Canyoneering: Much More Than a Hike in the Park

The “Average Joe’s” extreme sport takes athletes high atop mountains and deep into canyons

Even though canyoneering started in Europe during the 1970s, Utah is the capital of the sport, attracting rock climbers and mountaineers. (Eric Draper / Aurora Open / Corbis)

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Jeffrey is enthusiastic about using new techniques in Hawaii, New Zealand, where volcanic rock and foliage highlight the hikes, and the West coast of the United States, where serious swimming is need to navigate water canyons and rappel down waterfalls. “It’s beyond what most people can comprehend when they think of canyoneering,” he adds. “We like to be out where it’s pristine and lush with fast-moving water.”

Steve Ramras, who climbs up mountains or clambers down into canyons for 120 days a year, started canyoneering in the late 1970s with college buddies. He’s watched as the sport has slowly become more popular and more technical. “I used to go a whole season without seeing footprints in many of the canyons,” he says. “That’s not necessarily true anymore, but there’s still a limited number of canyons that there’s information on (and amateurs explore).”

Tom Jones, a Utah guide who also sells gear, says techniques have improved so that the sport is safer than before. “But we’re also doing a lot harder canyons,” he adds. “So it may be a good thing we didn’t find some of the canyons we’re finding now back then.”

Ramras, 56, owns a janitorial service in Fort Collins, Colorado, and on the side has written a series of stories about his canyoneering journeys, Tales of an Incompetent Adventurer with titles like “Close to the Edge, and “The Mud, the Blood, and the Fear.” This spring, he will join a month-long hybrid expedition running the whitewater of Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and exploring slot canyons.

Canyoneering, Ramras notes, is different from climbing. If you’re climbing and can’t go any further, you rappel down to the ground and walk out. In canyoneering, once you rappel down into a slot and pull the ropes behind you, you’re committed. “There are all sort of levels [of difficulty] of canyons,” he says. “The majority of them are relatively easy. But there are still some out there where you can run into some pretty big surprises.”

He recalls doing one “beginner” canyon after a snowstorm. Suddenly, what were usually easy strolls over slick rock became dangerous and challenging.

Ramras and Jones and a few others created “Freeze Fest” in the North Wash of Utah, which celebrated its ninth anniversary earlier this year. It’s an extreme, adult camp-out beginning on New Year’s Eve. The brave and the chilly get up each morning and decide which canyons are “relatively safe” to explore. This year, it rained and then snowed, and temperatures dipped into the teens. Still, more than 30 people showed up.

“We refer to it as the stupid idea that caught on,” he says, dryly. “Margins for mistakes are low that time of the year. We don’t recommend the activity for the general public.”

The duo build teams to tackle the mystery and challenge of unexplored canyons. “Forming a group of people who can bring their expertise to bear in a challenging environment is its own reward,” Ramras says.

“Half the time I’m really confident and I don’t have any qualms,” Jones adds, “and then half the time it seems like a really stupid thing.” They walk the rims, if possible, to get a sense of what’s below. They may send someone rappelling over the side for a look. In some instances, a team on the rim may observe, ready to drop a rope and help those below climb out.

About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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