The delusion of self-sufficiency came to an end in my mid-twenties, as I sat in an armchair in Yorkshire, sipping a late-night whiskey with my mother.
I remember it as a particularly haunting moment. I mean, mothers are not something to which a young man gives much thought in his work life, especially if his work takes him out into the world in a venturesome way, and I had been venturing with a full, young, and masculine vengeance: rock climbing, ice climbing, sailing, traveling, and working on a shoestring budget through all the byways of the world. I had come through any number of near scrapes, had been attacked, shot at, or set on by dogs in all the best places and had always emerged breathless, a little battered, but triumphant.
In the midst of all my good luck, and seemingly far from my mother, a near drowning in the Galápagos Islands shook me to the core but in some ways also confirmed my idea of personal invulnerability. I had emerged with another tale to mark my divinely ordained, youthful presence in the world.
The backdrop to the story was dramatic: an amphitheater of rock and sea on a wild, lonely, wave-drenched hunk of rock on the southern edge of the Galápagos named Hood Island. Imagine an enormous lava cliff with the ocean rolling huge breakers against its base. Imagine small, black dragonlike lizards known as marine iguanas riding those waves, and when the waves recede, see them clinging in an impossible way to the rock face. Imagine the air filled with the cries of seabirds and sea lions, and imagine you hear, every so often, a huge roaring sound from below the cliff, where the waves tear up through a deep crack in the living rock.
It was in this place, far from my mother in her armchair, that I came to lead Matt Downing, a fellow naturalist guide, into a near-death experience. Matt and I were on top of the cliff staring at the vast sway of sea that stretches southward for several thousand miles to the Antarctic ice shelf.
At one point beneath that cliff lay a large platform of lava rock. A ramp in the cliff led down onto the platform and to the source of the roaring sound. A huge, curving crack snaked in from the edge of the cliff for 20 feet; beneath this, the full fury of the ocean would concentrate before spraying up through the opening to a height of about 30 or 40 feet above the platform. The whole effect was like witnessing Yellowstone's famous geyser, Old Faithful. As a guide, I would stand near the edge of the crack and take a salt-water shower under the falling plume while the group clicked merrily away, capturing the moment for their slide shows. I had done this for months, and I was sure it had helped increase the generosity of the group when, at journey's end, they held a collection for the guide's deserving tip.
In this spirit, I persuaded Matt to join me at the edge of the blowhole. He was a little hesitant but soon joined in the exhilaration of being showered by tons of water falling on us from a great height. I remember seeing the photographs many weeks later, taken by our watching group one moment before disaster struck. There we are, having all the fun in the world. But beneath us, off camera, the water suddenly disappeared. We waited for it to surge back again. It did not. Something was wrong. I looked down to the sea below. The ocean was curling into the most frightful, pent-up tsunami. I grabbed Matt's arm and shouted, "God Almighty!" We barely had time to turn away when the mighty surge barreling back up the crack was overtaken by the huge wave rolling over the top of the cliff. I remember trying to keep my feet in front of me because there was a 12-foot rock step in the platform, against which we were being flung. I didn't want to hit it headfirst. My arm had been loosed from Matt's, and he disappeared into the surging nothingness. I hit the lava wall feet first, and then I was dragged back by the force of the ebbing water over the platform to the edge of the cliff. The next image offered to the eyes of our group was me gripping the edge of the blowhole, my feet hanging into its mouth. Beyond me, Matt hung off the edge of the cliff, his feet swinging wildly for purchase. The next wave hit us like a hammer blow. This time there was no keeping my feet in any direction. I was somersaulted toward the step, over and over. The second wave was so huge that it took me right over the top of the lava step. I surged forward, banging against the rocks, until I reached the awestruck group and was left at their feet, lacerated and shocked.
I remember looking up into the horrified faces and thinking in an abstract way that this performance should merit a very large tip. The thought crumpled immediately in the shock and realization of my banged-up state. I was also desperate for the sight of Matt. There he lay, about 30 feet away, blood running down his back and arms. Matt was evacuated to the boat, deliriously asking if anyone got the number of the truck that hit him, while I recovered lying flat out on the beach, amazed that I wasn't dead.
What is left in my memory is the sheer quivering power of the ocean. I had heard about waves out of nowhere, turning boats over, but I had never witnessed them firsthand. I lay on the beach with a deep pain running through my stomach—as if someone had reached inside me and in no uncertain terms informed me that I was like everything else in the world: I had no immunity.
Next: His mother's uncanny dream
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