Tania Salmen on a mountain expedition that took a slippery turn
In 1996 I was living in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. My friend Danny was visiting from Miami and so we decided to climb Avila, the mountain that looms over the city. I'd bought two ocarinas, clay flutes, at the market, so that we could play them up there. We left my house, walked a couple of blocks, crossed the ring road and started to climb Avila. Some parts are easy, you can just walk them, but other parts are much trickier. You reach a pool and then climb up the side of a waterfall using the thick vines to pull yourself up the rocks. You then follow the stream to the next pool and so on. And the higher you go the more isolated it becomes.
We didn't go all the way to the top – at a certain point we just stopped. It's absolutely beautiful up there, a tropical rainforest full of amazing wildlife. You can pick the fruit from mango and pineapple trees and just look at nature – beautiful, brightly coloured birds and butterflies. When you stand completely still all the little creatures come out. It's magnificent. We stayed up there for a couple of hours, eating fruit, playing our ocarinas and exploring all the little caves. It was like being a kid again. Then it started to get dark.
We were on our way down when the tropical rainstorm hit. Tropical storms arrive suddenly and only last a few minutes. There's no wind or anything beforehand, the temperature and the humidity just increase slightly. But in Venezuela, somehow you can smell that the rain is coming. Danny and I weren't particularly worried – neither of us had been caught in a tropical rainstorm up a mountain before.
The first few drops of rain fell through the forest canopy, and then the deluge hit us. It was like being under a really powerful shower, the most pressure you can possibly imagine. We carried on following the stream down the mountain, trying to move as carefully as possible.
All of a sudden there was this noise behind us. We turned around and saw all this mud, like a wave, come pouring down the mountain towards us. The rain was carrying everything down from the top of the mountain – earth, stones and branches. The noise was incredible.
It was on us in seconds, a huge slide of thick brown mud, washing down faster and faster. It took everything in its path – including the two of us. We both started to slide. My first thought was to hold onto a tree, but unfortunately we just happened to be in a clearing. I tried to grab onto rocks, but they were too slippery. The next thing we were off down the mountain – sliding, bumping and crashing into everything. Now and then I'd manage to grab onto a branch, but would either lose my grip or else the branch would snap.
By now I'd lost sight of Danny. And the water was increasing. The little stream was no longer a stream. It was a river, a torrent. And on both sides was a brown mud slide.
This is it, I'm thinking. I'm not going to survive. At any moment I'll go over a waterfall and that will be it. I was petrified. You know there is another one coming at some point and there is nothing you can do about it. I felt totally powerless. Maybe there would be a vine to grab onto, but because everything is happening so fast you don't know if you'll have time. It was so frightening.
The mud really threw me about. I wasn't only sliding on my bum. I was being tossed about, rolled this way and that, sometimes on my front, sometimes on my back. I kept hitting into things, luckily nothing big, just small rocks, branches and endless roots sticking up out of the ground. I didn't feel any pain, probably because I was so full of adrenaline, but I kept thinking that any minute I would smash my head on a rock or tree. I also remember thinking how I wish I'd done this and that in my life. There were so many things I haven't done – and this is it – I'm going to die.
I probably only slid for a few minutes, but it felt like hours. The rain suddenly stopped just as quickly as it had started. I finally managed to get my arms right around a tree and just clung on. The mud slide gradually started to slow down – and then stopped. I probably hugged that tree for another five minutes.
Fortunately Danny had also managed to grab onto something. We couldn't see each other, but at least we were able to shout out and let each other know we were alive. It was now pitch black – you literally couldn't see a thing. We started moving towards each other, calling out constantly until we met in the middle. Both of us were covered in scratches and bruises – and mud – but neither of us was seriously injured.
We started to panic about the dark, knowing that the way down would be wet, muddy and dangerous. But then the most miraculous thing happened. Hundreds of fireflies appeared. They surrounded us. It was really magical. They started flying in front of us, like a huge torch showing us the way down. I don't know why that happened, but whenever we got stuck on the way down, the fireflies were there. When we got to the bottom of the mountain and reached the road they just disappeared.
Danny and I started walking back to my house. That's when I began to shake uncontrollably. Now that we were safe it was as if I was allowed to let go. We were both very quiet, like we were absorbing everything. Afterwards I felt tiny. Nature has all the power and you have to bow to it. We are just tiny really – powerless.
I've since been back up Avila. That mountain is so beautiful that I can't stop myself from going up there whenever I'm back in Caracas. The mud slide and nearly dying didn't put me off. I've survived war in Lebanon. A mud slide is just another tick.