Rappelling embroils you in a love-hate relationship with two things -- the anchor (who's holding the other end of the rope) and your harness. Trust them and you're safe. Falter, even for a bit, and you sway, bump into rocks and bruise.
On the edge of the earth
The grief passes into primal fear when you're dangling from a rope that runs the length of a valley, with help only a hundred feet above and below you. Hold on yet; the time is not to scream. It's to perspire. You tell yourself, "Panic, and all's lost. Act smartly. Plus, the anchor is always there." Honestly, it's only the anchor bit that's even remotely reassuring.
Then you scramble along the face of the valley, parallel to the earth below you, and retain the rappelling poise. You take a deep breath, knowing the rope is not going to snap unless you're a full-grown elephant, and get a grip. For now, the hand that feeds the rope rules the world. Two peaks to the right of Harishchandragad in the Malshej region stands a hill 1,200 feet tall. We reached its peak at 8 am on a windy morning. The region there had a stream of pearly water running through it that transformed to a waterfall with every alternate valley that we descended. Our instructor, Sudhanshu, gave us a demo of the rappelling process. First timers couldn't figure out what exactly a "free-fall", or an "overhang" meant. Not that they cared anyway; this was supposed to be a 101-kind of course.
The one-inch man rules
Each harness had a descender to which one end of the rope was tied. The other end would be with the anchor, who now was a speck down below. To come down, I would have to tug at the rope with one hand and pass it through the harness with the other. Each tug and pass would bring me down by approximately a foot.
The anchor would pull hard on the rope, locking it, if I lost balance or tired out. That way, I couldn't ever fall. If I wanted to pause, I could simply twist the hand I fed the rope with and wrench it behind my back. "But remember," Sudhanshu had stressed, "do not let the rope near your bare face or hands. It gets intensely hot." I pushed the gloves as far back on my hands as possible. Then I wore my helmet.
Three ropes ran down the cliff. I tied my harness to one, then slowly backed up against the sinister abyss, leaning back on the harness and feeding the rope. Almost instantly I jerked sideways and collided with a rock. I had forgotten two golden rules -- to maintain a foot's distance between both legs, and never bend the knees.
15 steps, then a sheer drop
I should have asked the instructor how to tackle a free-fall. After the first few steps, the valley curved steeply inwards. I held on to the rope with my left hand (the non-feeding one) for fear of falling away; again a rookie mistake. A searing pain shot down my arm, and I let go. The succeeding "overhang" lasted a few seconds, after which I pulled the rope with my right hand and descended slowly, trying to get back on against the rock-face. Then the descent smoothened out and the panic started to evaporate.
The stream, now a waterfall, was right beside me, sprinkling cool water on my sweaty face. With my right arm, I wrestled the rope behind my back and came to a screeching halt; only, in midair, the screeching was drowned out by the silence.
It was then, about a thousand feet above the face of the earth, dressed like a joker, that I learnt how it feels to live one moment at a time. The past and future had lost relevance.
This is it
I took no less than nine minutes to traverse the 350 feet. My landing was a bit jittery as I was unable to determine my speed. My gloves showed tatters, and my head reeled from nausea. But I had come down a humongous, motionless creation of nature that spelt doom if you didn't observe its boundaries. And it shared with me sights that are out of bounds. I had won.
All you need to know
Around Delhi -- 9891458220/ 9811193634 -- for an expedition in New Tehri, 320 km away.
Adventure Hills -- 9882130033/ 9318829411 (Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh) -- for rappelling expeditions across the north
To go rappelling in the Sahyadris, call Camp Fire India (9869474343) or Trekdi (9822444963)
Equipment -- Groups provide you the gear (harness, rope, gloves). You need to wear a tracksuit or jeans and a full-sleeve shirt. Wear shoes with a good grip, so you don't slip on wet stones and loose soil.