What is canyoneering you may ask. This is a bit more complicated to explain than it may seem. Canyoneering is an adventure sport that is still relatively young and not yet as well known as rock climbing or mountaineering. It does require a variety of technical skills and equipment if you want to avoid becoming a Darwin award winner by removing yourself from the gene pool. Not all canyoneering is technical. If you have hiked the Grand Canyon then, by definition, you have been canyoneering. Technical canyoneering on the other hand involves much more than the ability to carry a pack over uneven terrain. Because all canyons are different and extremely dynamic in nature, you need to be prepared for whatever obstacles you may find there. This could be large waterfalls or cliffs which will need you to rappel in order to get past. Deep pools of slow moving or swift running water that will need to be crossed and special rope techniques to do so safely. Low grade climbs – up or down (often called scrambling) – that can expose you to serious falls. Maybe even a close encounter with wildlife that may be trapped in the canyon and somehow has decided that going through you is the best way out.
Canyons can represent the only source of water for many miles in any direction. Thus wildlife will often locate themselves near these premium locations. I have found everything from Gila monsters to Elk in canyons – most times to our mutual surprise. I have hiked into a canyon I had never traveled before, decided I needed more gear and on the way found the tracks of a Mountain Lion over the top of mine where it had followed me for several hundred yards before leaving the trail and undoubtedly watched my travels in his home turf, possibly contemplating whether or not I might taste like chicken (I rather hope not).
What did I mean “Canyons are dynamic in nature”? Canyons represent the lowest route in a watershed so all of the water from a given area will find its way into a canyon. This funnelling effect causes a huge volume of water to rip through a comparatively small and often narrow area amplifying its effect on the surrounding environment. Canyons can change RADICALLY from a single flash flood and many canyons flash several times per year. These changes can be as minor such as clearing sediment deposits or major like hammering fixed anchors flat or removing them all together. I travel through the Salome Jug several times per year and the anchors at the first rappel station have been hammered flat by debris carried in flash floods so many times I no longer trust them entirely. This is one reason why canyon guidebooks can be so dangerous. Obstacles, anchors, or escape routes that may have been there when the book was written may or may not be there a short time later. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for responsibly written guidebooks and most will have this very disclaimer in the front. Just understand that these resources are good for a general overview and that’s all. One of the many challenges of canyoneering is being prepared for the unexpected.
Water in canyons is often protected from the warmth of the sun and can be cold even in the summer time so thermal protection needs to be considered in wet canyons. Extra layers are a good idea if your trip runs longer than you expected – possibly even a wetsuit if you spend extended time in the water. Your equipment will likely include webbing and rappel rings for building anchors, rope (hopefully a LOT of rope), a backpack, helmet to protect your most valuable tool, a harness to cover your ass (literally and metaphorically), various carabiners, a rappel device, ascenders and related gear, sticky shoes that drain well, a headlamp, as well as various layers and types of clothing. Add in a bit of food (Del Teco quesadillas keep well in your pack as long as they stay dry) and water and you have the basics. Sounds expensive, huh? Like any other sport it depends upon how involved you want to get. So why – what is the draw? What makes canyoneering so different from anything else you can do to pass the time?
I don’t know about the reasons others do it but for me it is the spirt of exploration and personal challenge. I love the idea of going into a canyon and really not knowing what to expect. I love the rush of rappelling over a roaring 200′ waterfall and swimming accross a clear pool of cool churning water, then trekking off into a rich riparian zone eager to seek the next challenges that lie ahead. When I step out over the edge of a 200 foot rappel with the sound ofwater rushing past me and crashing onto the rocks below, I can guarantee you I am NOT thinking about my wife being upset that I didn’t wash the dog this weekend.
Canyoneering is a high commitment sport. In many canyons, once you go over the first rappel and pull the rope, your in ’til the end. You never know exactly what you may find or what may have changed. In a recent canyon, we had travelled past three rappels and found to our horror that a colony of bees had taken up residence 20 feet directly above a mandatory rappel in a very narrow part of the canyon. There was no going back. We had to think our way around this obstacle very carefully as the stakes were pretty high. I found myself thinking how the odds were better that I would win the lottery before I would die from being stung to death by bees. I bought a ticket on the way home from the canyon. Fortunately these bees weren’t of the aggressive variety – or we did a good job of not provoking them. That little nugget was not in the guidebook…
It’s best to be prepeared for anything. I know a rock climber that climbed himself into a wasp nest and suffered several stings before finally getting belayed back to the ground to make a hasty escape. I know a canyoneer that had rough encounter with fire ants before we even left the parking area (ants in the pants – literally). The point is there is risk in everything. You take a risk every time you get behind the wheel of your car or ride your bike to the store. If you’re willing to take the bigger risks you can enjoy some of the bigger rewards in the form of confidence and personal victory. Some risks are part of everyday life. Some challenge you to explore your limits and see how far you’re willing to go and find out what you’re made of. In the words of Jackie Robinson “Life is not a spectator sport”.
A key part of this great sport is knowing how to do it. I highly recommend traing from a reputable school so you don’t end up as a statistic. Safe practices will give you confidence to think your way out of a potentially sticky situation and diverse skill sets will bring you home to tell the cool stories. Each skill set represents another tool in your toolbox that can be adapted and molded to fit a particular situation. Anchor building alone is a full day of class that covers concepts and ideas but rarely does mother nature bend herself to planting the ideal tree in the ideal location. These concepts require you to know how to adapt them to whatever situation you find yourself in. There are several schools that provide excellent training, Alpine Training Sevices and The ACA are two canyoneering schools in know of that teach in the southwest. I know competent canyoneers from both schools and I am comfortable running canyons with any of them.
Some thoughts on political correctness…
If you are out and find yourself in a situation where someone builds an anchor that you are not comfortable with, don’t hesitate to rebuild it to your satisfaction. You don’t need to be rude. I have used the excuse that I need the practice my anchor building skills so as not to offend those I am with. In the end, it is your life on the line so if there is no other way than to run the risk of hurting feelings, then hurt feelings. Feelings will mend but a fatal fall to spare someones ego is rediculous. Any technically challenging sport where your life depends on performing a skill you will trust your life to is no place for political correctness. Most serious accidents are built on a series of mistakes – any of which could be changed and thus stop the tragedies before they happen. Accident reports are often littered with mistake after mistake piled upon one another – one bad decision made that leads to another and another… You see words like “hypothermia” and “fatigue” combined with phrases like “took longer than expected” or “we thought we’d be done before dark so we didn’t bring our…” -or maybe- “… seemed like he knew what he was doing so we just used his anchor even though it looked a little questionable”. I will hurt your feelings and make you cry if you try to insist on me using an anchor or rope system that I think is sub-standard. You are welcome to do the same should the situation be reversed. You are responsible for your own safety and if you are the most experienced member of the group, you are responsible for many other people’s safety as well. Also remember the anchor you build may be used by others that follow you – maybe days or weeks later. Every canyoneer is responsible for themselves but you would likely feel guilty if you left an anchor that worked for you because you knew the proper way to load it but found that the next person was injured – or worse – when they tried to use this anchor some time later. The sport is still young – be a good ambassador and all will benefit.
Well there’s my rant. I’ll add and edit this as I have thoughts that seem relevent. Be safe and enjoy your life.