Into the Depths of the Sarisariñama

“It’s risky but adventurous. What is the worst that could happen?” Jason thought when his big brother Luke first proposed the idea of traveling to South America. In the Amazon, in the southeast part of Venezuela, lies the tepui Sarisariñama, and Luke thought it was the perfect place for their next climbing and cave exploring adventure.

Ever since their father died when they were young, Luke acted as Jason’s protector. He felt responsible for taking care of him and their mom. After all those years of responsibility, this was his way of loosening up a bit; and whenever he had these kinds of ideas, he dragged his little brother along with him. Jason, on the other hand, had always been a scaredy-cat and did not enjoy these activities as much as Luke, but he seized every opportunity to spend more time with his brother.

They had to prepare in advance because they knew too little about the country and this type of mountain. Tepuis are very particular, with a flat top and vertical slopes, which give them from afar the appearance of a cube-like mountain.

“This tepui is unique because it has huge sinkholes on top.” Luke said excited to convince his brother.

“I’m already on board” said Steve, a very good friend of the brothers, who had recently broken up with his girlfriend and did not care about how dangerous the plan was. He just wanted an excuse to leave town, even for a couple of days.

The plan was to explore the caves inside the biggest hole in the Sarisariñama —the Sima Humboldt, which is 314 meters deep. It would be risky because, aside from the challenges the mountain could bring, it was in an isolated part of the jungle with no civilization for miles.

Two months later, the two brothers, along with Steve, were walking through the jungle towards the closest reservation to the mountain. “Heat and mosquitos. That’s the worst that could happen,” Jason thought while slapping his leg for the third time. Nevertheless, when they saw the ancient mountain, the three of them could not help but feel thrilled about the experience they were about to live.

The next day, a chopper left them at the top of the Sarisariñama. Miguel, the pilot, gave the three men final instructions for their journey, repeating one last time he would be there in 3 days to pick them up, and then headed back to the reservation. Although he took them there, he was very reluctant about it. In fact, none of the natives had dared to join them, and even tried to talk them out of the idea of going down the hole. Only Miguel, a tour guide in the region, and probably the drunkest one, agreed to take them to the top but (as he emphasized many times) after that point they would be on their own.

Steve smiled, shaking his head and watching the chopper fly away, then started to set up the camp. Jason joined to help but he could not shake off the conversation they had with Miguel the night before. The natives believed in the spirits of the earth and legends of the area, and the Sarisariñama had its own story. An evil spirit is supposed to devour the men who enter the hole. In fact, they named the mountain after the sounds the monster made when eating a victim: sari… sari.

“We respect him, and he respect us.” Miguel had said in broken English while drinking his rum.

Now, standing on top of the mountain, surrounded by the beautiful and wild green land, Jason felt overwhelmed. It was magnificent, and it was not surprising that the natives could believe such legends. The only word he could think of to describe the land, the view, the feeling of it all, was “magical”.

That night, it rained like they had never seen before. The rain was so heavy and strong it almost made sense that it had formed these sinkholes on top of the mountain. The three men did their best to keep the equipment (and themselves) as dry and warm as they could.

When the sky cleared the next morning, they started the descent. Just looking down the hole was breathtaking; descending into it was like entering a different world. The lower they went, the quieter it got. They could hear their voices echoing and when Luke screamed just to see how it resounded, the three exploded in laughter. Then Steve told them to hush, and they remained silent for a minute, a minute when Jason felt he could actually hear the sound of the earth.

Reaching the bottom was almost like landing on a different planet. Setting foot on the ground in a place like that felt like a sacrilege, especially when they stepped on some exotic little flowers that released some sort of mist with every step. They left part of the equipment on the ground and began exploring.

The cave was amazing, and the feeling of going so deep into the earth was more powerful than in any other they had ever been. At the end of the day, they set up the tents in a place they thought appropriate, between the hole through which they had descended and the first cave. Jason and his brother shared a tent while Steve slept in the other.

Around midnight, Luke woke his brother up. “Jason, Steve is not in his tent,” he said with an apprehensive tone.

“He must be peeing or something,” Jason muttered, half asleep.

“No, I cannot find him,” answered Luke, exasperated, as he exited the tent.

Jason followed Luke outside and saw him already preparing the gear to go and look for Steve, then went back to the tent and got himself ready too. When he came out again, Luke was gone. He heard footsteps running into the cave and immediately headed that way, running after him. “Wait!” he yelled, and his voice echoed louder than he expected. He pointed the light to the cave’s ceiling and was surprised to find that it seemed much higher than when they had explored it earlier. Maybe he did not remember well what the cave looked like. “Were they in a different cavern?” Something about it made him feel uneasy. They were not familiar with the place, and if Steve had gotten lost, chances were they would too.

For a moment, he felt they were already lost, and fear invaded him. If they didn’t get out, nobody would ever come to their rescue. In fact, who actually knew they were there? They were in the deepest part of a mountain, far away from any civilization, in a country none of them even knew, and with no way to communicate with anyone. “What were we thinking?” He heard voices that brought him back to reality and headed in that direction.

Finally, he found them. Steve was on his knees and Luke was leaning on him. Frightened as he was, he imagined they were hiding from him on purpose.  “But that could not be possible, Luke had come to look for me in the tent. He wouldn’t leave me here.” Jason was not in control of his thoughts and realized Steve was crying.

“I’m sorry. I am so sorry; I shouldn’t have…” sobbed Steve.

“What happened?” Jason asked, his voice showing his terror at the situation.

Luke was about to answer when something caught his attention. “Jason is that… it can’t be. Dad! – Luke suddenly ran deeper into the cave.

Jason didn’t understand. Was he trying to hide again?  “What are you doing?” Jason ran after him.

When he finally found him, Luke was facing the dark rocky wall, mumbling: “This is all my fault. I brought us here. You should take me.” He then turned around with a horrified expression on his face and whispered as if it was his last breath: “Jason… run!” A moment later, something dragged him into the darkness.

Jason started to run back to Steve and would have passed him, had not been for his fluorescent jacket. Steve was gasping for air, his pupils dilated, and in the silence of the cave, Jason could hear his heart pounding heavily. Steve looked straight into Jason’s eyes and suddenly put his hand to his chest, falling dead to the cavern floor.

The flashlight flickered off and they were covered by absolute darkness. Jason opened his eyes as wide as he could, but even then he could only see black. Desperately, he tried to turn it back on, but it would not work. He just wanted to get out, his claustrophobia was growing more and more each second. He began crawling, trying to guide himself with his hands. He felt he was going to die there too.

He remembered the small flashlight on his helmet and turned it on. The light fell straight to the face of a man. His dark skin seemed gray, as if it were covered in ashes. The man opened his mouth and yelled at such volume; it was as if there were a hundred voices coming out of it.  The whole cave rumbled, and Jason started running again. He just hoped he was running in the right direction.

All the rocks around him seemed to move in the shadows. Hands reaching out to him from the darkness, eyes that glowed for an instant as he passed, and the screams seemed to grow louder, as if all the souls trapped in the mountain were calling for him.

He could not believe it when he reached the hole. It seemed so long ago when he was there with Steve and Luke. He started sobbing while he put on the climbing gear, a task made more difficult because his hands would not stop shaking. He had never climbed so fast in his life. Everything hurt until the point that his hands felt numb, but he did not stop.

When he felt something pulling on the rope, he looked down and saw the wild mist that seemed so harmless at the beginning forming the shape of a huge face that opened its mouth to release a thousand screams that, combined, seemed like a roar. He climbed even faster until he reached the top.

He ran without looking. All that mattered was he was out of the hole and felt the sun on his face. The fear was still pounding in his chest, his hands, his head. He could not get rid of it, as he could not get rid of the presence he felt following him. He reached the edge without noticing and fell. While falling, he could hear as if it were a whisper in both of his ears, sari… sari.

Three days later the pilot came back. He flew over the mountain a couple of times and over the hole, but he could see no signs of the men. “The mountain ate them,” he though. With his hand he made the sign of the cross over his body and flew back to the reservation.

The tepui Sarisariñama is not a famous tourist destination. However, that year it was in the news on two occasions. The first, for the disappearance of three men. The second, when after years of study, it was discovered that an exotic flower, which releases a toxin in the form of a mist, could cause humans to hallucinate their biggest fears. Fortunately, the specimen only grows in the deep caverns located in the tepuis of Venezuela.

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