Cliffhanger: Pastor Masters The Mountains

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Keith Watson encourages the young people in his church to take a flying leap -- in a manner of speaking, and only if he is certain they know what they're doing.

"It's something we like to do with them," Watson said. "It's something they find exciting."

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Jeremiah Watson, 18, a senior at Payson HIgh School, is an old hand at rappelling. His father, Keith Watson, taught him the skill when he was only 8.

Watson, the pastor at the Payson Church of Christ, and his family, enjoy rappelling. It's a hobby that might also be known as jumping backward off a cliff.

"Coming down on ropes is a lot safer than climbing up," said Lora, Watson's wife.

The minister has been rappelling since the late 1970s. He has been teaching the sport from the time he was just out of high school, working with his best friend, Craig Heard.

Watson even taught his son, Jeremiah, how to rappel when the boy was only 8, he is now 18 and a senior at Payson High School. More recently, the first weekend in November, he and Jeremiah taught Samantha Clutter and Lee Chance. Clutter, the Watsons' niece, is a freshman at PHS, and Chance is their son-in-law.

"We're very safety conscious," Watson said, "We want people to learn to do it correctly. Samantha was frightened, but she conquered that fear and it was something that really boosted her self-esteem."

Still, rappelling is not for everyone, even people in the Watson family. They have had relatives who have said it is not something they enjoy and another family member became so frightened on the ropes he froze up and had to be taken down the cliff face by Jeremiah.

Lora said Jeremiah is skilled enough to do rescue rappelling.

"My son went from someone I taught at 8 to someone I now trust to make sure everyone else is safe," Watson said.

When the family is teaching others to rappel, Jeremiah works on top of the cliff, making sure everyone is secure in their gear while Watson descends to the bottom to be the belay man.

"When someone starts their descent they call out ‘on rappel,'" Watson explained, "The person at the bottom calls back ‘on belay' -- they are there to work the rope to break a fall or help the person doing the rappel regain control."

The belay man tightens a rope slightly to bring control back to the descent. Tightening the rope more firmly will bring it to a full stop.

He said he is willing to talk about rappelling, but so far as teaching any general classes, Watson and his wife have concerns about liability. They also have a limited amount of equipment. However, with his history teaching the sport, he is quick to outline how a class would work.

"It would involve about two hours of class time where we would look at the gear and talk about what it does and the proper way to use it," Watson said. "Then we would go into the field and apply what we've learned."

The Watsons came to Payson from Colorado in June 2002. They built a home in East Verde Park Estates, moving in this June.

"We loved the cliffs and woods in general," said Lora. But since coming to the Payson area, the family has only had the opportunity to go rappelling four or five times.

"I'm always looking for good cliffs," Watson said. But the family only recently began a serious search for challenging cliffs. Until now, the rappelling has been from cliff faces in the East Verde and Flowing Springs areas.

"And we were waiting for cooler weather," Lora said, "It's too hot in the summer."

The Watson family did its rappelling in Colorado at the Colorado National Monument, just outside of Grand Junction.

"It was 350-feet," Watson said and added of all the places he has rappelled, it is still his favorite.

He said it would be nice to have a rappelling club, but he has not given any thought to starting one.

"I don't know what kind of interest there is," Watson said.

His advice to people interested in the sport is to talk to someone who knows what they're doing, learn from them, then invest in good equipment.

"It's as safe as you make it," Watson said. "The majority of accidents are not from equipment failure, they are from human error."

Watson has more than 20 years of experience rappelling, but it is still exciting, in fact, he admits to even being a bit of a daredevil with it from time to time.

"I have fun doing it and I'd be willing to help people learn about it," Watson said.

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