Running, climbing, sliding, jumping, diving, abseiling: this is canyoning, a fascinating symbiosis of mountain and water sports. You follow the path of the white water through gorges and ravines that are difficult to access. You slide down steep slopes and encounter an enormous natural backdrop with washed-out rock channels, waterfalls, whirlpools and crystal-clear pools.
Origin and current hotspots
The first people to go canyoning were Spanish mountaineers who climbed down the gorges of the Sierra de Guara in the Pyrenees with air mattresses in the late 1970s.20 years later, the adventure sport spread throughout the entire Alpine region.
The over 70 canyons of the Sierra de Guara are still canyoning hotspots today – next to the Allgäu Alps in Germany and Austria, the Verdon Gorge in French Provence, Ticino in Switzerland and the Lake Garda region in Italy.
On warm summer days, when the ice-cold water offers wonderful refreshment, canyoning has its high season. But also in winter you can explore the gorges with their fascinating ice formations and glittering frozen pools during the so-called "crystal canyoning".
Photo: Tom Bullmann, Outdooractive Editors
Who can go canyoning?
Physical requirements, a minimum age and previous knowledge vary depending on the tour. Swimming skills and a certain level of fitness and agility are definetly required. In addition, participants should fear heights.
A good portion of courage and the willingness to try something new are also necessary. Furthermore, you should take into account that – once in the gorge – some tours can't be cancelled without problems.
Canyoning is a quite dangerous sport. Therefore, canyoning tours should always be undertaken in groups and led by qualified, local guides.
The necessary equipment for guided tours is usually provided by the organizer (for shoes ask in advance!). The packing list must contain the following information:
- Neoprene suit: At least 3-5 mm thick, plus 3-5 mm thick neoprene hood and neoprene socks.
- Climbing harness: Canyoning harnesses differ from regular climbing harnesses in that they have a protective surface in the seating area for sliding down the rocks. There are also loops for attaching carbines or rope slings.
- Ropes: Static ropes between 9 and 10 mm and an elongation of 4-6 %. Rope lengths vary between 30 and 100 m. Dynamic ropes are not used in canyoning. Rope protectors safe your rope from rubbing against sharp rock edges.
- Helmet: Alpine mountaineering helmet with enough openings for the water to flow through.
- Footwear: As robust and light as possible, with a soft sole and drainage for the water
- Rucksack: Special bags used in cave explorations are ideal. They are made of abrasion-resistant plastic and provided with openings for rapid drainage. Valuables are stored in waterproof barrels with screw caps.
- Abseiling devices and other safety devices (Eddy, Grigri, Robot, etc.). In addition, HMS screw carbines, ribbon slings and rope cords can also be used.
- Other: whistle, first aid kit, knife, spare abseiling device, (hand drill, hook)
Technique and previous knowledge
Canyoning uses many techniques that originally come from climbing and have been specially modified for water sports. Guided tours always start with a special instruction by the guides.
However, if you want to set off on your own, you need a good knowledge of the area, a lot of safety in handling all the necessary equipment and should be familiar with the right technique for sliding over rock slabs and jumping in water basins.
1. Tie knots
Many climbing knots can also be used for canyoning. In practice, however, some of them have proven to be suboptimal under the conditions in the gorge, as they are difficult to loosen after loading, slip through constant contact with water, get caught or are simply too complicated.
2. Fix a bolt
On a canyoning tour, it is often necessary to fix bolts. If there are already cracks in the rock, classic self-anchoring bolts are used. If there are no cracks, bolts must be drilled into the rock.
Rock ledges, slopes and high waterfalls are often overcome by abseiling. In contrast to rock climbing, rappelling sections in canyoning are often longer. Furthermore, they can extend into the water, which means a considerable weight on the rope, difficult operation and additional dangers.
Many obstacles have to be overcome by courageous jumps into the water. In order to avoid accidents, some precautions have to be taken in advance. These include:
- Checking the depth of the water and determining the immersion point
- Calculate the length of the approach
- Fix the equipment and remove backpacks when jumping 5 m and more
- Jump in a closed foot position with upright, tensioned body posture
- If contact with the ground is to be expected, slightly bend your knees to deflect.
- Arms can be stretched out to balance, but must rest against the body when immersed to prevent injury
Risks, dangers and safety
Unspoilt terrain, high jumps and white water are the main attractions of this sport – but they can quickly become dangerous. Even technically experienced and well-equipped athletes should therefore not go canyoning alone.
A group size of three to four persons is optimal. It is best to conduct the tour under the guidance of a certified and local tour guide.
In addition, it is extremely important to observe the weather over a longer period of time in advance of the tour. Especially in narrow gorges or during heavy rainfall or snow melting, life-threatening water rises can occur in just a few minutes.
Before each canyoning tour, the following points should be clarified for each tour member:
- Name and characteristics of the canyon (profile, length, width, key points)
- Place and number of (emergency) exits
- Emergency phone number of the respective area
- Number of available ropes
- Whistle signals for communication: (1x = stop, 2 x = rope free, 3 x = give way, 4 x = rope retract, many whistles = danger/help)
Outdooractive divides the levels of difficulty of canyoning tours into six levels. For the classification, several factors play a role, whose occurrence in the sum result in the difficulty level:
- Water: current strength, whirlpool, water depth, rock formation or turbidity of the water
- Climbing: Number of climbing passages and their level of difficulty
- Terrain: type of valley (gorge, canyon, valley-shaped) and exit possibilities