Finally at Trou de Fer

By Jonathan Smith 8 November 2013
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The canyoning team finally at Trou de Fer, to end their La Réunion trip.

CANYONING TROU DE FER involves descending almost 900 m over four major waterfalls, ranging from 50 m to over 270 m. The longer falls require several long, hairy pitches and only a handful of groups – mostly French and Spanish – descend the canyon each year.  It should take two days … if there are no dramas.
We start early, decamping about 5.45 am and making our way through the mud and brambles to the head of the first falls (180 m). After half an hour we are free of the thick undergrowth and traverse the rock ledge at the head of the falls to find a good tree anchor on the left for a short first pitch of 20 m. This is swiftly followed by a second short abseil, but we take considerably longer to descend the third pitch, having to reset the anchor.

Our route down the face of the rock starts out dry (not in the waterfall but adjacent to it), but soon we need to don our wetsuits for the lower section. The final major pitch on the first falls involves an abseil of over 80 m, further than Linc or I have ever abseiled. Just a little scary, but I am comforted by the confidence (or at least the appearance of confidence) of my companions. Eventually, about 11 am, we complete our descent of the first falls and are rock-hopping 500 m downstream toward the second falls (150 m).

Soon confronted by a series of toboggans (water slides down smoothed rock) we venture to the right, avoiding a cluster of trees clinging desperately to the rock face on the left. We find a gently sloping rock ledge and inch our way around to it, setting another anchor for a short first pitch of 15 m. At this point, we have reached the really wet rock. It is the slipperiest we have encountered and calls for total concentration. One mistake and we could descend the falls quicker than we expect, and there is no opportunity for rescue down here.

As usual Scott leads the way along the slimy black rock, shimmying to an exposed ledge. After setting up a safety line he locates some old bolts with a rusted maillon that we replace. Scott is soon descending the heavy spray of the falls as Linc and I make our way gingerly along the safety line. The noise of the water thundering down past us makes hearing one another very difficult, so we use sign language to communicate.

After completing the 25-m abseil, I join Scott at a difficult hanging re-belay on an overhung rock slab. Thankfully, someone has already drilled bolts into the rock to establish this anchor. Our final drop is over 80 m and enveloped in the water cascading down the rock face. I look down at Scott as he leads this tricky pitch. The rope snakes away below him, fading into the mist created by the spray at the base of the falls.

I am soon descending, and with the thunderous roar of water all around me I seek traction on the rock – whereas the waterfall seems intent on pushing me away from the rock and blasting me out and down into the swirling pool far below. By 3pm we have all successfully descended the second falls and have just enough time, if all goes well, to complete the third falls before dusk. We lunch quickly and seek out an anchor point with renewed energy.

Avoiding the left hand side – which appears to have a high risk of rock fall – we find a suitable tree anchor on the right and begin our descent. The falls drop 270 m to a large pool in a carved out amphitheatre far below. The first abseil is straight forward, but the following two abseils are each almost 100 m, involving extensive time to set up and a long time swinging in the air high above the valley floor.

It is not comfortable in our harnesses as we jostle for position and I try to create some room for Scott to rig up the next abseil. I’m almost sitting on his lap, and for him to rig safely requires great patience, teamwork and communication. As Linc waits patiently above us on the rock ledge for the ‘all clear’ signal, I double check and triple check our anchors and safety lines. We are suspended 250 m above the ground, dangling in our harnesses, attached to the rock by a few metal pins thinner than my little finger.

The next pitch is what rock climbers would call the ‘crux’. It involves throwing a grappling hook toward a target while swinging in thin air 90 m below the anchor and 160 m above the ground. From far above I watch as Scott locks off, removes the throw rope and grappling hook, and positions himself to face the rock.

Scott then draws himself toward the rock face using the throw rope to establish our second to last anchor for the day. We can just hear the double-whistle call – meaning all is good to continue – over the spray of the falls and I begin descending slowly.

I find myself spinning, taking in the panoramic views. Water cascades down all sides of the semi-cirque, careening past beautiful palms and ferns clinging to the sodden rock face. Water plummets down the slick black walls into a pool surrounded by lush vegetation. It feels as if I’m in a mystical kingdom, some kind of pre-historic lost world.

“Rooocckkk!” is a loud yell heard from above.

Scott and I look up to see a rock the size of a football bouncing down the face. Quickly we duck. It clears us by ten metres or more but if it had hit either of us it would have been lights out for good.

As Linc and I coil two of the ropes, Scott grabs the free rope to set up the final abseil for the day – 49 m into a churning pool. We descend quickly and by the time I reach the pool of rocks it is dark. I huddle underneath the cascade, inside a recess in the rock face that protects me from the wind and spray. A few minutes later Linc arrives and we quickly coil the ropes and scurry across the rocks toward the light emanating from Scott’s head torch.

Our bivvy site is not comfortable but we wake up early feeling refreshed. We move slowly in the chill morning air and it takes an inordinate amount of willpower to pull on our wetsuits. Scrambling across the grassy surface, we soon abseil 30 m down a torrent of water. Below is nothing but an eerie abyss, accepting the full force of water from the canyon. This is Bassin Fenoir and despite the exceptional ambience of the falls, the deluge pummels us on descent and I am relieved when finally I emerge into a dark pool below.

A number of shallow drops, toboggans and pools follow. We pass through the ‘washing machine’ into the ‘Caverne du Minotaure’ before several smaller abseils are required. Linc is bounding ahead today – he moves nimbly across the slick rock and leads us into a narrow corridor – a section of the canyon with high, sheer moss-covered walls and deep, long pools of water which we must swim down. The buoyancy in our packs helps a lot.

About lunchtime we locate an old poacher’s trail which is to be our exit route. The trail is rugged and barely navigable – not surprising given its lack of use. For two hours we thrash through the scrub (any less of a trail is called jungle) until finally arriving worn, torn but happy at the outer fringes of the hamlet of Salazie.

And now, having enjoyed copious hot showers, French pastries and cold Dodos (the beer, not the bird) with my friends Scott and Linc, we relax and share memories that will stay with us for a long time to come.

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