Rappelling in the Grand Canyon

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Bob Zimmerman on rappel in the Grand Canyon

This past weekend I was completely out of touch with the rest of the world as I led a group of eight cavers hunting for new caves within the Grand Canyon. This was the fourth trip we’ve done to this part of the canyon, and on previous trips we were either mapping known caves, or scouting with binoculars the cliffs on the mesa’s walls, looking for potential openings. This trip we focused on rappelling down to the most likely candidate openings.

Overall we checked about a dozen potential caves, all of which turned out to be dead ends, mere alcoves. Oh well. Though this might sound disappointing, when you have to rappel off a cliff in the Grand Canyon, dropping out into nothing at heights ranging from 100 to 200 feet, who can complain? The image on the right, taken by Jeff Watkins, shows me (in the orange shirt) in the midst of one of these journeys. I am rappelling about 160 feet down to the top of the alluvial fill that you can see on the left that slopes down another few hundred feet to the canyon floor. In this image I am about a third of the way down, and am about to reach the spot where I will be hanging completely free of the wall.

Yowza! Though you can’t see it in this picture, behind me and opposite the cliff face the canyon extends out several miles to its opposite rim, with the Inner Gorge of the Colorado River cutting across in between. Once I reached the bottom I then rearranged my gear, using it to climb the rope back up 160 feet.

Nor was I the only one to do this. During the weekend we each got to do at least one rappel, each of which was as stunning and as breath-taking in its own right.

To say the experience was exhilarating is for sure a significant understatement. I used to do rappels this deep routinely when I was caving back east, but then the drop was underground, in the dark, with cave walls relatively nearby. Though that had a majesty of its own, doing this in the outdoors, in the Grand Canyon, is a far different thing.



  • Phill O

    Wish I was there!

  • F16 Guy

    Does one need Park approval to do this?

  • Michael Dean Miller

    Went there once, South Rim.
    Incredibly deep hole/scar ripped into the Earth and a bit chilling to see a huge river looking like a thread A MILE BELOW YOU.
    Awesome .

  • Daniel Peters

    I know it is not as exciting as rappelling down a rock face, but given how we follow so many robot explorers on BehindTheBlack, couldn’t you have checked a lot more candidate caves in the same number of days by controlling your own robotic explorer, a DJI Mavic? They are very portable & light weight – an excellent exploring companion. https://www.dji.com/mavic

  • Phill O

    Daniel: no as much fun! I can guarantee that Bob was not thinking of the political turmoil while doing this rap.

    I am interested to see the anchors.

  • F16 Guy: I have a science permit from the National Park Service. And yes, you need such a thing.

  • Daniel Peters: The National Park Service very specifically and without any question forbids drones or their ilk within the Grand Canyon.

  • Phill O: Except for one rappel, which utilized chocks, all other anchors were using the small trees on the rim, always backed up to a second tree.

  • Kirk

    Cool photo!

    > Once I reached the bottom I then rearranged my gear, using it to climb the rope back up 160 feet.

    I assume you used ascenders. Would it have been difficult to rig them while still hanging in the abseil?

    What did you use for abrasion protection where the rope lips over the canyon? Carpet squares? I’d imagine this could be difficult to arrange if there is a protrusion part-way down. Was it simple to do?

  • Kirk: To climb, I used a mostly standard frog system using ascenders. I could have very easily changed from rappel to ascent while still on rope, but it is safer to do it on the ground, and since the rope reached the ground I did it that way.

    We used rope pads to protect the rope, at the lip and on the way down as well. These were mostly strips that wrap around the rope and are held there with velcro. Carpet pads are often used, but bringing them into the canyon is a pain. We go small on these trips because of the hike.

    If you reach an abrasion point during the rappel you stop, lock off so you won’t move, and place a pad on rope. Simple to do, but somewhat nerve-racking.

  • Gary M.

    “Some people juggle geese.”

    From the sci-fi TV show Firefly.

    Construe it as the celebration of the richness of life.

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