I can still hear it plain as day – her urgent silence against the deafening roar of the falls – and it chills me to the bone.
Me: “Where is Dan (my husband)?”
Chris (his sister): mouth moving, but I can’t hear what she’s saying through the noise of the waterfall…no sense of urgency, I assure myself as I glance again towards the pool where Dan had been frolicking like a child not two moments earlier…she’s walking towards me slowly…she’d be more agitated if there were a problem…
Me: “Where is Dan?” Jogging towards her now, realizing my husband is nowhere in sight – a sick feeling beginning to twist itself in my stomach, my worst fears inching closer and closer to the surface, about to be realized.
Chris starts walking faster, begins gesturing, pointing at the falls. I see her mouth moving but still can’t make out the words. As she nears, fragments of her voice begin to reach me through the roar of the falls.
“Danny’s in trouble!”
Oh my God. My stomach turns. No! I can’t believe I’m hearing this.
My jog turns to a run as I rush past Chris and her husband Paul, who had been playing in the falls with Dan, and race closer to the edge of the pool beneath the waterfall. All the while, searching wildly for any sign of Dan – a bobbing head – his face above the water- a hand – anything.
Only minutes before, I had been languidly washing my hair in the pool that breaks the massive 200-foot drop of Mooney Falls, deep in the Havasupai Indian Reservation near the Grand Canyon. Submerging my head in the frigid water – silence…except for my heartbeat – only to rise above the water again to the crash of the falls. The whole time willing myself not to be overly concerned about Dan and Paul, who were swimming close to the waterfall’s base. Too close for my comfort.
He was an adult after all. Did I really need to tell him to be careful? His sarcastic response to past admonitions rang only too clear…”Thanks for reminding me, I was actually NOT going to be careful until you said that.”
Up to this point in our trip, a trip replete with waterfalls, I had fought the urge to comment on how dangerous they could be. That the depression gauged out by the falls was like a huge washing machine, trapping, churning and rotating anything unlucky enough to get caught in its cycle down into the depths of that impossibly clear blue pool.
At 200 feet, Mooney Falls is the largest waterfall in Havasupai (Cataract) Canyon, a side canyon that meets up with the Colorado River and Grand Canyon proper about eight miles downstream. Mooney was named for an unfortunate miner who in 1882 had met his demise at the bottom of the falls after falling from a rope while trying to descend.
At the time there was no other discernible way down to the bottom of the falls, so Mooney’s friends were forced to leave his body to the elements on the canyon floor. It was only when, eleven months later, one of them noticed a local Native American wearing Mooney’s boots that they were shown a precarious route down a crevice in the canyon wall.
Unwilling to risk the dicey-looking descent, they attempted to make it more navigable by blasting a small tunnel through the rock, chipping crude steps, and drilling in iron spikes. The white-knuckle route, slick with spray and with the rusty chains linking the iron spikes the only handholds, still serves as the only way down to the bottom of the falls and is the one visitors follow today. At their own risk, I might add, and as a foreboding sign just before the initial descent warns. It is not a trip for the fainthearted, nor for those afraid of heights.
On our first trip to Havasupai in 2010, after hiking nine grueling miles and trekking through the mile-deep campground, we got our first glimpse over the edge of the falls – and what magnificence we beheld! We were immediately captivated, and have returned faithfully every year over Labor Day weekend, spending three or four days in the veritable paradise tucked away like a land lost to time.
Now, this “paradise” threatened to become a place of nightmares; a place where the unthinkable, the unspeakable, was unfolding right before my very eyes.
As I jogged across the gravelly shore and rounded Mooney’s base, I thought I saw a flash of flesh and curly hair beneath – and directly behind – the falls. In a moment I caught a better glimpse of Dan, now clinging to the slippery rock wall carved out of the cliff by the falls, and heard his cry as he lost his tenuous grip and Mooney pulled him back into its grasp.
In a panic, I entered the frigid pool at the base of the falls, getting about waist high before spray and mist obscured my view. The strong undercurrent pulling me towards the falls broke through my panic and I realized it was not safe to continue.
Oh my God, oh my God…I repeated over and over in my mind, as I stood there racking my brain for a solution, feeling more helpless than I ever had in my life. It was the end of the holiday weekend and, unlike the past three days, the campground was deserted. On this afternoon, we were completely alone at the base of Mooney Falls.
Suddenly, before Chris or I knew what was happening, Paul struck out slowly yet determinedly through the water towards the falls, hugging the rock face of the cliff from which the powerful torrent catapulted. As the water reached his waist, he turned towards the cliff and carefully selected two handholds, testing them before taking another step.
The next moment, Mooney spat Dan out again, and he kicked weakly, clawing at the slippery rocks before finding a handhold. He was losing strength, I could see it in his face, and in the way the pull of the falls played tug of war with his body as he clung to the rocks for dear life.
In what seemed to take an eternity, Paul painstakingly made his way hand-over-hand, closer and closer to the spot where Dan clung to the wall, in danger of disappearing once more as the suction from the falls slowly loosened his grip.
Paul inched along patiently until he was about a foot away, just on the other side of a small rock abutment. With a swift movement, he reached out and grabbed one of Dan’s hands. A mighty tug brought Dan’s hand around the abutment and placed it on a hidden handhold, holding it there until he was sure of Dan’s grip. Dan remained still for a moment, his lower body drifting back towards the falls…
Finally, with one last burst of strength, Dan relinquished his left-handed grip and pulled himself around the rock outcropping towards Paul, finding another solid handhold with his left hand. I held my breath. Paul took Dan’s his right hand again, and carefully placed it, again not letting go until he was sure Dan could hold on. They continued this way, one hand at a time, until Dan could finally stand on his own in the swirling water.
I will never forget his face as he turned towards me and our eyes connected. Literally white as a ghost, he had the look of someone who had come face to face with his mortality, and was in disbelief that his life had been mercifully allowed to continue.
As he stumbled, shaking, through the shallow water, I ran to him and bear-hugged his freezing body. We wrapped him in towels and helped him to shore. After some time, we eventually made our way back up the slippery route to the campground. Before Dan started up the rickety ladder he turned and gave Mooney one last look. I saw him shudder visibly, and we embraced as a wave of emotion overcame him.
As we held each other there at the base of Mooney in that remote canyon, we were both engulfed by a feeling of insignificance, coupled with a new respect, in the face of such a great force of nature. At the same time we felt an overwhelming gratitude for all the gifts in our lives, and for Life itself. This time, unlike that day in 1882, Mooney did not win. Dan had been given a second chance, and we both came away with a new appreciation of life that will stay with us for the rest of our days.