Going Over
Carpenter's Falls

Dateline: 28 March 2017

My recent post about Un-Bungee cords, and some discussion of knots, brought to my mind one of the more daring things I've ever done in my life (probably second to my whitewater canoe trip down the Lamoille River in Vermont, which nearly killed me). I'm not much into risk taking but I always had a hankering to do some rappelling, and my opportunity came in the early 1980s.

I was working for Clancy Edmonds, a local contractor, doing carpentry and remodeling. Clancy hired a guy named Dan to help one summer. Dan lived in a nearby city and was a machinist by trade, but had been laid off from his factory job. Dan turned out to be a hard worker and a great guy.

One of the things I recall about Dan was that he rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle to work, and he owned (and often carried) a .357 magnum hand gun. In fact, the first handgun I ever shot was Dan's. And it was Dan who encouraged me to get a handgun permit. He told me that getting a permit in our county was so easy, but someday it would not be so easy. Well, I did get the permit, at Dan's urging, and he was absolutely correct... getting a handgun permit these days is nowhere as easy as it was when I got mine (Marlene got her permit at the same time). But I digress.

Dan had a buddy named Chip. The two of them had been best friends since they were kids growing up in a public housing project in the city. Chip was into rock climbing. I told Dan that I always had an interest in rock climbing and rappelling. Dan said that he could get Chip to teach us.

Somehow, the idea of rappelling over Carpenter Falls came up as a good idea. Carpenter Falls is in Niles, New York. That's where my family moved when I was in 9th grade. Carpenter Falls was only a little way from my house. I didn't know it was there until one day, shortly after moving, while I was exploring down the creek across the road and... Wow, there it was!

It was just me and the falls. No tourists. No hikers. Just me and that beautiful place. I didn't have experiences like that in the suburban housing project we moved away from.

So, Dan got Chip to show us how to rappel over Carpenter Falls. We met there on a Saturday, and another friend of Dan's named Tim showed up too. These days Carpenter Falls is a land trust nature preserve named after Hu Bahar. I actually met Hu (Hushang) Bahar and his wife, Dawn, once. They attended a small church group that Marlene and I went to for awhile. Hu was the first president of Tompkins Cortland Community College. He was an accomplished man, and a genuinely nice guy. But, I digress (again)...

We didn't ask anyone's permission to go rappelling off of Carpenter Falls on that day. We just did it. 

The falls was a popular party place on weekends back then. More than a few people fell off over the years. Some lived... barely. Some died. I've heard one person fell directly into the pool at the bottom and was completely unharmed. It's a 90 foot drop.

Chip had a couple long lengths of climbing rope, and a couple harnesses, and some carabiners. He wore a t-shirt that said in big letters: Question Authority

Chip was pretty relaxed and gave us an assuring pep talk. He showed us how to tie a figure-eight knot. He told us how important it was to learn the figure-eight knot. I distinctly recall Chip saying that every rock climber has to know how to tie a figure-eight knot behind his back while drunk. I never reached that degree of proficiency (I've never been drunk).

After the little lesson, Chip tied the two ropes to a small tree back about ten feet from the top edge of the falls. I questioned whether the tree was big enough to trust. Chip wasn't concerned. If you look at the picture at the top, you can see the tree. It's on the right side. That's where we went over the edge.

Chip went first. He stood on the edge, with his back to the drop-off, and leaned backwards. Then he started backing down. I was harnessed up and standing next to him, holding tight to my rope. I watched what Chip did and followed. Marlene, and my boss and his wife were at the bottom of the falls. Somewhere I have a couple pictures that Marlene took.

In an ideal rappelling situation, you have something solid to kick off from and let out some rope. You do that repeatedly, all the way down. But at Carpenter Falls, after you get down a few feet, there's nothing to kick off from. It's just a drop. So I let out a little rope, dropped a few feet, and repeated. 

Chip got to the bottom way ahead of me and watched. Everything was going good. I was about halfway down. I was comfortable with the procedure. I let out some rope, thinking I would drop a good distance more, but I went a short ways and came to an unexpected stop.

Unbeknownst to me, the lower part of my t-shirt had fed up into the mechanism and jammed. I tried to lift myself and extract the t-shirt, but I couldn't do it. I was stuck. Chip told me to hang on. 

He hiked back to the top of the falls and dropped down beside me. We locked legs and he used a jackknife to cut my t-shirt out. With the problem solved, I finished my descent. It was a thrill. 

I stayed at the bottom and watched Dan and Tim go over the edge and to the bottom. They were thrilled too. 

I went over one more time, without incident. And that was all the rappelling I ever did.


The first part of this next video gives you an idea what the falls are like at the top, and over the edge (makes me a little uneasy just watching)...


  1. The moment you mentioned that Chip was wearing a t-shirt, I flashed back to the early ‘80s. And then as I continued reading, I saw the exact thing replayed.

    I went to a small state university where students could get credit for mandatory PE classes by taking freshman ROTC courses instead. It was very popular, with instruction in orienteering, whitewater canoe trips, even overnight exercises in Escape & Evasion (including a helicopter ride).

    The most popular activity was rapelling, held at a quarry site with a 72’ sheer face. I saw the exact same scenario played out there, where a more experienced student rapelled down parallel to one whose t-shirt was stuck through the carabiner. He tied himself off, told the stuck student to keep holding his brake hand firmly, and quickly cut through the shirt. They slow-walked down together just in case there were more problems.

    By the time I was a sophomore (I went through all four years and was commissioned as a non-scholarship student), I was one of the show-offs going “Superman”: face first, taking one huge bound down the cliff and braking at the last possible moment.

    Both for funsies, and as an instructional moment for the newbies, we often had the belay man run backwards and lock up someone mid-rappell. That taught everyone involved that they could trust their belay partner, because if he pulled the line taught, you weren’t going anywhere.

    1. What a great experience! Thanks for the comment.

  2. Well written Herrick. I have a rather unfortunate fear of the sorts of heights and situations like you describe, and my hands started sweating just reading your description.