Cascading in Maui

May 18, 2019

View canyon rating for Rappel Maui Canyon

Tickets go crazy cheap for Maui for like an hour one morning, Savannah, my wife, is one of those people who's always on top of everything so she gets tickets, and I somehow convince her to do a guided canyoneering trip with Rappel Maui. This was her first technical canyon descent, by the way, and I couldn't be prouder of how she handled herself and couldn't imagine a more beautiful setting.

I had a couple of goals for this trip. First and foremost I wanted Savannah to actually enjoy the experience and hopefully want to go again. Second, I wanted to rappel a waterfall in Maui! How cool is that?!? Lastly, I needed to know the veracity of the story of Bimbo the Heaps-veteran chihuahua. ⟵ Read that story if you haven't already. More on that right now.

We arrived at our designated meeting spot with our 2 guides, Anne and Elena, and 5 other clients and headed out on the Road to Hana.

On the way I recounted the story of Rappel Maui owner Dave Black and his shitty trip through Heaps where he performed life-saving CPR on a suffocated chihuahua. So was it real or legend? One of the guides confirmed that yes, the story is accurate. They added that if you know Dave Black and how he is then the story is completely believable. The guide also revealed the fate of poor Bimbo: a few years later he was bitten by a rattlesnake and died.

Anyways, back to the canyon at-hand. The canyon that Rappel Maui guides is in the wettest, jungliest part of the island. It's at the Garden of Eden about 1/3 of the way on the Road to Hana. Once there we met our photographer Mary and got our gear.

Gearing up

Skip the nerdy technical stuff

This is the first time I have been professionally guided through a canyon. Many of my descriptions will be me recalling what the guides did. On that note, everything they did was safe and it was clear they had done these things many many times before.

The guides had Eldrid canyon harnesses with a butt protector. The guests had rappelling harnesses with no butt protector, and one gear loop on each side. Can't remember the brand. Most things were Cypher and Eldrid.

We also had a sling for use as a safety tether. If I remember right it was 24" nylon.

The rappel device was a Kong Oka. Never used one before. It's like a Petzl Piranha for setting initial friction (as in it will probably pop off the micro horns as soon as it is unweighted). It has bigger horns for adding friction mid-rappel, though. This is not a review, by the way. I only used it on 3 rappels. If I use it for at least a year I will review it. It looked fairly new - probably has never been through Imlay or any other Colorado Plateaucanyon.

The carabiner attached to my Oka was a Cypher brand, medium size, aluminum, HMS, concave beam, keylock, screw gate, and inline hinge. The carabiner attached to my safety tether was similar but I don't remember the brand. Both of their springs were worn to the point where they didn't close very well. The guides did the screwing and unscrewing for most people so I don't think anyone else would have noticed. Despite the wear on the springs, the biners looked much newer than all of my carabiners. I trusted my life on them without hesitation.

They provided felt-soled shoes for us. These were new to me and I was excited to try them out. The felt felt like one of those green scouring pad you use to scrub dishes. It was about half and inch thick. The rest of the shoe felt like a 5 mm neoprene sock bit with a zipper on the side. The shoes worked well on the lava rock but pretty poorly in other places such as the metal/plastic edges on some of the steps. I didn't bring any stealth or Vibram rubber shoes so I don't know how they would have compared. I did bring some La Sportiva hiking shoes and they struggled one some of the smooth rocks on some of the hikes.

felt-soled canyoneering shoes

Can't remember the brand of helmets but they were standard climbing helmets with chin strap and twist-tightener in the back.

We didn't use gloves which was perfectly fine for this short canyon. They also had Imlay Leprechaun packs and kegs if we wanted to use them.

The guides had a bunch of other gear on them as well. Handled ascenders, VT Prusiks, cordage, slings, a bunch of extra biners, etc. Anne had on a full wetsuit and Elena didn't. I thought that was weird.

They laid out our harnesses with leg loops waist loops opened so it would be easy to step in and put them on without accidentally getting them twisted or on put on incorrectly. The rappel device was attached to the belay loop as was the safety tether. Once we had our shoes, helmets, and harnesses on they had us clip our safety tether to our non-rappel side gear loop. You know, the normal thing canyoneers do. The rappel device dangled the entire canyon.

Savannah posing with the shoes and the gear laid out on the ground for us
Teaching us the purpose of each piece the gear

We were all set and headed off to the canyon.

Rappel Training

The approach was a couple hundred feet long and with like 50 feet of elevation loss. We came out of the forest onto a spur with one 30 feet practice rappel into the drainage.

Canyon approach
Canyon approach

Skip the nerdy technical stuff

The anchor a trio of what looked like rebar bights set in concrete. I wasn't exactly sure but they looked way more bomber than glue-ins. The rigging was kernmantle rope attached to each anchor with a figure 8 on a bight. The master point was probably a triple figure 8 on a bight or something equally ridiculously strong. Also, the rope was entirely inside some tubular webbing. It looked weird seeing tubular webbing with a figure 8 rather than aring bend and I had to remind myself that the webbing was just a second sheath to protect the rope.

Elena had the rope in her backpack that functioned as the rope bag. The rope was Sterling Canyon Tech, 9.5 mm and Technora sheath. It was a surprise that they used it considering how bouncy it is when wet. But I don't know of any other Technora sheath rope that is thick enough to guide on.

Elena secured the rope onto the the anchor with a Munter Mule Overhand. She also attached the bag end to a carabiner via a clove hitch and then clipped the biner to the master point. I incorrectly assumed it was another backup for the MMO. She said it was in case they need to have a second rappel line (for something like a pick off) it is all ready to go.

It was here than Anne showed us all how to rappel.

She showed us holding onto the rope behind our back and compared that to a stopped car. Then she showed us slowly bringing it out away from our body (a tricep press) was like pressing the gas petal on your car.

Teaching us how to apply the brakes while on rappel

She then went through foot and leg positioning and showed what happened when you moved your feet down too far without lowering the rest of your body as well as lowering your body without moving your feet down. Lots of stuff that I no longer think about but a good reminder that rappelling still takes some practice to get right.

What happens when you let out your brake without stepping down

After the demonstration she went down and provided a bottom belay for each guest as they went down. They didn't explain what it was, didn't have us do any signalling for being on belay, and she basically just had us on belay the whole time.

As people were going down Elena and Mary would compliment everyone on their form and help build their confidence. They would also have each of us look up and smile at least once each rappel so they could take our pictures.

Savannah on her first rappel - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

Second Rappel

Once all of us were down Elena came down and pulled the rope while Ann led into the drainage and across the the next rappel just a few feet away. This was the first rappel in flowing water and into a pool.

On our way to the second and largest rappel

Looking around, I must have seen 20 different bolts. I figured there were some for when it was raining, some for when the water was too high, and some for a second or third or fourth group if needed.

Top of the second rappel - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

For this rappel, Anne was standing in the pool the entire time providing the bottom belay. I recall wondering why she was wearing a wetsuit but Elena wasn't. Now I knew. Elena was again up top but this time she has a strand of Sterling C-IV going to the edge. She attached herself to it with the VT Prusik and some friction hitch. I at first assumed it was a Valdotain Tresse but it might have been an autoblock. Doesn't matter. She would walk the guest out to the edge and talk them through the additional challenges they would encounter at this rappel.

I watched Savannah go down first. I couldn't hear what Elena was saying to her at the edge, but they were there for a while talking and eventually she made her way down and out of sight. It was then my turn and I went over the edge.

Savannah on the second rappel - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

The water was surprisingly warm. Well not warm, but not cold enough to think I would need a wetsuit. This was a very easy class C rappel. Flowing water enough to block my view of the rock so I couldn't see where I was stepping very well. But that was the only noticeable difference.

Landing in the pool, I went to pull the rope through my rappel device. Anne told me that she needed extra rope to provide the belay and not to just unclip it. Savannah was waiting for me to come down and greeted me with a big smile. She told me it had been scary for her and she went down really slowly but was able to finish it without any difficulties. We swam over to the edge of the pool with the rest of the group.

Elena and Mary rigged a line from a different set of bolts to bypass the pool - Mary had lots of expensive equipment that needed to stay dry. Interesting. Something I would never have considered doing unless I had been guiding for a long time.

They then explained that we would be doing some boulder hopping and to be careful because this is where everyone got injured. Stuff like that makes me smile because it's true. The vast majority of injuries happen when we let our guard down. Turns out we only had a few feet of boulder hopping over to some stairs that parallelled the drainage and put us right near the third and final rappel.

Final Rappel

Final rappel - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

I reminded Savannah that this rappel had nothing "new" - it was shorter than the second rappel and just as much water flow - so there was nothing to be nervous about. Again she got rigged and disappeared over the edge - this time much faster and more confidently, though.

Savannah on the final rappel - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

When it was my turn Elena handed me a bight of rope. I was facing down canyon and rigged backwards. Newbie mistake. I quickly rerigged and back up over the edge. All of these rappels had super solid edges. Lava rock is so different from sandstone and made me feel like a first-time canyoneer navigating the rappel. I kept expecting the rocks to crumble or chip as I weighted them but they never did.

At the bottom of this rappel was a small ledge and we could optionally jump in. Anne said it was a 30 foot pool and it would have been a 3 foot jump. I'm not really a jumper unless I have to so I down climbed and slipped into the pool.


Swim to the exit trail - Photo by Mary at Rappel Maui

After all the guests were down Elena and Mary bypassed the final rappel and made their way back to the start. The rest of us stayed at the bottom for a bit and then followed. They said it was 200 feet of elevation gain to get back up to the top. That felt about right. Almost enough to start breathing heavy and then we were back.

We took off all our wet gear and put it in tubs of water to soak - maybe disinfect the stuff? Kill the quagga mussels? Not sure. We then dried off, changed clothes, and had a delicious lunch. Turkey wrap, Maui gold pineapple, and cookies.

We wandered around the area for a few minutes while the guides cleaned up and the drove back the way we came. Lots of "firsts" on this trip:


  • First time canyoneering outside of Utah
  • First time to be professionally guided through a canyon
  • First time canyoneering with my wife
  • First time using a Kong Oka
  • First time to wear a life jacket in a canyon

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Update 6/19/2019

I learned that shortly after our trip Rappel Maui replaced much of the gear we had used. The Oka rappel devices have been replaced with Edelrid Hannibals. The screw gate carabiners have been replaced with auto lockers. The slings used as safety tethers have been replaced with what looks like dynamic rope.

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