One of my hands-down favourite ways to explore the fantastic rocky landscapes of our world is by canyoning. An incredible form of adventuring, it blends scrambling with climbing, rapelling (abseiling), swimming, cliff jumping and hiking. It is physical, it is fun… and most importantly, it gets you into places that you could never otherwise access on your own. This photo is one of my favourites, taken in Chile in 2012 at the northern tip of Patagonia, just off the shores of Lagos de los Santos near Petrohué, in a landscape surrounded by volcanoes.
Hiking through a canyon is a thrilling experience because canyons are rocky environments that hem you in with a unique beauty. Walls twist and turn, smoothed and carved by the passage of water over time. The light filters in softly through narrow openings often from far above, playing with the colours of the rock bands in the walls or the algae stains on their sides as it filters down through long passageways. Sometimes the pools that you swim or wade through are inky black. Often the cliffs are covered in thick mosses, fed by the constant moisture that floats through the air, kicked up by the violent action of waterfalls and rapids.
Most times, the pools that you leap into, splash through or swim across are very cold as water comes out of the ground, naturally at a constant 7C. Sometimes it is freezing simply because it is glacier fed water. That’s what the wet suits are for.
Obstacles like piles of deadfall (trees and branches that have been pushed downstream, often in spring run off flooding) become mini playgrounds. You need to crawl, slide, climb and balance your way through their chaos. Because climbing is involved, you wear helmets and harnesses. And because cold, cold water is involved, along with lots of slipping and sliding on hard rock, you wear very thick wetsuits for warmth and protection.
Sometimes, the only way through the canyon is leaping off a ledge, plunging down like a droplet of water in a waterfall, into a pool below. Sometimes you need to pass directly behind waterfalls and it’s an amazing experience to put your hand, or your head for that matter, into the powerful curtain of water and feel its incredible strength as it pushes against you.
It is usually cold… freezing cold. It requires you to push aside any fear of heights or claustrophobia. But is is so unbelievably fun and thrilling! Pretty much, wherever there is rock on this planet, and water, there are canyons. Water has a devious way of finding that crack in the rock and widening it through erosion over time. If the rock resists somewhat, given the right conditions, canyons can form.
To do canyoning, you need a couple of experienced guides, as the conditions can be dangerous, and you need to make sure that they are specially trained in canyon rescue. It is very important that you use trained, local guides, as conditions can vary through the seasons and local guides will know best what the run-off times and water level fluctuations are like in the canyons in their area. (And it goes, perhaps without saying, that you should never do this downstream from dams). Then you need a thick wet suit, a harness, a caving helmet, sturdy hiking boots or runners and a sense of adventure. No rock climbing experience is necessary, but you must be physically fit as canyoning can be a strenuous, physically demanding experience.
We have done canyoning, or canyoneering as it is sometimes called, in slot canyons in Utah, in volcanic canyons in Chile, and in mountainous canyons in Austria and Italy. Strangely enough, we have yet to do it in our Canadian Rocky Mountains, as there needs to be some adventure-tourist infrastructure to support it (and less protectionist national parks policies so that anchors can be drilled into the rocks of the canyons for the ropes that you use).
If you ever get the chance to try canyoning, DO IT! It is a very memorable experience, and a very fun activity to do with older children and with friends. Some of our best times doing canyoning have been on adventurous day trips that we have spent experiencing canyons in this way with other families. Here are the places that we have done canyoning, with links to the companies that we have used:
Here are a few more scenes from our experience in northern Patagonia, Chile. If you pass your cursor over each photo, there is a little description. Enjoy!
Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves.