Last weekend marked the start of the Second Annual Ouray Canyon Festival, and canyoneers from all over the U.S. made their way down the eight watersheds, defiles and canyons that flow into town. Canyoneering in the U.S. is commonly thought of as a desert activity, typically in Utah, involving warm, dry descents on Colorado Plateau sandstone where you might wade across an occasional pothole. Ouray “canyoning” is related in the sense that descending is still the objective, but it embraces the component of running water. Canyoneers leave the arid environment behind for the alpine vertical, where conditions can quickly turn chilly and, often, highly technical. The environment is wet and potentially hypothermic, and drowning _ not only in flashfloods (which could happen in a desert canyon) – but also in waterfalls becomes a possibility.
All Ouray’s canyons follow active watercourses, so that trips downstream can involve anything from wading and swimming to rappelling through waterfalls. Routes are graded by their levels of difficulty and duration. Portland Creek, rated as moderate, takes two to three hours to down climb and rappel, conveniently finishing above the Antlers Motel on Main Street. On the other end of the spectrum, the Quartzite Corridor in Bear Creek , considered advanced, starts at over 10,000 feet and requires ten-plus hours to get through.
As the rain began, rather than risk a rise in water levels and possible flash flooding, Foy’s group decided to call it a day, and exited at the bridge on the way to Amphitheater Campground above town – an easy “out” not available on many routes. Paddle jackets, wetsuits and neoprene gloves are de rigueur in canyoneering, where routes are often described as involving “drenching” water exposure. Practitioners have to carefully consider their choices of ropes, harnesses and packs; because everything is going to get soaked, packs must have grommets in the bottom for drainage, and ropes must be light and water repellent (hauling a few hundred meters of soaking rope around is a lot of work).
The real payoff of all this effort and commitment is the transcendent locations where canyoning will take you. Foy glowingly describes a section of Oak Creek, less than three-quarters of a mile from downtown Ouray, that can only be accessed by the canyoneer: a polished grotto shielded by a veil of falling water that has been seen by less than a hundred people. Where in the world can you go in our age of knowing everything that so few human eyes have ever seen?
The event, which is being touted as the summer version of Ouray’s Winter Ice Festival, runs through this Sunday and is sponsored by the American Canyoneering Association and San Juan Mountain Guides. For more information go to www.meetup.com/Ouray-Canyon-Festival or check out the excellent guidebook, Ouray Canyoning, by Michael Dallin. Copies are available at Ouray Mountain Sports at 732 Main St., and the San Juan Mountain Guides Office, 636 Main – and check out page 123 of the inner gorge of Blue Moon Canyon to see what you’re missing.