There’s the cold, the footing is always cranky, and if you don’t know how to work with these facts, you can become inescapably entangled in ropes beneath hammering torrents of water.
Ouray schoolteacher and canyoning guide Greg Foy steps onto a tight, slick ledge –unroped. Below him, the water of Portland Creek shoots into space, down sixty feet to flat gravel. Foy clips himself in carefully, while clients Phillip and Josiah Hunter pace, hyena-nervous and thigh deep in an adjacent pool, waiting to be roped up.
Foy has been guiding this particular descent all week for the Ouray Canyoning Rendezvous. He advised me on a previous reconnaissance that for the uninitiated the first step, when rappelling off the edge, is slick and unsettling – understandable, given our animal reluctance to swing into icy water. Michael Dallin’s Ouray Canyoning lists this particular descent as “moderate,” but no matter how straightforward the route may be, working on high, polished ledges with loud running water surrounding you, where slipping is not an option, is simply nerve-wracking.
Foy rigs the belay, tosses ropes into the void and motions for the elder Hunter to edge out and take in his view of the big drop.
For decades, Utah, and its limitless sandstone canyons, has been the epicenter of both dry and “live water” descents in North America. What began as an exploration of creek beds and slot canyons has today evolved into a pursuit whose practitioners deploy the skills of climbers, cavers and boaters to undertake full-blown technical descents of the most difficult canyons. Ouray’s canyons easily match the best areas across the Colorado Plateau in quality and intensity. But unlike Utah, Ouray is high-elevation, presenting a brief canyoning season, wedged in between spring runoff, summer thunderstorms and the freezing return of winter. This is alpine canyoning, with enough variation to be an outdoors discipline unto itself, and enough of a following to have inspired the Ouray Canyoning Rendevous, with its third season coming up August 18-21.
The City of Ouray is sunk deep in the San Juan Mountains, settled on a flat spot with neck-bending views. Although Telluride is known as a “box canyon,” Ouray has bested Telluride for tightness. In the 1980s, Ouray further embraced its “canyon-ness” by allowing seeps of water from the pipeline above town to freeze in winter, creating the Box Canyon Ice Park. Each December, the canyon walls fill, from top to bottom, with the greatest concentration of ice climbs in North America. Ice climbers travel from every corner of the planet to the park, because they can get concentrated amounts of climbing in a few days or a week.
The same local climbers who spent winters climbing ice saw opportunities in the surrounding crags for rock climbing, but only the most adventurous went on to perfect an alpine-style descent known as “canyoning.”
Rich Carlson, the president of the American Canyoneering Association (and the first certified North American Canyoning guide), recognized the area’s potential and brought the Canyoning Rendezvous to Ouray in 2009. Like the other Rendezvous Carlson has organized in Zion, Mexico and Costa Rica, the Ouray event brings canyoneers of all abilities together, to meet fellow enthusiasts and do descents in safe company.
The first day of the 2011 Rendevous began with technical instruction. Guide Kevin Koprek demonstrated a litany of knots, including friction hitches, asymmetrical prussiks and the ever-present Valdotain Tresse, developed in France and popular with arborists. He explained the behavior of static ropes, and the dynamic qualities of nylon – all the details adding up to something you could need to know to save your life.
Different types of rope condom material were discussed, from pieces of old carpet to sections of garden hose cut open to protect the sheath. Nylon ropes slice with astonishing ease, especially when weighted with bodies and seesawing over sharp edges, so padding takes the form of whatever is available.
Carlson chuckles at the expression “rope condom.” “People carry all sorts of weird shit through canyons,” he says.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
If the adage “what goes up must come down” is literally true for climbers, then a corollary for canyoneers is, what goes down must eventually find its way out the bottom. The entrance strategy is fairly simple; once you back off that first rappel, you’re going down. Climbing back up a waterfall is not in the script, which is why canyoning requires meticulous packing (even if some of it is weird).
Wet and dry suits are every bit as important to canyoneers as they are to kayakers. As guidebook author Dallin notes, “Ouray canyons are very cold and dangerous if you don’t wear enough thermal protection.” He uses the adjective “drenching” to describe many routes, so it’s best to plan on wading, swimming and maneuvering in cold water for hours on descents, because once you are wet, you will stay wet. On a warm day, you might get by with just a paddle-jacket, but a sunny day can turn sour with surprising speed. (Dallin’s guidebook lists the dates of recent flash floods to punctuate the possible worst-case scenarios.)
Canyoning is not even remotely like an afternoon of tubing on the reservoir. Take the equipment, for example. Packs and rope bags have grommets in the bottom to drain water; essential clothes are stored in river runners’ dry bags. Helmets are worn, and footwear is closely related to rock-climbing shoes, with sticky rubber soles that adhere on rock that has been water-polished for eons. Forget your cell phone working down here. In general, if you didn’t bring it with you, you had better not need it. The feeling is very tribal – your companions and a few tools are your greatest assets.
Back on Portland Creek, Phillip Hunter struggles to secure his footing at the top of the waterfall, and suddenly lets out a booming “Wow,” indicating that his latent primal neurons have just started firing. The fear-stimulation response is a vital component of the canyoning high; the other is its moonscape beauty, and the feeling of being untethered from ordinary things (if the intent of exploration is to find something new, Phillip Hunter sounds like he has just discovered something quite unexpected).
Phillip’s son, Josiah, struggles at the same place in exactly the same way his father has struggled, trying every foot position imaginable to avoid swinging into icy water. Foy’s warning that this section always confounds comes true, and he yells advice down to help the men navigate the tricky bits to flat gravel below. It’s his responsibility as a guide to know where people will have problems and mitigate them. From my time spent with the canyoning experts, much of safe descending is about knowing and preparing for all the possible hang-ups before they occur – especially when your partners are out of sight or can’t hear you, which happens frequently.
Today Foy is the Last Man At Risk, canyoneering vernacular for the person who “ghosts” the anchors and re-rigs the soaking ropes so they will continue to pull. A rope that hangs up at the anchor after rappelling means the team can be stranded. Retrieving ropes is vital, as they offer your only way out.
The first and longest waterfalls are just a warm-up. Further down, I watch Philip and Josiah drop straight under a heavy pour-over and pop out, shaking like dogs from the freezing blast. They exchange high fives, and smiles of relief, as they near the end of the technical difficulties.
A concrete flume on Main Street seems an inauspicious place to exit a canyon, but this is Ouray in August, and the Antlers Motel is flying the American Canyoneering Banner like the pirate flag of an invading fleet.
When Foy and company emerge and flop onto the sidewalk, the invasion is complete. They squish-squish their way back to their rooms for an evening of soaking in the hot springs and a visit to Mouse’s Chocolates.
In the end, I realize, anyone who signs up for canyoning has to love tight places and water – and appreciate the feeling of completely escaping the theatre of ordinary life.
1: For instructional videos and helpful photos that will give you a clear understanding of what participating in a Rendezvous is like, check out Rich Carlson’s website, www.canyonsandcrags.com.
2: To connect with other hard-to-find canyon folk, go to meetup.com/ACA-Canyoneering/canyoneering.net.
3: If you aren’t meeting with other experienced canyoneers, don’t hesitate to hire a guide. You will have a better, safer, more efficient experience. The San Juan Mountain Guides can be found at www.ourayclimbing.com/pages/home.
4: Michael Dallin’s ‘Ouray Canyoning’ (Blue Moon Canyon Press, 2010) is available at Ouray Mountain Sports on Main Street. The store also rents wet suits.