Tumultuous Tumbles and a Renewed Respect
I woke up on June 16th with one goal: climb Excelsior Falls. Long story short, I failed. I fell 5 meters down a waterfall, tore a 20 centimeter gash in my butt, and caused a small landslide.
It had started out as a normal Tuesday: a weekday off that I typically used for hiking waterfalls with friends. I had selected June 16th to conquer a particularly adventurous waterfall, Excelsior Falls. I woke up, packed my backpack, picked up my girlfriend, Moe, and started the 45-minute trek to Excelsior Glen near Watkins Glen, NY where the waterfalls were.
It was my second summer hiking waterfalls in the Finger Lakes, and I was confident enough to consider myself an advanced hiker. My presumed skill level in mind, I was unfazed when my waterfall guide, NYfalls.org, listed Excelsior Glen as “Very Difficult.” The drive there was serene, and after 45 minutes, we spotted the trail entrance just off NY Route 414 and parked down the road.
The walk to the trail was straightforward, and after whacking through some tall grass, we found ourselves on a creek, where we heard the first waterfall in the glen, Emerald Falls. Emerald Falls is a 10-meter waterfall with a weak flow and shallow basin. According to NYfalls.org, experienced hikers have a reasonable chance of ascending the waterfall. Seeing the falls up close, however, I realized that I may have already bitten off more than I could chew. Emerald Falls was, in fact, not a series of cascades as the blog indicated. It was a cliff. I knew that neither Moe nor I could ascend safely, so we begrudgingly exited the creek and managed to find a steep yet hike-able alternative path to the top of the waterfall. In retrospect, Emerald Falls was a clear sign that this hike was not going to be as straightforward as we had anticipated. Emerald falls called for an all-out expedition for which we were clearly not prepared, as we had little more than a backpack, swimsuits, and water shoes. Nevertheless, we continued hiking up the creek.
The following 2-kilometer hike was beautiful. The water maintained a brisk pace but was relatively low, allowing us to easily hike upstream. The heat of the summer morning balanced with the cool water, and insects hummed all around us. Moe and I kept high spirits with jovial conversation throughout the hike. These conversations, however, came to an abrupt end when we reached the base of our day’s goal, Excelsior Falls. As it turns out, it was not one, but three separate waterfalls stacked on top of each other: Excelsior Falls, High Falls, and Sullivan Falls. Each was 10 to 15 meters high, and the entire rock formation was roughly 37 meters tall. We knew that these falls were not going to be small, but we were admittedly surprised by the steep, slimy cascades that lay before us.
We pushed forward in spite of our hesitation and made it up the first tier of approximately 13 meters with relative ease. The second tier was about 17 meters, very steep, and far less inviting. There were two possible ways to get up: one, climb straight up the mossy, slippery waterfall, or two, go around the left side of the falls and scramble up a dry, crumbly incline. Neither option seemed ideal, but we decided to explore the first option: the waterfall. I took the lead in aiming for a small ledge 3 meters up, which would serve as a good stepping stone. I made it up alright but was unsure of how to approach the remaining 14 meters ahead. I decided to press on from the ledge, finding small foot holds where possible. After only a few meters of progress, one of my feet gave out. I slid 5 meters back down to the top of the first tier where Moe was fortunately able to help me stop before I unwillingly went cliff jumping.
The slide had left my butt seriously bruised, but I was determined to conquer this waterfall, so I decided to try the dirt hill to the left of the falls. Unsurprisingly, I fell again, this time carrying a couple fallen trees with me. It was at this point with a sore butt and a terrified Moe that I decided it was time to turn back.
After negotiating our way down the first 14 meters of the falls (first tier), I asked Moe to take a look at my “bruise” only to find a bloody, dirt-filled, 20-centimeter open gash. We used most of our clean water to debride my mangled butt cheek, and I used my shirt as an impromptu bandage.
Over the 2-kilometer hike back to my car, the 45-minute drive home, and the following weeks (during which I could neither stand up nor sit down without wincing in pain), I wondered where I had gone wrong. Maybe I hadn’t done my research, or maybe I didn’t have good enough gear. I realized, however, that I had spent so much time hiking waterfalls that I had forgotten how much respect they deserve. Waterfalls are not goals over which a person can triumph. They are moving, breathing, and living. I approached Excelsior Falls with arrogance, and it showed me that it was a creature worthy of admiration and observation. I bear the scar from that June morning, carrying with it a newfound appreciation for the natural world and renewed intent to explore nature thoughtfully and respectfully.