Abseiling & Canyoning Around Australia's Empress Falls

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canyoning blue mountains

He looked at me and asked, “What are you nervous about?”
I was shivering with water rushing around me perched at the top of the waterfall as I was staring down 80 feet to the bottom where the water spray exhibited it’s sheer power. There were so many things swirling in my head that I was nervous about I didn’t even know where to start so I answered, “I don’t know,” in a frustrated tone. The truth of it was that I really didn’t know where to start, but I certainly had a long list of things that I was nervous about.

A tidal wave of thoughts rushed through my head: Is there another way down? What happens if I tell him I can’t do this? Why am I doing this? Fuck, Fuck, Fuck! Will I remember how to grip the rope? Will my hands just stop working? Will I slip? Will I throw up with anticipation?

He continued, “There’s nothing to worry about, it’s just water. It’s all the same after 3 meters, it’s all easy.”

The first time I abseiled in South Africa I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. The abseiling was part of a Quad bike adventure that I was interested in doing – and to me the abseiling was secondary. With very little instruction my guide basically put me in a harness and told me to walk down the wall. I looked at the rocky cliff ledge and immediately freaked out. I was weak in the knees, my world was spinning. This was my first onset of the fear of heights that would seem to grow worse and worse every year after. I somehow made it to the bottom with a lot of cursing and even a few tears, but I can’t say that it was a fun experience at all.

Ever since that South Africa experience I’ve been pretty terrified to abseil ever again. I’ve had to do it in small doses – but I never took on anything so big again – until now.

We met our guide, Tim, from Blue Mountain Adventure Company in the morning and immediately he had an air of easy going ‘you got this’ vibe. Just what you want in an abseiling instructor.

“Just lean back and fall on your ass like you’re falling into a bean bag – it’s easy.” Tim had a way of making everything sound easy – whether it was falling backwards in a canyon into a freezing cold pool of water to abseiling off a 80 foot waterfall. Easy. He made a point to tell us over and over again that the first 3 meters is the hard part of abseiling – that pretty much takes you over the ledge and onto the rock. Then the rest is easy – at least that’s what Tim said.

The first half of the morning we learned how to abseil: put on harnesses, get over the edge, control our speed, and how to know when we were supposed to take a step so that we didn’t end up upside down or doing a face plant into the rock. We got progressively harder and higher with each lesson that morning starting with a little 12 foot rock, then on to 20 feet, and on to 40 feet. This was all in order to prepare us to abseil the 80 foot waterfall in the canyon later that afternoon.

abseiling blue mountains

Our abseiling practice down cliffs of 20 to 40 ft.

As I prepared to go down the 3rd cliff at 40 feet I peered over the edge and felt weak in the knees. Tim looked at me and saw the concern and fear on my face and said, “Just don’t think about it.”
“I’ve been trying 45 years to not think and it doesn’t work. I can’t turn it off. I wish I could, but I can’t, “ I reply.
Suddenly Rodney, another guest on the tour, chimes in at the top of the cliff, “I don’t think at all! I never think about stuff.”
“That’s because you are a guy, “ I reply, “guys never get up in their head.”
And with that I take a big breath and lean back over the cliff preparing to go down even though I’m thinking about all the ways I could screw this up and fall to my death.

However the reality is that I’m not going to fall to my death. There are so many safety ropes and back-up plans that Tim has under control that there really is no way I can get seriously hurt. However, in the moment I never have that clarity.

After passing our beginning abseils we are ready for the real adventure after lunch, canyoning. We head to Empress Falls located in the Blue Mountain National Park. We pack up our backpacks and descend down the trail of stairs deep down into the canyon. It gets warmer and warmer as we descend and I can hear the sound of the rushing waterfall. The sound sits in the back of my brain in hibernation; I know it will awake in fear when the right time comes.

We get to the river and start the process of becoming the Stay Puff Marshmallow man putting on so much gear that I feel like I can hardly move. Wetsuit, helmet, raincoat, harness, and dry bag that doubles as a floatie. The 4 of us are all ready to take the next step – a step closer to the waterfall. Tim splashes water at us and beckons us to follow him wading into the river.

Canyoning is basically the traversing/hiking a river canyon in wetsuits; crawling, swimming, floating, and jumping our way through the various water obstacles. This was the whole reason I signed up for the tour as canyoning has been on my travel wish list for a while now.

Canyoning blue mountains australia

Wading through the water to Empress Falls

As I stood at one of the water jumps in the canyon and Tim was pointing down in the distance telling me where to land he sensed my fear as I stood on the ledge thinking about where I needed to land in the narrow canyon space. He said the magic words, “Think like a guy.”
That’s all it took – I smiled and took a leap landing in the cold pool of water below.

The canyon was so stunning, that I forgot I was in water that was freezing cold. As I waded through the water surveying my surroundings I knew it was an incredibly unique perspective that only a few brave people would ever get. It left me pondering the question – am I brave? Will I be brave enough?

As we did our last water jump and slide, I found myself staring out an opening with the water rushing out – I had reached Empress Falls. I clipped into the yellow safety rope as Tim instructed and I walked over to the edge and peered over. I watched as my friend Charlie was the first to take on the absurd waterfall abseiling challenge, taking the first few steps off backward and then swinging into a cave as Tim let our a joyous whoop! The water pounded on top of her as she tried to get her footing and eventually she slowly made it down the slippery rocks of the waterfall. I stared at her until she was just a little ant so far away.

Tim turned and looked at me and saw the terror in my eyes.
“There’s nothing to worry about, it’s just water. It’s all the same after 3 meters, it’s all easy.” he said with his now familiar reassuring smile.

How to recreate this trip:

  • Lodging: The Carrington Hotel Blue Mountains – established in 1883, this is one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Australia!
  • Canyoning: Blue Mountain Adventure company – they have a number of adventures, but their canyoning trips (from beginner to advanced) are FABULOUS. They do run some canyons year around if they don’t include much deep water. However Canyoning season (wading in waste deep water) runs from the 1st of October to the 31st of March (with perhaps a week or two longer or shorter at the start or end depending on how hot or cold the weather has been). The advanced canyons sometimes have a slightly shorter window than this as they are often extra cold!
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