Leap of Faith: Rappel Maui


I’ve just made the mistake of looking over the edge. When I signed up to try rappelling I quickly got used to the satisfying feeling of implied badassery that comes with talking casually about something extreme and hardcore—in this case, dropping off a Maui waterfall—without having actually done it yet.

“Lunch Wednesday? Can’t. I’ll be rappelling,” I imagined insouciantly boasting to a girlfriend. “Can you do the school drop-off tomorrow morning?” I could politely ask my husband. “I have to go rappelling.”

And now? Well, now I’m at the top of said Maui waterfall, fighting the urge to peer over its crest, leap of faith imminent.

I’d booked my trek with Rappel Maui, which launched guided “canyoneering” tours on the Valley Isle last year and remains, so far, the only outdoor activity company doing so. Rappelling, also called “abseiling” by mountain climbers, is a controlled descent down a wall or cliff. Securely attached to climbing ropes with a special harness, the abseiler feeds rope through a belaying device, walking or hopping down the rock face under the momentum provided by her own body weight. The abseiler uses the friction of the rope as it passes through the belaying device to move slower, faster or stop for a break.

Its basic, 7.5-hour tour hosted within the lush acreage of a privately owned, 26-acre botanical garden on the Hāna coast, Rappel Maui leads guests through the basics of what instructor and general manager Dave Black calls a “gravity sport,” before guiding them on a course that includes vertical drops down two waterfalls. The company also offers multiday technical canyoneering and canyon rescue courses for more experienced abseliers. Another day for me, perhaps.

I’d first considered the need to maybe psych myself up for the rappelling ahead earlier in the day as I approached an equipment shed where guide Rich Honda was fitting members of our group with mountaineering helmets and waterproof booties. That was before he handed me my climbing harness. Stepping into the loops of the industrial-strength device, which sort of resembled a large jockstrap, and pulling its belt over my hips, I instantly felt awesome again. And so I put a pin in the thought.

After a short hike through a dense thicket of strawberry-guava trees and bamboo, we emerged on a grassy ridge and our first sight of the practice course. Clipped into our safety lines, we fell silent as Black walked us through what we were about to do next. He demonstrated how to balance our weight across both feet, lean back fully and slowly pay out rope through the belay device. The practice course didn’t appear too steep, just a sloping dropoff that was half dirt, half rock. Honda kept a firm hold on our ropes from below, ready to catch us if we fell.

Continuing on, nerves kicked in as the roar of water began to fill my ears. Our first waterfall. We traversed the rocky riverbed behind the cascade and clipped into safety lines at its crest. Perched on a sun-warmed boulder, I watched as Black leaned in close to the first abseiler, intently issuing last-minute instructions and encouragement. Soon enough, she’d disappeared over and down.

Black nodded at me, indicating I was next. I stood up, suddenly numb, willing my feet toward him.

“This can’t be happening,” I thought to myself, shuffling forward.

Black guided me into position, and I stepped into the stream for the first time, feeling the strong rush of water wash over my neoprene boots. Its chilly force goaded me toward the falls.

I inched backward, feeling for the edge with my heels. Unsure where to step, this is when I take my first, quick glance over the edge, and find myself staring down a vertical, 50-foot drop. For a moment, I’m frozen, hypnotized by the chaos of whitewater plunging down and away in freefall to a clear, blue-green pool far, far below.

I look back at Black with rising fear. His eyes hold mine. His face nearly as craggy and weathered smooth as the rock faces on which he’s spent much of his life, Black is a veteran rock and ice climber from Utah. His calm, it turns out, is contagious. He leans in, verbally walking me through the first few steps that will get me over the top of the falls and onto its rock face—a ledge here, a toehold there.

“After that,” he says, “the rest is up to you.”

I nod brusquely, and force myself to take one last, deep breath before leaning my full weight against the rope and stepping back over the edge.

The rock face is slick, and I find myself pressing the flats of my feet into it to avoid slipping. The water is rushing over and around me, and right away I realize I’m going to have to navigate by feel as I can’t really see the nooks and crannies in the rock through the frothing sheet of waterfall.

“To your left!” bellows Black. I look up, and blink back the water spattering across my eyes and face, unwilling to take even my free hand off the rope to wipe it away. “Reach over to that step on your left!” says Black. I glance down and grope for it with a foot, losing my balance and catching my right shin against a rock with a painful bump.

Finding the ledge, I push to my feet, settle myself and resume my descent. I now have a rhythm. It’s a slow, shaky one, but a rhythm nonetheless. I feel my way down the rock face with my feet, cautiously finding each new toehold before letting out a few more inches of rope.

The activity is almost meditative, creeping at my own painstaking pace as the water rushes by. I’m so focused on the rock face in front of me that it takes me by surprise when I hear Honda’s voice over my shoulder.

“Great job, you’re almost there!” he assures.

Suddenly remembering to look down, I see I’m hanging just a few feet above the pool at the bottom of the cascade. Releasing myself into the water, its chill comes as a welcome shock. I take a moment to float on the surface, looking back up to where I came from.

There’s another waterfall still to come. A 30-foot cascade that is, I’m told, technically more difficult. But as I touch the bump on my shin, already turning into a tender bruise, I feel the pleasurable rush of anticipatory cockiness.

“Oh, this?” I’ll say with an easy chuckle, when I return home and someone asks about it. “Nothing serious. Just a little rappelling injury.”

Categories: Maui