Canyoning  Getting started safely

If you want to get into canyoning, make sure you get a good grounding in the skills and judgement required

Although some of the technically easy routes could be described as ‘tough tramps’, ‘waterfall abseiling’ or ‘gorge floating’, most of the canyoning adventures in New Zealand require specific canyoning techniques, specialised equipment and experience to descend safely.

While it’s easy to ‘put the rope through the anchor and go’ this simplistic approach quickly becomes dangerous when the rappel goes through a waterfall, lands in a deep pool, or ends in a rapid. Modern canyoning rope techniques were developed in France in the 1980s after a spate of accidents where mountain guides drowned, sometimes in front of their clients. All the techniques aim to keep the canyoner as safe as possible when mixing ropes and water. These techniques help prevent incidents, and allow for very quick rescues.

Some canyons already have anchors in place, but many do not. The ability to create and evaluate anchors is crucial to canyoning safely. Canyons are committing, often with sheer walls and no escape for long periods of time. If you can’t make an anchor, then you’re going to have to spend a night in the canyon. Some anchors are as simple as a sling around a sturdy tree. Others might require considerable skill, problem solving and a back-up for all but the last (lightest) person.

Jumping and sliding are two great joys of the sport, but also cause the most injuries. Every pool must be inspected before you jump or slide. Normally, a person will rappel down first and use a diving mask to check the pool and show the others where to jump. Experienced canyoners routinely jump waterfalls up to six metres, but when the launch spot and pool are favourable, jumps of 10 to 20 metres are possible. It’s important to learn good jumping techniques by starting small before going higher.

Even the shortest canyon trips require a decent wetsuit for cold water protection. A cheap, thin shortie is probably only going to delay hypothermia. A full 4/3mm steamer is about the minimum for most of the country, with neoprene beanies, gloves, vests and kayak spray jackets rounding out a canyon layering system. Enjoying the water is one of the major aspects of the sport; you won’t want to do that jump, or swim that gorgeous pool if you’re already freezing!

Canyons are slippery. Instead of heavy tramping boots, buy a pair of wetsuit socks (not booties) to go inside an old pair of running shoes. The soft sole provides good grip on wet rock, and they won’t weigh you down when swimming.

Whilst the good old Kiwi DIY attitude might suffice for the simplest canyons, it won’t work in anything more technical. The canyoning community encourages beginners by leading many introductory trips each season. A number of professional guiding companies offer canyoning courses, and a technical manual was recently published.

Check out www.KiwiCanyons.org for more information.

This article first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – November 2015

Wilderlife