By Matt Morris
The quickly-growing adventure sport of canyoneering is all about rappelling. It involves sliding down ropes into cold pools of stone-filtered canyon run-off, exploring ever-narrowing tunnels of tacky sandstone, dangling a hundred feet above a jagged log pile and hiking into some of the country’s most scenic, vibrant landscapes. Its practitioners benefit from a combination of rope management skill and navigation savvy.
Sounds pretty extreme, huh?
But it doesn’t have to be. Anyone with just a hint of athletic ability can go canyoneering.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any risks involved. Making a mistake in a slot canyon can result in serious injury or possible death. Rescue is often very difficult because of the remote locations and physically challenging extractions. Helicopters don’t do slot canyons.
So, to keep your experience while exploring canyons from turning into a nightmare, here are a few things every first-time canyoneer should know before rappelling into the hobby.
1. Know the technical competency of the group with which you will be exploring the canyons.
Don’t be a beginner led by a beginner. Find out how long your group leaders have been canyoneering. Do they possess the correct skills and experience to lead you down a canyon? Have they thought of an emergency plan in case someone gets injured? Does anyone have first aid experience beyond just a local YMCA-backed CPR cert? Find out.
2. Know what gear will be appropriate to bring with you for the type of canyon you will be descending.
Once you pull the rope from that first rappel you’re committed to finishing the canyon, there’s no turning back. Thus, having the correct gear can mean the difference between an epic trip or a miserable, risk-prone experience. Your group leaders should go through a gear check before you enter a canyon. Having the appropriate clothing and footwear is essential. Even in the summer, canyons can be cold, dark places full of freezing pools of water, even in the sun-scorched southwest. This means that sometimes a wetsuit is needed if the canyon contains water.
Also, make sure you have the proper amount of food and water. Canyoneering can be very physically challenging, so staying hydrated and having enough food are necessary to finishing a route.
Sometimes extra hardware and gear may be needed. Canyons are often bolted but some canyons rely on natural anchors, like trees and boulders. Make sure you bring enough webbing and rapids for times you may have to create or replace anchors.
3. Know how to properly use the gear you will be carrying into a canyon.
Having the proper gear is one thing, but knowing how to use the gear you bring with you into a canyon is critical.
The last place you want to learn how to use your gear is while you’re already in a canyon. Before you enter, make sure you are familiar with every piece of gear you will be carrying with you, whether it’s on your harness or in your pack. By all means, practice how to properly rig your rappel device, how to properly lock-off your rappel device and also how to add friction to your rappel device for long or free hanging rappels. Be comfortable in your harness and know how to adjust the straps correctly to get a good fit. Oh, and always wear a helmet. It may not save you from a busted femur, but it could very well help you remember how you busted it. SAR crews like details, after all.
4. Get familiar with the area in which you will be canyoneering.
Get the beta on how long the approach is, how many rappels there are and how much rope will be needed. You should also know the weather conditions for that area. Is this area prone to flash floods, are there any multi-staged rappels, will there be moving water, pot-hole escapes? Find out how long the canyon should take to complete with your current group size. These are all important factors that can greatly impact your trip.
5. Get familiar with the social etiquette of canyoneering.
Canyoneering can take you to some pretty amazing places. The beauty and solitude you can find can leave little to the imagination. But as with most backcountry travel, certain ethics should be maintained while exploring these amazing places. Follow Leave No Trace ethics. Take time to care about your surroundings and pack out all of the trash you bring into a canyon. Minimize your impact on the canyon by being mindful of anchor intrusions and grooves in the rock caused by the rope.
At times, you may find yourself sharing a canyon with other groups. Always be courteous and respectful and allow for faster traveling groups to pass slower groups when it is safe and appropriate. Also, be a good group member and assist with group tasks. Helping pull/bag the rope, taking turns carrying rope bags or assisting with setting up anchors are a couple of ways to contribute to your group to keep moving down the canyon in a timely fashion.
Matt Morris is a Las Vegas-based canyoneer. When he’s not working in Santa Barbara, CA, that is.