The amazing state of Arizona is known as canyon country and home to many beautiful and diverse slot canyons with sheer rock wall cliffs, deep natural pools, and breathtaking cascades and water falls. Many of these gorgeous canyons are still relatively unknown, rarely visited, and not that far off the beaten path to able to be accessed and reached in a day’s journey. In order to descend into these backcountry canyons is what “canyoneering” is all about consisting of hiking, climbing, boulder hopping, scrambling, swimming and rappelling, with rappelling being the most technical of all the canyoneering skills and also the most dangerous. Canyoneering thus becomes “technical canyoneering” when rappelling or the use of ropes are required in order to safely continue the descent and exploration of a canyon area. So if you’re looking for greater adventure and more of an outdoors challenge and the ability to further explore more of the beautiful and remote rock canyons of Arizona, then you’ll want to check out learning how to rappel where you’ll begin your venture into the exciting world of technical canyoneering!
Rappelling is defined as “a specialized climbing technique used to descend mountains or cliffs through the use of a controlled slide down a climbing rope anchored to the top of the cliff’s ledge. ” Rappelling is considered an advanced canyoneering skill requiring formal training and practice before heading out either with a guide or on your own. After having been recently introduced to the sport of canyoneering, I’ve been inspired to continue growing my canyoneering skills so that I can explore more of these remote backcountry canyons. So when a local hiking group called the Hiking Hikers Hiking Group (aka Triple H) announced that they were offering a beginners introduction to rappelling class at Coon Bluff Recreation Area on the Lower Salt River, I quickly and excitedly signed up!
Located about 17 miles northeast of Mesa, on the beautiful Lower Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, Coon Bluff Recreation Area is a scenic and popular location for camping, picnicking, fishing, and also wildlife viewing and bird watching. Along the flanks of the river and its lush riparian habitat, they say it’s very common to see bald eagles, turkey vultures, and even wild mustang horses that wander in from the desert in the early morning hours. To visit the Coon Bluff recreation area, a day use Tonto National Forest Pass must be purchased, at a cost of $6 per vehicle. You can purchase a pass before you leave either online or at your local sporting goods store, such as The Big 5 Sporting Goods.
So on a bright, clear November weekend morning, and after stopping to pick up a Tonto National Forest pass, I set out on I-17 South from North Phoenix to meet up with my good friends and fellow hikers for our 1st rappelling class and adventure. Coon Bluff, we learned, with its 92 foot sheer vertical rock wall cliff, is also a popular place for practicing rappelling skills whether you’re new and a beginner just starting out or if you’re more experienced and advanced. Being someone who has a real fear of heights I thought, oh my God, 92 feet? I felt so nervous and not even sure I’d be able to actually go through with it, at least not without a big giant push from behind!
After picking up our last friend in Gilbert, in the East Valley, we were finally ready to set out for Coon Bluff. To reach Coon Bluff from Phoenix the directions say to take route 60 east to the Power Road exit, then head north on Power Road, which turns into the Bush Highway. After about 12 miles or so on the Bush Highway you’ll first come to the Phon D. Sutton Recreation Site Road, but keep going another ½ mile, and on the left you’ll come to the Coon Bluff Recreation Area Road. We turned left and arrived at Coon Bluff at about 1:40pm, just in time for our 2pm, afternoon session Beginners Rappelling class.
We parked at the Coon Bluff Recreation Area parking lot, where we also met up with a few other class members who were just starting to arrive including our good friend and fellow TLC Hiking member, Dan Myers and his daughter. We got out, got our packs and gear together and after posing for a quick group photo, we started the short hike down the trail to the river’s edge at the base of the bluff and the 92 foot rock wall we would soon be descending down. The closer we got as we approached, the taller it looked too. From the river’s edge, while we were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the class to begin, we enjoyed watching as there were still people rappelling down from that day’s morning session class. Wow, I thought as I looked up in amazement. From the ground, looking straight up, you’d swear it looked like 200 feet!
Soon everyone had arrived and it was only a few minutes later that our event organizer and instructor, professional world mountaineer, Michael Marin, had arrived after having both rappelled down to the bottom themselves. In this introduction to rappelling class Michael expressed that we were going to learn all about rappelling technique, selecting and building anchors, tying knots, gear, terminology, what to do, what not to do, and how to get yourself out of a jam should you get yourself into one. But most importantly Michael began by stressing the importance of safety, safety and even more safety when it comes to rappelling whether you are new and learning or whether you are an experienced canyoneer or mountaineer. It’s carelessness that is the leading cause of accidents and death and is preventable by learning the essential skills properly and always using good common sense, he said.
After setting the foundation of safety first in everything you do when it comes to learning how to rappel, we were then introduced to the gear and equipment we would be needing and using for our first rappelling adventure. A list of the basic equipment you need for rappelling and which can be purchased at a local REI store are, 1) a good fitting harness, prices range from $40-$55, 2) a locking carrabiner, $10-$20, 3) a rappelling device such as a figure 8 or an ATC, $15-$30, 4) a 5ml prusik cord, for $10, and last but not least, and the most expensive piece, your climbing rope, which for technical canyoneering, and for beginners, they suggest a non-stretch, dry treated rope, ideally about 9-10ml and 60 meters or 180 feet in length, and runs in the price range of about $160, not including the rope bag you will also need for about $40. In addition, when it comes to packing the gear and venturing into wet canyons for technical canyoneering, backpacks start at about $129, and for securely storing your equipment and assessories its essential to have a dry pack to prevent water leakage and whether large or small, the prices range roughly from $10-$20.
With our harnesses and equipment safely and securely on, we were walked over to a tree behind us where Michael had ropes anchored securely and ready for us to begin learning rappelling technique and practice, while still on the ground, how the equipment works and why, as well as give us all a chance and opportunity to get comfortable with how to use the rope through the rappel device. You don’t need to “white knuckle it” he demonstrated, just guide the rope behind you with your right hand to your rear, then release pressure and resistance for greater speed or hold tighter behind you, adding more pressure and resistance for your brakes, to slow you down or to stop altogether. Once you understand how to utilize this technique, all you need to do is just lean back into your harness and trust your equipment will work for you. After everyone had gotten a chance to practice and felt comfortable enough to continue, we were given the okay to begin practicing our first real live rappel!
We followed Michael as he led us up the trail to the top of the bluff and what a beautiful view it was overlooking the entire Lower Salt River valley below. Wow absolutely gorgeous! After a few last minute tips and pointers about setting up anchors, how to set them up safely, where, and what types are best to use, both natural and man-made, we walked over the cliff’s edge where Michael introduced us to the dual ropes we were going to be using and spoke to us about the importance of redundancy when doing any type of rappelling or mountaineering especially for beginners, like us.
Now we were ready to start our first rappel. Michael asked, “okay who’s going to go first?” After a quick peak looking down over the cliff’s edge to get a photo of my friend Scuji waiting down below, I could hardly see him. That’s when my heart began racing and my palms started sweating. Wow, I thought, that was a really long ways and straight down too! I had so many butterflies and the longer I was up there, the more nervous I got. So I jumped in line quickly after my friends Carolyn and Bob and as I was starting to shake like a leaf, I walked over to the edge where Michael hooked me up to the rope and I was instructed to call down below, “on belay?”, then after hearing the call back, “belay on”, he said to call back again saying, “rappelling”. While keeping my eyes locked with Michael’s, I kept asking, “am I doing it right?” and as he repeatedly replied back, “yes, you’re doing it right, you’re doing good, keep going!”, and with his confidence and assurance, I started to slowly walk myself back off the side of the cliff, leaning back into my harness at the same time pulling the rope behind me with my right hand to keep my speed slow and my decent steady, but never once looking down, just focusing intently on what I was doing until roughly almost midway I heard a call from my friend Scuji who was yelling up at me, “Laura, look left!”. I hesitated then reluctantly looked down so he could get a picture. It was that moment that I realized I was actually doing it! Now it started feeling easier and I was even feeling comfortable enough to let loose of the rope a little and increase my speed, swinging a bit off the wall as I continued to grow closer to the ground. Wow, what an incredible and thrilling experience! Once I had made it safely to the ground, my good friend Bob was there waiting for me to help me unhook and I was again instructed to call back to the top, “off rope” to let the next person know that I was done rappelling.
After having completed my first rappel, I then waited for the rest of my friends and classmates to make it down safely. First came my friend Dan, then Scuji, as well as the rest of the remaining class members, as I continued to take as many photos as I could, capturing their first rappelling experiences for them. As the last members came down, the sun was starting to set and by 6pm, the last person had made it and the ropes were dropped signaling that class was officially over.
It was a really great day and an incredible experience and an excellent class organized by the Hiking Hikers Hiking Group (aka Triple H) and taught by our friend, professional world mountaineer, Michael Marin. A real heart pounding, palm sweating, thrilling adventure and excellent introduction to rappelling and technical canyoneering, I will never forget either! So if you’re looking for greater adventure and more of an outdoors challenge and would like to be able to explore more of the beautiful and remote back country rock canyons of Arizona, then I highly recommend learning rappelling and begin your venture into the exciting world of technical canyoneering!