I was drawn to canyoning because it felt like the perfect blend of my climbing and tramping skills, with the added bonus of going where few other people go. My journey into tramping and climbing has evolved over decades with a range of adventures, occasional mishaps, some professional courses and a lot of learning by tagging along with more experienced people.
My first foray into canyoning taught me that I should have followed that same approach, rather than just diving in head first to canyoning. Luckily I got to live and learn!
When David asked who was keen for a weekend canyoning trip just a short drive from Wellington, my hand flew up to say ‘pick me, pick me, pick me’. The proposed route involved only a day trip (no heavy packs) and up to three 35 plus metre waterfall abseils—who would not say yes?
On the other side of the Remutaka Forest Park, a friendly farmer gave us access to the start of the Waiorongomai track. There is basic camping at the road end where we spent Friday night with toilets, picnic tables and a water tap.
Since we had a big and unknown day ahead, we had planned to be away early. Instead we slept in and got away around 8:30am, an hour after David’s suggested start time. This was the first ‘oops’ and not the last.
It was an easy three hour walk on a mix of riverbed and fairly well-marked track to Waiorongomai Hut. We reached the hut, stashed a few bits of gear, checked the hut book for any useful comments about the canyon and kept moving. We followed the Kiwicanyons.org guide for Eager Beaver (before Canyoning in New Zealand was published), travelling upstream briefly before using a side stream to gain access to a brief bushbash up the ridge line. From the top of the ridge, we dropped down the other side towards our entrance to the creek and the Eager Beaver Canyon.
Around 12pm, we stopped to eat lunch, layer up and put on our harnesses and helmets. We did not need the gear yet, but it seemed easier to rig up while dry and warm instead of faffing in a pool of water at the top of an abseil. Over lunch, David reviewed the anchor system and rules unique to canyon abseils. While we researched the different approaches to canyoning, we were still using our climbing harnesses, dynamic ropes and a mix of our climbing techniques blended with canyon techniques. We later learned climbing equipment is not at all appropriate for conditions in canyoning. Another oops.
Initially the creek was narrow, small and full of log debris. It felt more like scrambling. About 20 minutes in, we reached the first mini waterfall—really just a stream tumbling down three metres of slippery moss-covered rocks. We decided to set up an anchor and abseil.
It would have taken two minutes to scramble around, but it was a chance for everyone to practice the anchor and abseil system. We had no sense of the need for efficiency to move through the canyon. Oops.
Based on the route description and map, we had expected to be mostly ankle to knee-deep in a stream with easy travel. But the stream bed only slightly widened with pools growing deeper as we descended. The pools varied in depth. After the first hour, we were in water that was at least knee deep and more often, up to our waist and at times swimming. It was fun—this is canyoning after all.
I loved it. However, I did not love my body temperature. Since we had expected to spend little time in the water and Wellington’s summer had been unseasonably hot, we had made a major mistake. We were not adequately dressed. We had chosen not to wear wet-suits or neoprene booties. Instead, we had chosen to wear multiple layers of merino and polypropylene. It was not enough. Oops, again.
I was wearing merino long johns, heavyweight polypropylene pants over that, two merino shirts, two merino jumpers, a merino hat, merino gloves and two pairs of merino socks. At 45 minutes in the creek, before hitting any major abseils, and only having swum through a few pools, my body was shaking uncontrollably. It was an odd experience. I could not control the shaking, but I did not feel cold. Was this a sign of hypothermia . . . being cold, but feeling warm? I thought it was too early for hypothermia and there were no other signs. I said something to the rest of the crew, as I watched them shiver and shake, teeth chattering. We all agreed: while we were shaking uncontrollably from the cold, we were not uncomfortable. So we carried on. I later learned these are all signs of the early stages of hypothermia — early meaning that you still have time to do something. However, you do need to DO something and cannot just assume it will be ok without changing the conditions. Oops.
David was finally setting up our first real abseil. It was one of many five to ten metre high abseils. We were still excited to abseil every chance we got—in hindsight that cost us precious time and only increased our time standing around in water, dropping our body temperatures. Oops.
We kept pressing on, laughing, enjoying the travel and wondering when we would finally hit the ‘piece de resistance’—the epic three in a row 35+ metre abseils. All the while, seizing every chance to stand in the sun when it rarely appeared.
We became increasingly aware of how cold we were and that we were not able to move fast enough to warm up. We changed our approach to that of downstream travel. We stopped looking for abseil stations and started looking for the fastest (yet still safe) descent route, scrambling around or jumping into pools or down-climbing. We had initially been attempting to follow the superb guide provided by Kiwicanyons.org, but realised it was much better to approach each obstacle in its current state, assessing the best way to get down and move on.
A couple more hours and finally we hit the motherload—the first big waterfall. It was incredibly intimidating and thrilling. To get to the top of the waterfall, we had to down-climb into a small canyon and then work through a few pools until reaching a cave with a thigh deep pool at the precipice of the waterfall. I peered over the edge and was unable to see the bottom of the waterfall. What was awaiting us?
I had been at the front of the group when we came to the top of the waterfall. I was sitting there wondering who would go first while David set up the anchor. David asked if I wanted to go first.
We were all freezing, shaking and a bit apprehensive. I did not have time to faff. I jumped into the pool at the top of the waterfall, fed the rope through my belay device, double-checked David’s anchor and leaned back over the waterfall. I hoped I would see the bottom and if something was not right, we could fix it. But I could see at most 15 metres below.
I have abseiled many times, in many situations. But as a climber when abseiling, I always make sure my rope hits the ground—you do not want to abseil off the end of your rope. That is the exact opposite in a canyoning abseil. Abseiling into a pool with heaps of rope still caught up in your belay device or dangling in the water is very dangerous. The rope could get wrapped around your body and you could struggle to get unattached from the rope, especially if you ended up directly under a forceful waterfall. We could not see the bottom, so David made a rapid estimate of how much rope to put out based on the guide.
I let the rope slide through my belay device, walking down the slippery rock face, doing my best to stay to the side of the main waterfall. After ten metres, I wrapped the rope around my thigh a few times, an old school ‘brake’, and pushed myself out from the rock to look down. I still could not see the bottom and now I could not see the top either. I gave up and figured I would deal with whatever I found at the bottom soon enough.
I stopped looking down and started to look around—it was spectacular. It was like descending into a bottomless cave. I was heading down a rock face that continued in a near full circle, all the way behind. The walls all around me were sheer, full of moss and plants, and the trees that were above were growing over in a canopy. It seemed to take ages but finally I could see the pool below.
I stopped and checked how much rope was out. In the perfect scenario, the rope would not quite reach the pool and I would be able to abseil off the end. While that was not the case, it was not bad either. There was a huge pool at the bottom—some ten metres across. There were a couple of large fallen trees at the far side, well away from where I would land. I had an extra two to three metres of rope floating in the pool, but I would easily be able to tread water and extricate myself from the belay device. I hurried down, knowing the others would be shaking with cold.
I managed to remove the rope from my ATC without dropping it in the water, one of many reasons ATCs and other common climbing devices are not used in canyoning. Oops.
Once I hit the bottom, I was grateful that my gear was inside a dry bag in my pack because the extra air in the bag created a flotation device, making it easier to disentangle myself from the rope (as treading water in tramping boots is not as easy as one would hope). Turns out tramping boots are not practical, appropriate or safe footwear in a canyon. Oops.
I swam to the biggest log, pulled myself on and looked up to see David. I gave him the sign I was OK and then signalled that the rope was too long. He adjusted the anchor and checked again. After I confirmed it was safe, the rest of the crew came down.
It took at least 45 minutes to get all six of us down the waterfall. I suppose if we had had a greater sense of urgency it might have taken 30 minutes, but I think we each wanted those extra few minutes to take in the moment. One after another, we dropped into the pool, swam to the far side and hurried five minutes downstream to a spot of sun that was rapidly disappearing as sunset approached.
We gathered up the rope and pushed on. We came to another series of deep pools and short drops that could be down climbed or abseiled. As we approached the next big waterfall, Tony asked me if I was cold. I said ‘Yes, but I’m OK. Are you OK’? He hesitated and then said, ‘No I think I’m getting too cold’. I was surprised. Tony introduced me to the 13-hour epic – swimming across ocean channels with a pack full of eight days of food and navigating off-track at night. This was looking a bit serious.
Tony began surveying the rest of the group. At least two people were not keen to continue. I had not yet considered the possibility. It was only 4pm. We had been in the stream for four hours and were just about to hit the next two big abseils. We had a kilometre of river travel left. Why stop now?
We were spread on opposite sides of the stream. Water was crashing down. It was loud. We were cold and shivering. It took less than ten minutes to realise we should not continue. There was a brief moment where we thought of splitting into two groups, but that idea was rapidly thrown out. It was clear that we were all cold. We had been cold for at least 3 hours. We had several hours to go and would be moving at our slowest pace, as we stacked up at the top of the big waterfalls waiting our turn to abseil. The sun was no longer reaching the canyon and there was no way to get warm. Our body temperatures would only be dropping. And once we descended the next series of pools, we would have no way to go upstream or to bash out of the creek. We would have to finish via the canyon, no matter how cold or wet we were.
In fact, we could have ended up like this party who visited the canyon a few weeks after us and posted this on Kiwicanyons.org:
“It took a bit longer than expected and it got dark at the top of the second major waterfall, and then on the last major abseil our ropes got stuck (50 m 9 mm dynamic and 50 m 11 mm static) the ropes were probably crossed but the two of us couldn’t pull it down and it was pitch black by this point and we couldn’t see what was going on even with head torches. Knowing we had a few shorter abseils left we had no choice but to pull as much rope down as possible and cut them (very, very soul crushing/tears in my eyes) thankfully we got just enough to get out of the canyon, get back to the cabin and enjoy a few brews.”
Smart thinking prevailed and we immediately started talking about the best route out of the canyon. Remarkably, no one had brought a full topo map for the area. Oops.
We had only a printout of the Kiwicanyon guide, the topos for the bushbash and entrance to the stream and a GPS. We were cold and made a fast decision to exit via the ridge that would return us where we first dropped into the creek. None of our maps covered the terrain that we were about to navigate. Mike pushed up to scout the route and confirmed it was doable, but dodgy—steep, exposed, loose, but for a short distance. We immediately headed that way.
The next 500 metres of ground travel was precarious. It was incredibly steep and alternated between loose rock and dirt with exposed rock faces with 200 m drops either side. I was grateful that we were all climbers. One rock face would have easily been a Grade 14. It was at the end of a very narrow ridge with a sheer drop off to one side, all the way down to the valley floor. What had started as an off track tramp and river adventure had become something else.
Pushing uphill rapidly warmed our bodies and made it easier to move. An hour later we had cleared the worst of the difficult terrain and another 30 minutes more had brought us back to the top of the ridge. We stopped and had a snack for the first time since lunch, laughing about the adventure. But we decided to quickly move on, as it was now almost 6pm. We still had to get to the hut and back out, and we were already tired.
We arrived back at the cars, just at 8pm—almost 12 hours after starting. It had been an epic day trip . . . one that had left me wanting more, while also giving me a bit of a kick in the butt. We had made several major mistakes on this trip, some of which Daniel Clearwater talks about in his book:
- Dress appropriately—take into account the cold temperature of the water, lack of sun and a lot of time standing around.
- Know your exit routes before you start—bring maps that will allow you to navigate those exit routes.
- Keep an eye on the time—be efficient, only abseil when needed and use two ropes to leap-frog anchor setups.
- Allow plenty of time—plan as much time as possible accounting for both daylight and maximising the hottest part of the day while in the water.
But it was not all bad. We lived to tell the tale and cannot wait for next summer to go back.
Here is what we did right:
- While we should have had wet-suits, we did all have many layers of clothes and everyone had managed to keep at least 1-2 items of emergency clothes dry in a drybag.
- We did have a GPS and the Kiwicanyon guide and some of us had considered exit routes, so we were able to navigate an exit route though not ideal.
- Members in the group raised alarm bells before the situation became unmanageable. Everyone participated in the conversation and everyone agreed to the safest option.
- We had a PLB and had left our intentions with friends. We had written our intentions in the hut book and told people we had passed on the track.
When we set out on this trip, I had planned to write up a ‘how to’ for a magazine. As I sat at the bottom of the first 35 metre waterfall, I thought to myself that this is not an appropriate trip. While canyoning is an excellent sport for trampers and climbers to explore, it requires specific technical skills and expertise that are unique to canyoning. You cannot wing it on number 8 wire and hope to get by. And it is not the same to just combine your knowledge from tramping and climbing.
You must have fitness, navigation and river travel knowledge. You must have rope skills, including building anchors and abseiling. You must understand that building anchors, rope management, abseiling and rescuing in a canyoning scenario is more complex and precarious than common climbing situations, particularly due to the nature of water. If it is something you want to try, I recommend Daniel Clearwater’s advice—seek out mentoring and training from experienced people. We did and have now taken courses from the NZ Canyoning School.
Note: If you are heading in to try this canyon, visit the Kiwicanyons Facebook Group for the latest update on conditions, as reports from 2020 indicated a significant slip to the area has impacted the canyon.
Photo credit: Tony Gazley