One does not simply “go canyoneering”.. or do they..
..So how do I get into canyoneering?
Entering a new sport is difficult. Entering a new sport where the basis of information sharing is typically by word of mouth is even more difficult. Entering a new sport where the necessary skills are typically acquired while engaging in said sport makes this seem rather impossible.
So, you ask, CAN it be done? Where IS it done? WHO should I hang out with? WHAT information should I know to start out? Let’s break it down..
1. Skills. There’s something to be said for having a base knowledge to help ensure you are not a liability.
2. Community. Where you meet people can decide many factors of your overall canyoneering experience.
3. Resources. Learning through experience is great. Yet sometimes opportunities don’t present themselves, so how can you stay freaky fresh?
4. Ethics. There exist some basic principles to help you help yourself.
In rock climbing, you can take a course at a local gym. It can be quite evident the need to continue to practice in the gym prior to applying your newly acquired knots and techniques outside.. and why not happen to be around a wealth of knowledge every time you practice? Canyoneering does not have this luxury. And there are approximately 395792 ways to do a canyon task, so observing other groups is not the best use of your mental storage. Please be responsible for yourself. Please stay humble. And please ask questions.
Courses: As it’s difficult to find canyoneering gear reviews, updated canyon beta, and resources to all aspects of safety (do you know what how bolts work, for instance?), this is easily the best bang for your buck. For your highest likelihood of success, consider having the below: .
- A plan. Where are you going to apply the skills? Find a canyon you’d love to be able to descend safely. Learning skills for learnings sake eliminates the mental exercise of imagining the use of the skills in an actual canyon environment. .
- Outdoor skills. Understanding Leave No Trace practices and environmental ethics in the area you’re looking to go canyoneering.
- Outdoor limits. Along with the above, putting yourself into an environment of so many unknowns can make you a liability. How long can you handle heat? Cold water? Technical rope skills? Carrying heavy stuff? Perfect practice makes perfect. So know before you go.
- Friends. Or foes. Persons with whom you are conformable adventuring responsibly together. Some basic aspects of a great team include humility, logic, risk management, endurance, and social grace. Social grace? Huh? Trust me. It matters. Especially when the goin’ gets tough.
There are many companies in canyoneering hotspots that also offer courses. I’m partial given my connections, but I also like to think I have empirical reasons beyond personal connections. Companies change, staff learn and leave, and it’s all conditions dependent. If you’re in the Zion National Park area, I’d recommend Zion Adventure Company, around Moab, Cliffs and Canyons. Typically a googley search will help you out with the rest.
Meet les peoples! Facebooks, instabrag, festi-fools, for-ums, oh my! Let’s see if I can provide the beta as concise as possible:
Facebook groups that exist:
- Canyoneering Chicks,
- Canyoneering Utah (gear forums, reviews, trip reports, etc.),
- Utah Canyoneers (for beta, conditions, rendezvous, trips reports, etc.), .
- ACA (American Canyoneering Association)
- Canyon Collective, a very tight-knit and discerning group of folks and their opinions on everything you could possible conceive imaginable that relates either directly or indirectly to canyoneering. It’s a forum. You’ve been warned ;)
Other Social Media:
In an effort not to rant.. There are Instagram meet ups that exist for canyoneers big and small. Sometimes it’s for the photos. Or the likes. Or to learn. As stated earlier, consider your options, needs, desires, and helpfulness in sharing your experiences in this way.
*Groups change, recommendations are fluid, and it might take a minute and a half to get a feel for where you fit. Expect some growing pains, but we’ve all been there, so find those who understand that concept as well. Oh, and have a blast. There’s more to life than drama, and canyoneering is one of the more special not-sports that exists.
In order to enhance and keep up with your knowledge and skills base, there are some forum threads and websites that lay out some wonderful techniques and reasons that may help.
- Gear and Tech Tips discussion on Canyon Collective.
- Canyoneering USA. I cannot emphasize this site enough. Tom has put in half a lifetime of knowledge into easily digestible articles, reports, rants, images, and videos for those like you. Under “Resources,” you can find guides to knots, new gear, and links to guide services.
- When in doubt? Ask a guide, phone an expert, email a guru. There’s no harm in asking, and there’s potentially more harm in not knowing.
This can be a rather abstract concept, as it doesn’t exist in many other outdoor sports to the same extent (except perhaps caving.. the other secret sport..). Why does it matter if many others descend a canyon I just found? Why shouldn’t I geotag it? Why shouldn’t I even post it somewhere?
Here’s the skinny: Canyons exist as their own environment. They house birds such as the canyon wren or the endangered Mexican spotted owl. Given their geometry, they provide shade and access to water for native plants and especially certain mosses. Also, given the amount of snakes and squirrels I’ve seen, canyons are also a cool respite for creatures. FROGS? I’ve never seen so many frogs. And I’m from the Midwest. Now humans come along, like they do, and drill holes, stomp through, take photos, tell their buddies. Traffic alone not only stamps out plant life (which already has it quite hard in the desert), it can increase erosion by allowing water to flow faster through a space, which can also create a less habitable place, and thus plants are less likely to repopulate. Get my drift? It’s not like climbing. It’s not like hiking. It’s more like mountaineering.. only more tropical.. and perhaps less elevation gain.. unless you’re in Death Valley..
Take a breath. Relish the fact that we can be in a city one day, and transport ourselves to a location where few have gone and seen! CraZay! Within canyoneering, one should understand the concept of access, respect, and sharing.
- Access: It is your responsibility to research ownership of canyoneering locations. Do you need a permit? A pass? A rancher’s ok? An application to do all of the above? For instance, Navajo Land requires you to submit a permit application. For the Grand Canyon, you have to send in your itinerary a while in advance. Zion permits can sell out within hours, and permits open three months in advance.
- Respect: The above hints at it, and can also fall under this category, but to flesh it out even more.. Respect simply refers to the understanding behind minimal impact. Some concepts to consider: how canyoneering effects the natural environment & how canyoneering can effect each other. We slings trees, hang on ropes, drill holes, park on brush, make noise, yada yada. What trumps caring about these concepts as they happen is anticipating them beforehand. Some tips: bring a knife to cut out old webbing, give other parties 1-2 rappel’s worth of space, ask the locals, do research, and enjoy!! Canyoneering USA has wonderful articles regarding minimum impact.
- Sharing: is caring, right? Maybe. Sometimes not. Regarding social media, geo-tagging (revealing the location that a photo was taken) can be a threat to natural spaces, as outlines by many sources, including the NYTimes. Think about it. It’s difficult to ensure that others will respect a place. So why risk it. Think. Think again. Self-aggrandizement is not worth nature’s needs. Sounds apocalyptic? Seems harsh? Wow Rachel, why so protective? I’ve seen multiple canyons close due to “over-use,” or “too many rescues.” Well.. I’ve seen large amount of bolts placed in and around a single canyon simply for the sake of rescues. Rescues!! Goodness. I’ve come across more trash than would fit in my backpack. So yes, I’m a little protective, but it’s not for my personal enjoyment, for preservation & conservation. Will you help me?
Phew! You survived! Congrats!! I truly hope this was informative and helpful in your quest to get into the sport. Drop me a line if you think I’ve missed something, and see you in the canyons!
I try to live my life such that this event isn’t necessarily the dumbest thing I do each year.
I succeeded, but it didn’t detract from my anxiety over the 4 days of spending sub-freezing weather in the weather itself.. and maybe even in freezing water. Are your fingers tingling yet?
My preparation for FreezeFest this year included carbing up at the ‘rents for the holiyays, trying to remember the canyons I imagined doing, and packing every possible warm layer in my closet. Cass and I show up to a glowing fire, dimming sun, and many warm faces ready to greet some more idiots. There was talk of doing all the Hogs (including miss piggy, which I’ll call Hog 4) in a day. Welp, that would leave me beta-less but ready to put in a long day.. or.. as much time as the sun allows these winter months..
.. and BOOM! Off hiking at the bright and early time of 9AM with a team of 5 exceptional canyoneers. We slid down Hog 4, ran up and around to 3, escaping before the rappel, punting over to 2, running up to 1, then alllll the way down the wash.
I was worried that doing 4 canyons in a row would limit and smoosh my memory, so many photos were had.. Impressions are: Hog 4 has 2 longer raps, (there is another at the beginning that we downclimbed..) and many open walkways. It warmed us up nicely for the razorrrrback! Aptly named. Gear was trashed. Sweat was left. What a ‘shocker’ of a canyon-one minute you’re strolling and the next you’re 20ft off the deck.. and then you’re squished.. rinse and repeat.
Hog 2 was the real gem though: swirly elevators and beautiful corridors, and just enough stemming to make you feel like you deserved the previous two. Similar to Hog 1 based on photos, though I hardly remember it (surprise..)
Day 2: “Do you see what I see?” Cassy shuffled in her sleeping bag. “Yes.” I had been wondering why the night seemed a bit warmer.. til I saw the layer of white frosting on my truck’s windows. “You think we’re still doing a canyon today?” “Uhhhh, I dunno.” We popped open the truck and saw not a soul in sight..
turns out they were all hanging out in Jenny’s car. “I think I want to check the exit.” Ram said, “And maybe the entrance.. we’ve never had to do that before.” FreezeFest number 17 still had surprises in store. We all drove to the exit for the Black Hole, to find it also had a fine coating. Hike, slide, hike again, downclimb, slide, stand, set rope, hike, army crawl.. so the morning was spent.
Phew. Cass and I then made a plan for running thru middle Leprechaun. I scoffed when Tom told us we’d work up a sweat. I couldn’t expose any of my skin in this weather without getting freezer burn. The wind picked up so it felt like it was in fact snowing again, and the canyon was beautiful with the white goodness on the orange goodness. Also, turns out Tom knew what he was talking about.. because I sweat.. a lot. I felt like I had been through one of those hand-make-pasta machines.. RIP harness leg loops, you will be missed.
Day 3: I went to bed nervous. I woke up nervous. I got dressed nervous. This was the main event, and I didn’t want to miss it, but a little part (or perhaps LARGE part) of my brain was telling me this might actually be the dumbest thing you’ll do all year.. and you’re starting the year like this.. I squeeze into my drysuit, could barely feel my toes as I squished them into neoprene, and had a difficult time actually buckling my backpack. Ugh. I’m doing this for fun. I’m doing this for fun. Turns out, 18 other idiots also thought this was a good idea.. what’s with people nowadays?! Ram calls FreezeFest ‘the bad idea that caught on,’ I call it ‘the crazy contagious.’ We smiled for the photo (for evidence of course), and sashayed down over the Earth’s white covers and found our way to the drainage at the early-bird start of 10:30am. Huh. Pretty dry. Huh. Lotsa sand. Huh. The suite-up spot was a bit father down-canyon than last year’s FreezeFest.. might be a good thing? The sand seemed fairly high as well. So low water plus high sand equals easy right?? Well, don’t think too hard, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in the first place. Just focus on the.. ICE! Ice to crack! Ice to crawl on! Ice to throw! Just keep moving! Running between pools, smashing ice on the side, egg-beating my legs through the murky depths, it was turning out quite pleasant. I didn’t take my camera for many reasons, the main one being survival. Also, the Black Hole is the one canyon that (most) everyone does, and with all the splitting-up and separate adventures that occur throughout the weekend, it can be difficult to meet or catch-up. Also, this is the last day of vacation. So you better enjoy it. Relish it, even.
Thank goodness we set ropes. Thank goodness I made it out of there with all limbs attached. Thank goodness everyone else did as well. Wow what a trip. Thank you again, Native American soil, North Wash, Hanksville, and all you canyons. Til next year!
Death Valley. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s red. It’s brown. It’s fantastic.
Some Research: The colloquial name was created from those who had not lived there for generations. So what about those who have intimate knowledge of the landscape? There are two names associated with that of Death Valley that I’ve read about, from original inhibitors of the landscape, the Timbisha Shoshone. One is ”tümpisa,” (“Red Rock Face Paint,” referring to the red ochre paint that can be made from a type of clay found in the valley) and ”Tüpippüh,” which encompasses the valley floor, playas, dunes, springs, meadows and mountains - every landform and ecology within the borders of today’s national park and the surrounding region. The current tribe resides in Furnace Creek and outside the National Park.
The reds, browns, sun, and heat are all great reasons to go canyoneering in the winter. But December? Too winter perhaps??
[Canyoneering is inherently dangerous, nothing written here is by any means to be used as technical advice or a visual representation for technical advice. Adventure safely, folks.]
50F.. 40F.. 38F.. 36F.. I watched the temperature’s inverse relationship with the altitude as we crossed onto dirt roads. The half-moon shut out most of the star gazing out the car window as I tried to drown-out the clunks coming from the back of cassy’s car. Midnight rolls around, and we’re rolling through chunky limestone and spotty snow in a suburu with street tires. Who would deliberately venture off to a place named Death Valley..
But wouldn’t cha know! 10 people thought the same thing! 4 cars made it all the way to the dead end that would mark our camp spot for the night. Brief greetings, shivering hugs, and a few sibs of spirits and we were off to bed.. only to wake up in 5 hours. What do you call 2000ft of elevation gain on 2 hours of sleep? Canyoneering. Every.. Flippin.. Time..
The canyon we were aiming for had been done a single time, and was reported to be rather special: 4.5/5 stars in scott swaney’s rating system, within which only 3 and 4 star canyons exist. That lucky half star. “VERY WORTHY ONE.” Scott wrote in on the beta site. Welp. Bring it on..
What’s different about the canyons in this region versus the Colorado Plateau seems to be the rather too visible and abrasive elevation change early on.. On the Colorado Plateau, typically you park, walk down a mesa/drainage/trail/cliff and deal with the uphill later. Here though, watching the literal mountain of scrambling and all-fours hiking get closer very quickly on the approach has one double-check their hours of training at the door *ahem.*
Continual ridge walking, scree descents, and snow crunching had us to the canyon head by mid morning, and the ropes come out! Boom! Nuisance rap followed by the big’un off a tiny knot chock that we replaced with.. a slightly larger knot chock.. Death Valley canyoneering folks. Bounce-test with caution.
The limestone in these canyons blew the blue hues outta the water in my camera! Gorgeous silvers and turquoise rock with quartzite and feldspar intrusions oh my!
To Photograph This: I own a Sony mirrorless camera and brought only my 28mm f/2 glass. Only one lens?!?! Last year me would be freaking out. Yes. One. Lens. Why? I find it helps me get better at one aspect at a time. Adventure images don’t need to be created from what you wish the image to be, but rather, how you capture the action in front of you! So confining my view to a single perspective helps me gain respect and practice (and there always remains a slightly high likelihood of not having your desired glass with you when you want it so.. perfect practice makes perfect?). Automatic White Balance (AWB), no shallower than f/2.2 (so I can at least get both eyes in focus..), and find layers!! What makes canyons so aesthetically pleasing are the layers, the depths, the colors within both!!! I shove myself into walls, crouch behind rocks, hide behind others, in order to achieve this. Get creative!
*But I digress.* Canyon time. Smaller rappels, fluted downclimbs, more deadman anchors, knot chocks, we were flowing quite nicely through. Then.. the light at the end of the tunnel appeared as an orange-glowing hallway with a huge boulder stuck above. One of those Death Valley standard anchors brought us down to earths guillotine, and a hearty lunch break. Out into the sun, where I remembered how to sweat, and the wonderful (semi) downhill to the vehicles!
Until next time Tümpisa. You wonderful, remote, geologic wonder you.