March 2017 Fitness and sport
involves walking down rivers that flow between narrow gorges/canyons that naturally occur in steep rocks which are basins with a small amount of running water – generally no more than 200l/sec. Inside these canyons are obstacles, such as waterfalls, which can be overcome with the help of safety cords, diving, sliding or climbing (downwards).
The history of canyoning is quite recent: sometime between the 19th and 20th Century, the French caver Alfred Martel, a famous explorer of abysses and underground rivers, gave the go ahead to this practice in an explorative and, later, sporting sense. Then, another Frenchman, Lucien Briet, dedicated himself to exploring the ‘Barracos’ of the Sierra De Guara and other regions of the Spanish Pyrenees.
Even if canyoning is practised in a somewhat inhospitable and narrow environment, it should not be defined as an extreme sport. Canyoning can be practised by everyone and involves overcoming a course and following advice from specialised instructors. Although no specific athletic preparation is required, training plays a fundamental role, especially if the level of the activity is hard and the distance to cover is quite long, thus good resistance to long periods of hard work is essential, as are swimming and climbing skills.
Canyoning is a group activity and the group should be made up of at least 4 people, both for safety reasons and for transporting the material needed for the descent. Courses can last from 2-8 hours depending on the effort and difficulty, however some courses can last even longer and involve sleeping overnight. The techniques used are specific for this activity even though they originate from mountaineering, caving and ‘live’ water sports (such as, kayak and river boarding). The principles of this sport are:
• abseiling with the help of a descender;
• diving or sliding;
• downward climbing;
• walking down river banks;
• swimming in white water (or in currents).
It is also very important to know, for certain situations, a series of manoeuvres that involve using a rope.
• Neoprene wetsuit (5mm thick): this is needed to protect oneself from the cold, but it can be replaced with a caving suit together with a dry suit, such as those used for windsurfing.
• A hood, boots and gloves in neoprene: it is essential to keep the end points of the body warm because a large part of the body heat is lost via the hands, feet and, especially, the head.
• Shoes: there are specific shoes for bouldering, made from a mix of rubber and neoprene. Alternatively, light trekking shoes can be used.
• Harness, carabiner and descender: these pieces of equipment allow for rope manoeuvres to be made to go down the waterfalls. Other pieces of equipment that must always be present are extra carabiners, safety ropes (called longes) and self-locking carabiners for bringing the rope back up.
• Knife or shears: it may be necessary to cut the rope.
• Helmet: this protects the head from stones that could fall from the edges of the canyon. A whistle is connected to the helmet to communicate from a distance.
• Ropes: static ropes for canyoning or caving, with a diameter of 9-10.5mm.
• Rigging bag: should contain a hammer, drill and screw anchors to insert when descending, exploring or when other anchors need to be replaced.
• Water-tight containers: these should contain supplies and first aid and emergency materials.
The main obstacles that occur when canyoning are the cold and water, and these also become a serious danger: a strong wave flowing within a canyon that is 1-2m wide can be fatal. Manoeuvres with the rope that are done underneath a waterfall can also cause accidents: drowning is possible if the rope gets blocked underneath a waterfall. The cold, and more precisely hypothermia, are indirect dangers which can occur if the group/a person stays in a canyon for a prolonged amount of time, which can happen if the group is delayed or material/equipment gets damaged.