When you stand at the top of Ripley Falls – at a safe distance from the edge, of course, because standing at the edge is terrifying – you can’t see the bottom.
Instead, the river of rushing water appears to drop into nothingness, disappearing magically over an end-of-the-world ledge mere feet from where you stand. You could almost believe that was the case, were it not for the immense and ever-present sound of that water tumbling down the 100-foot rock face below.
Tumbling water is loud.
And anyway, you already know where that water is going. It’s the same place you’re going, because you came here to rappel down this waterfall.
That’s right, you can rappel down a waterfall. More specifically, you can rappel down 100-foot Ripley Falls in Crawford Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, even if you’ve never rappelled down anything before.
The waterfall rappel is one of the adventurous offerings from Northeast Mountaineering, a guiding company based in Bartlett, New Hampshire, that specializes in rock climbing, cliff rappelling, hiking, mountaineering, ice climbing, and backcountry skiing.
This probably won’t shock you to hear, but waterfall rappelling is awesome and thrilling and kinda scary at first, but mostly it is the kind of adventure that leaves you feeling like a bit of a badass.
Before you take that first tentative backward step over the edge of Ripley Falls, you’ll start your morning at Northeast Mountaineering’s Bunkhouse in Bartlett getting geared up (helmet, harness, wetsuit if you want one) and learning the basics of rappelling.
They have a small wall out back where you’ll practice sitting back into the harness, controlling your rope speed, and looking behind you to where you’re stepping. (And to calm your nervous heart, you’ll also learn about autoblocks and redundant safety measures that ensure you’ll be A-OK on that waterfall.)
Then it’s a carpool to the Ripley Falls trailhead and a half-mile hike into the falls (it’s a short hike, but steep in spots). You’ll hear the waterfall before you see it. And when you see it? Wow.
There’s another short-but-steep climb up the trail leading to the top of the falls, and it’s on the top of this trail where your nerves might start to take over. Rappelling down a waterfall is no longer a thing you said you’d do. It’s happening. It’s imminent.
This reality might get you pumped up. You might also feel a little bit like you’re going to hurl. But don’t be deterred. This is an experience you will definitely not regret.
After the guides ready the ropes, you can watch some of your fellow rappellers step to the edge and lean back over the abyss. They’ll step back once and then again, jerkily at first and then more smoothly. You’ll watch their faces morph from panic to exhilaration as they go down, down, and then disappear completely.
When it’s your turn, you too will make your way to the edge, maybe even daring to look down at the wall of water cascading below. If you hesitate, it’s OK. There’s no rush here. And the Northeast Mountaineering guides are well-versed in encouraging words. Their cool confidence is assuring.
Those first few steps over the edge, when you lean back into your harness and away from what you knew to be safe ground, are the scariest. Those steps feel utterly precarious, but they’re not; remember you’ve got multiple layers of safety measures in place and experienced guides watching you the whole way.
The water that comprises Ripley Falls is fresh-from-the-mountains cold, a reality that’ll splash you out of your first-time rappelling terror. Then it’ll occur to you that you are, indeed, dangling from a rope off a rocky ledge and it’s probably the coolest dang thing you’ve done in ages.
The rappel begins at its most vertical and gradually gets less steep as you go down, amplifying your confidence. By the time you make it to the bottom, you’ll be itching to go again. And you can, up to three times.
The whole experience takes about six hours, and it all goes by so quickly.
Tours run Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from Memorial Day through September, and advanced registration is required.
No previous rappelling experience is needed – just a willingness to invite some waterfall thrill into your summer.
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.