How to Walk down a Waterfall (Rappelling on Maui)

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Story & Photography by Kyle Ellison

Waterfall Rappelling in Maui

Dave Black has my life in his hands, and he’s promised he won’t let me fall. I press my feet against the slippery cliff as cool water splashes my face before roaring towards the pool below. The harness around my waist feels snug, and the rope in my hands feels taut, as Dave instructs in a powerful voice while manning the rope from above.

“Stop and tuck in those boardshort strings,” he shouts. “A waterfall is a terrible place to get stuck.”

As the head guide for Rappel Maui — the only company on the island that takes you rappelling down waterfalls — Dave has a calm, professional demeanor and has assured me he “has my back.” Though Rappel Maui started in 2012, Dave’s been climbing and canyoneering since the late 1960s (“I’m almost older than rope”). He’s the author of six climbing books and is a search-and-rescue veteran, so as I precariously ease my way over the ledge, I know I’m in good hands.

Waterfall Rappelling in MauiCraning my chin back over my shoulder, I stare at the pool more than fifty feet below, and search for a place to put my right foot, which is now freely suspended in air. I let the rope slide through my right hand, keeping it close to my hip, as Dave instructed. Having grown up on Maui as a cliff-jumping youth, I’m no stranger to the hidden waterfalls that line East Maui’s windward coast, but standing here in the Garden of Eden — the lush compound on the road to Hana where Rappel Maui has access to private waterfalls — I quickly realize that rappelling and cliff jumping are really nothing alike.

For one thing, facing the waterfall means you can’t quite see your target, and the goal of the rappel is to walk down the fall, rather than simply jump. You must trust that the rope attached to your harness will, actually, hold, and that the system of anchors, carabineers — and Dave — will safely get you to the bottom. By the third and final rappel, this new adventure begins to feel natural, and I take Dave’s advice of leaning farther back before he can even say it.

At the end of the trip, our troop of seven climbers has soaking-wet hair, muddy calves, and a well-earned sense of accomplishment.

“Best activity of the trip?” asks one, stepping out of his harness. “Without a doubt,” replies another, “although I’m kinda glad it’s over.”

Rappel Maui offers two tours per day. For more information, visit rappelmaui.com or call 808-270-1500.


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