This is a shorter version of a story that I published a long time ago. I recently submitted this to a travel writing competition and thought my new readers might enjoy a shorter version of it.
I looked down at the silver-grey pool in horror and said; “You do know I can’t swim, right?”
“You won’t need to.” He reassured me. “Not much, anyway. Your life jacket will keep you afloat. Just stay calm and keep the blood flowing in your limbs.”
He went first to show us how it was done; feet together, big jump to clear the rocks. I stood on the edge, trembling with cold and fear and that rush of lucid carelessness you feel before you do something stupid. Then I closed my eyes and jumped.
He had seemed calm in his Email —where he had assured me that canyoning had more to do with a will to do it than the ability to swim— and was even calmer in person, almost to the point of frustration.
Every time I had panicked, desperately gurgling a frightful mixture of air and water, he had simply yelled at me to keep calm and kick, until I had pulled myself together and scrambled up onto the rocks, shaken, but exhilarated. And somehow, it had worked.
By the time we wriggled out of our wetsuits at the bottom of the canyon, I felt like a cicada shedding its old skin.
“Have you ever seen anything go wrong on a trip?” I asked him during lunch, wondering if I should go for the last piece of cheese on the platter while he was distracted. I guess I wanted to know if his laid-back style had ever got him into trouble.
“It happened right here, in Saxeten river.” He sat back, staring through his cigarette’s twirling smoke at the deep ravine, his mind elsewhere.
“A weather warning had been issued for that day. But under pressure from the bosses, the guides took around forty clients out anyway. Half of them never returned. My friend was one of the guides. There was a thunderstorm upriver, and the flash flood it caused caught them by surprise. Nineteen people drowned. I was one of the first people at the scene to recover the bodies.’
He went quiet. Was he back there, amongst the carnage and debris, with the world he had loved turning into a nightmare? Had he, too, had to pull himself together and face his nightmare alone?
“That’s terrible,” I mumbled. The piece of cheese sat there untouched.
Later that afternoon, he dropped us off back at our hotel. “Would you still have done it, if I had told you about that accident earlier?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I still would. You are a good guide.”
“Well, there were no thunderstorms up there today.” He smiled a sad smile. “But you did almost drown once or twice.”
And with that, the man of the Alps was gone.