The Reality of Canyoneering (and Why You Should Start)
You’ve seen the pictures: people hanging over cliff edges, dwarfed by waterfalls that stream past (or even on top) of them, wetsuit-clad adventurers swimming, neck-deep, through desert potholes filled to the brim with dark waters, and folks squeezing sideways through slot canyons with no end in sight.
It looks miles away from the hiking you do — and you want in.
Canyoneering (or canyoning, as some call it) combines the dynamic aspect of moving through a landscape with many of the technical skills required of rock climbers. However, instead of hiking or climbing up a mountain or cliff, the general trend is downward and, more specifically (as the name suggests), down canyons.
The thought of heading down instead of up (as with rock climbing and often hiking), might be music to some ears. Don’t get ahead of yourself. This sport can be just as taxing as even the most grueling 14er out there. Canyons, being that they are often in remote areas, are usually accessed by a long trek in. Then, whatever length and slope angle you go down in the canyon, you must go up to return once you’ve exited the canyon.
Additionally, canyoneers are constantly configuring their movement to the demands of the environment, which often forces them to perform technical jumps, tread water, swim, scramble, stem along canyon walls, etc.
Sound good? Ready to get started? Well, congratulations: If you’re an experienced hiker, chances are you’ve already begun.
With canyoneering, Jeremy Freeman, the owner of canyoneering site canyoncollective.com, explains that you will find both a technical and non-technical side to the sport; the latter being what you might find on a more technical trail. “Non-technical canyoneering involves mild down climbing, stemming, etc.,” says Jeremy, “but none of it is technical or exposed enough to require ropes or gear.” He points to Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, as a popular example of an area that requires non-technical canyoneering.
Technical canyoneering, on the other hand, employs a host of tools to assist its enthusiasts through the myriad puzzles canyons present. The most basic of these — outside of the expected harness, rope, and belay device — are helmets, webbing and rubber work gloves, the latter used by those traveling in red rock country. “The rock is rough and will cut up your hands,” says Jeremy of areas such as Escalante and Robbers Roost, which lie deep in red rock country and require large amounts of hand contact with canyon walls. “The rubber on the gloves also gives you a boost in friction over your [skin].”
In addition to these standards, there are specialized tools used in the sport, such as talon and cliffhanger hooks, which may be required in areas where there is no existing anchor and no way to build one. Inserted into a hole or crevice, these hooks are used to rappel from or to assist with escaping a pothole. “You have to load the hook precisely and be sure to never unweight it while on rappel,” says Jeremy. The result of doing so could cause the entire system to dislodge itself from the rock. Without protection below, as rock climbers typically have, disaster could easily ensue.
Which raises a word of caution: Even the strongest rock climbers should be wary of thinking they are prepared for canyoneering. “A climber should not just waltz into any canyon and assume they can get through unscathed,” Jeremy warns. “Canyoneering requires a different set of techniques.”
Tools aren’t the only aspects of the sport that canyoneers need to know. Deadly conditions can arise suddenly in an area, so canyoneers must be hyper-aware of things like weather and any changes to the route (such as downed trees, landslides, etc.) that can make things impossible to pass through. Since retreating once you’ve entered a canyon can be, at best, difficult to achieve, Jeremy says it is imperative to check conditions before heading out, something that he keeps tabs on for visitors to his site.
“Canyons are so dynamic,” Jeremy points out, going on to describe some common natural events that contribute to this characteristic, especially in places like southern Utah: “Flash floods can happen multiple times per season, bringing many changes with them. Sometimes a flash just happened and you’re the first group through, only to find it has washed out any natural anchors, thus requiring you to build them yourself. Log jams are a big thing; they’re often used for rappel anchors, but you go one month and it’s there, the next time, it’s not.”
With life depending on not only cayoneers being in tune with current conditions, but a deep knowledge of the sport’s tools and an ability to think through the obstacles that nature presents, it’s no wonder the sport attracts some of the most daring in the outdoor world. Along with the challenges, are unique benefits that blend the best of conventional sports with adventure sports: team work and exploration.
Jeremy ticks off a list of reasons why he throws himself into the sport. “The adventure. The camaraderie. The challenge.” He then illustrates by describing the details that make canyoneering such a perfect fit for him, “I get to go places very few people get to see. We scout [exploratory] canyons that have, as we know it, never been descended. It’s a big rush; kind of like being a Viking or explorer a thousand years ago.”
Even more excited to get into canyoneering? Make sure your first trip (or a few!) is with an experienced guide or instructor. As with any outdoor sport, never go without knowing exactly what you’re getting into!