest we would tackle.
Ready or Not
After Gavin and David hooked up the anchoring system I was happy to be the first one to jump. “Are you right or left handed?” asked Gavin. This determines which side of the body the rope goes on. The dominant hand has the important role of braking as a climber moves inch by inch down the rope.
I inched down the sleek granite slab, making sure I kept my feet hip-width apart and my legs at a 90-degree angle. As I jerked my way down the incline, I started to get a feel for the technique. When I reached solid ground and steadied my footing, I unscrewed my carabineer, unhooked myself from the rope, and picked a good spot to watch the others.
One-by-one Toby, Sandra, and Regina descended the falls. This was definitely a good route to warm up with and get our bearings.
As we moved on to the next course, I noticed Regina squatting on her knees behind a boulder. She looked up with bloodshot eyes and fear painted on her face.
“Regina had mild heat exhaustion yesterday and she’s afraid of heights,” explained Sandra.”
Into the Abyss
Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable we reached an 80-foot overhang. My chest tightened as my heart raced. We weren’t allowed to get close to the ledge unless we were strapped onto the rope, so all I could see was a river of water snaking through the eroded gully, disappearing somewhere into the abyss.
I watched from above as one-by-one Toby, Regina, and Sandra disappeared with terrified looks on their faces. When it was my turn, Gavin instructed me to “feel for the outcrop just below the edge.”
I leaned back and put my trust in the safety equipment. I “free rappelled” sliding down the rope away from the wall. The rope hung free from the cliff. The first and subsequent routes were “standard rappels” where we lowered ourselves down with our backs toward the ground and feet in contact with the rock.
My fear subsided as I reached the bottom seamlessly. The rope held up to its end of the bargain. After many high fives, we scrambled onto a nearby boulder for a much needed lunch-break. I gorged on a delectable medley of trail mix, beef jerky, and a turkey wrap that I had prepared at home.
All of a sudden, I heard “Oh no!” and thump, thump, thump. Sandra had taken off her helmet and it rolled down the hill out of sight. Even though one of the safety rules was “don’t remover your helmet,” David cheerfully came to the rescue. He quickly located the missing helmet and effortlessly rappelled down 10 meters to retrieve it. Catastrophe curbed.
Moment of Truth
After we ate, drank, and reapplied sunscreen, it was time for the moment we had all waited for. Time to rappel right through a monstrous waterfall which would completely submerge us. I jumped at the chance to go first.
As I slowly lowered myself, the gaping mouth of the roaring waterfall lured me in. To reach the bottom I’d have to pass through the ice-cold, body-shocking grip of this powerful force.
“When you go under the waterfall, it will take your breath away,” Gavin had warned. “Some people freeze. Do not look up, it will disorient you.”
I took a deep breath and dropped into the maelstrom. The pounding torrent hammered my indomitable yellow helmet. The chill numbed, but I didn’t freeze. As I passed through the 10-foot girth of the falls, my fear became pure adrenaline-infused exhilaration. When I reached the bottom of the ravine, I carefully unhooked myself from the umbilical cord and stared up at the cascade. I turned around and gave a thumbs-up to Dave.
He smiled and said, “You’re a natural.”