Chris’ Guide To Canyoneering
Get your descender ready
Since you’re here, you likely already know a bit (or a lot) about canyoneering. The breadth and depth of the canyoneering knowledgebase is huge! If you feel intimidated by pothole escapes or building deadmen anchors, this guide is for you.
I’ve seen too many canyon parties descending canyons unprepared, unsafely, and unethically, and I want to help change that.
This guide is here to help you be more prepared for your next canyon adventure. I will teach you all the skills, knowledge, and motivation you need to get you off the couch and on rappel in your next canyon.
The guide is under development, so check back often as we add additional content.
I often hear people ask, what canyoneering is. Think back to your days as a kid running around the playground trying to get from one side to the other without touching the ground – climbing up slides, swinging across monkey bars, and balancing on narrow and shaky chains. It may have been a few years since you squished into the twisty slide, but you’re never too old for playgrounds because canyoneering is the grownup version of a playground.
In the most basic terms, canyoneering is descending through a canyon. Most sought-out canyons are narrow slot canyons and are often very technical in nature requiring rappelling, swimming, climbing over, under, around, and down all kinds of obstacles. Most the canyons I’ve had the pleasure of descending are in the Southwest United States, but there are canyons all around the world in all kinds of climates.
Canyon Rating System
The basic format of the ACA Canyon Rating System includes two digits. The first digit is numeric and represents the values described below related to terrain and rope work. The second digit is an alpha character representing the values described below related to water volume and current. Additional values may be added to represent relative risk and time/commitment. Ratings are cumulative.
For example: descending a Class 3 canyon will require the skills listed under Class 3, as well as those listed under Classes 1 and 2.
NOTE: Ratings refer to descents in normal conditions, during what is considered the normal season for the canyon. Adverse conditions, such as higher than normal water volume or colder temperatures, will increase the difficulty of the descent.
TERRAIN / TECHNICAL ROPE WORK
1 Canyon Hiking – Non-technical; no rope required. May involve some easy scrambling requiring the occasional use of hands for balance and support. Travel is possible up or down canyon.
2 Basic Canyoneering Scrambling, easy vertical or near-vertical climbing and/or down-climbing requiring frequent use of hands. Rope recommended for hand lines, belays, lowering packs and possible emergency use. Travel is possible up or down canyon.
3 Intermediate Canyoneering Exposed technical climbing. Down-climbing could be difficult and dangerous; most people will rappel. Rope required for belays and single-pitch rappels. Obvious natural or fixed anchors. Retreat up canyon will require ascending fixed ropes. Basic pothole escape techniques (i.e. partner assist, counterweights) may also be required. See route description for more information.
4 Advanced-Expert Canyoneering Route may involve any combination of the following: 1) difficult and exposed free climbing and/or down-climbing, 2) climbing using direct aid, 3) multi-pitch rappels, 4) complex ropework (i.e. guided rappels, deviations, rebelays), 5) obscure or indistinct natural anchors, 6) advanced problem-solving and anchor-building skills.
WATER VOLUME / CURRENT
A Normally dry or very little water. Dry falls. Water, if present, can be avoided and/or is very shallow. Shoes may get wet, but no wetsuit or drysuit required.
B Normally has water with no current or very light current. Still pools. Falls normally dry or running at a trickle. Expect to do some deep wading and/or swimming. Wetsuit or drysuit may be required depending on water and air temperatures.
C Normally has water with current. Waterfalls. Expect to do some deep wading and/or swimming in current. Wetsuit or drysuit may be required depending on water and air temperatures. Class C canyons may be rated more precisely using the following system:
C1 – Normally has water with light to moderate current. Easy water hazards.
C2 – Normally has water with strong current. Water hazards like hydraulics and siphons require advanced skills and special care.
C3 – Normally has water with very strong current. Dangerous water hazards. Experts only.
C4 – Extreme problems and hazards will be difficult to overcome, even for experienced experts with strong swimming skills.
NOTE: Water level in any canyon can fluctuate greatly from year-to-year, season-to-season, even day-to-day. If, upon arrival at a canyon, you discover the water volume/ current is greater than indicated by the rating, descent will be more difficult than suggested by the route description. It will be necessary to reevaluate your decision to attempt the descent.
RISK / SERIOUSNESS (OPTIONAL)
G General Audiences Should be straight-forward for those who possess appropriate skills.
PG Parental Guidance Suggested Even with appropriate skills, beginners may sweat.
R Risky One or more extraordinary risk factors exist that could complicate the descent. Solid technical skills and sound judgment critical. Not recommended for beginners.
X Extreme Multiple risk factors exist that will complicate the descent. Errors in technique or judgment will likely result in serious injury or death. Descent should only be attempted by expert canyoneers.
XX Double Extreme Definitely life-threatening.
NOTE: The presence of a risk/seriousness rating suggests that the canyon will involve higher than average risk. The absence or a risk/seriousness rating does not suggest that there will be no risk. All canyoneering involves risk. Risk factors include number and frequency of rappels, length of rappels (single- or double-rope) and exposure, anchor availability, anchor quality, route finding, obstacles, problem-solving, terrain encountered between technical sections, flash flood potential, availability of exits and high ground, water temperature, prolonged immersion, and difficulty of evacuation or rescue. Specific factors should be addressed in the route description.
TIME / COMMITMENT (OPTIONAL)
I Short. Normally requires only a couple of hours.
II Normally requires a half day.
III Normally requires most of a day.
IV Expected to take one long, full day. Get an early start. Bring a head lamp. Plan for possible bivy.
V Expected to take an average one and a half days.
VI Expected to take two or more days.
NOTE: Time estimates are based on average group of 6 people or less. Larger groups and less experienced groups will take longer. An accurate self-assessment of your abilities will be important. For some users, it may be adequate to refer to time in terms of half day, full day or multi day. Others may prefer a more specific estimate and choose to use the Roman Numeral Grade system common in traditional multi-pitch rock climbing.
S = SLOT DESIGNATION
Tight slot canyons are in a class of their own. Slots can be so narrow that it is necessary to stem above the floor of the canyon to move horizontally. An “S” may be appended to the terrain rating to indicate some sections of the canyon are extremely narrow. A canyon rated S2 will serve as a warning to those with greater-than-average girth that they may have to stem more than their skinny partners. A canyon rated S6 will draw emphasize the need to execute difficult climbing/stemming moves that are likely to be high above the canyon floor.
- Anchor building
- Pothole escapes
- Down climbing
- Class C technique
Existing webbing inspection
Setting up the anchor
Before you step up to the edge of the cliff, rig a safety tether to avoid mishaps at the cliff’s edge.
To safely rappel you’ll need to construct an anchor. This often requires you to get too close to the edge for comfort. Accidents can easily happen at the top of cliffs while rigging anchors. The easy way to avoid this is by rigging a safety tether.
To rig a safety tether, simply find a secure object, such as a tree or a rock, or maybe even another person positioned well away from the edge of the cliff. Tie a length of rope or webbing around the object and secure the other end to your harness using a personal anchor system so you can get right up to the edge of the cliff without falling off.
With this safety tether, you can now work safely on the edge of the cliff to build your rappelling anchor without risking a misstep that could end your day in a bad way.
Construct the rappelling anchor
To get down the canyon you’ll need an anchor. Canyoneering anchors aren’t the same as rock climbing anchors, so read on to learn how to build canyoneering anchors.
Anchor building is a complete skill in and of itself that we won’t spend too much time on here. The principles of anchor building that will keep you safe rappelling is that an anchor must be strong, secure, and simple. It’s easier to start a rappel if the anchor is positioned above your waist and a bit back from the edge of the cliff.
If you’ll need to pull the rope once you get to the bottom consider how the anchor position will impact your ability to pull the rope. Is the rope going to drag or will you have a clean pull? It’s better to have a hard start than it is to not be able to retrieve your rope.
Once you get the anchor securely built, you can clip your personal protection to the anchor and remove the safety tether.
Rig your rope
Once you have a strong, secure, and simple anchor rigged, you can set up your rope for the rappel.
Depending on what activity you’re doing, (mountaineering, canyoneering, etc.) the rappelling scenarios will look a bit different. For rock climbing, the most common scenario will be that you’re rappelling to the ground from the top of a route or you’re rappelling down a multi-pitch climb one pitch at a time.
For these scenarios, you’ll most frequently be using a double-stranded rappel so we’ll discuss that scenario in detail. Plenty of other scenarios exist and although the details are different, the same general principles apply.
To rig your rope for rappelling, connect the rope to the anchor at the middle point of the rope or run it through the chains until at the midpoint. It helps to have your rope marked at the middle for this. Once you find the middle you can use chalk to mark it if you have multiple raps to complete. If both ends of the rope are visibly touching the ground, you don’t need to find the exact middle.
Tie a knot in the tails of the rope
If you’re unsure that both ends are touching the ground or if you’re rappelling to the next anchor station on a multi-pitch, tie a knot in each end of the rope. I like to tie a figure eight on a bight with at least a 4-inch tail. I like to leave a much longer tail after these knots if I have enough rope so that there’s rope to work with if something isn’t right at the landing.
This knot ensures you don’t rappel off the end of the rope. Many unfortunate scenarios have resulted from climbers not tying knots in the end of their rappel ropes. Don’t become one of them.
To complete a successful rappel, you’ll need both sides of the rope to drop cleanly down to the ground or next anchor station. Ensure as you rig your rope that there are no knots, tangles, or other obstructions preventing a clean rappel from top to bottom. If you hit a knot while rappelling you’ll end up wasting more time and energy fixing it while on rappel than if you fixed it before starting.
In windy conditions, ropes can blow around and snag on various features. It’s usually better in windy conditions to saddlebag the rope as you descend or to lower the rope down from above rather than throwing it. Some people connect the ends of the rope to their harness so the rope doesn’t blow around and get stuck.
Once you get your rope rigged through the anchor and have both ends touching the ground or tied off, it’s time to connect the rappel device to the rope.
Rigging the rappel device
Setting up your rappel device before you let gravity take over is simple, but if not done perfectly, it can lead to trouble. Gravity doesn’t discriminate. It’s trying to kill all of us
If you’re performing a double rope rappel, pick up both sides of the rope and give yourself a few feet of slack. On long rappels, the rope can be quite heavy so I like to gently pinch the rope against the ground with my foot to hold the weight (there’s always an exception and this may be the only exception to the not stepping on the rope rule).
With your belay device properly connected to your belay loop with a locking carabiner, take bights of both ropes in your hand and push the ropes through the slots on your belay device.
Clip both bights of rope through the carabiner and lock the carabiner.
Depending on what type of belay device you’re using, these instructions may vary. Be sure to read and understand the instructions for rigging whatever belay device you use.
Backing up your rappel
Because risk abounds in the vertical world, we do all we can to mitigate it. One risk to consider is that when on rappel, the only thing keeping you from plummeting to the ground is your firm hold on the brake rope. Many situations could cause you to lose control of the brake line so wisdom dictates that we build in some redundancy here.
I’ll tell you straight up that there are no perfect ways to back up a rappel, but there are a few that are tried and true. We’ll start with the prusik or “third hand”.
How to rig a prusik or autoblock backup
With a carabiner clipped to the belay loop, you’ll rig the prusik or autoblock below the belay device on the brake strand of rope. The belay device should be adequately extended to ensure the autoblock or prusik doesn’t get close to the belay device or the autoblock won’t work.
Start by clipping the prusik loop to the carabiner and then wrap it several times around the brake strand of the climbing rope. This will work for double or single strand rappels. Be sure the wraps are neat and organized with each one stacked on top of the others. Sloppy prusiks don’t work properly.
Clip the loop back to the carabiner and lock the carabiner.
Put some weight on the rope to extend the prusik. At full extension, the prusik should lock on the rope and hold your weight and should not be too close to the belay device. If your prusik isn’t fully locking you need to add more wraps. If your prusik is within a few inches of the belay device, you need a shorter prusik or you need to extend the belay rigging.
Rigging a prusik is not something you should be doing for the first time at the top of a rappel. This should be all figured out at home or at camp. Prusiks can be finicky but properly configuring the length of your loop for the rope you’ll be using both in double and single strand setups will save you time and give you confidence when you’re out on the wall.
With the prusik in place, you have redundancy in your brake hand. If you happen to let go or lose control, the prusik will lock on the rope and prevent catastrophe. Prusiks aren’t the only method to back up your rappel. A much simpler and reliable backup is the fireman’s belay. I only use the prusik or autoblock if I’m the first person down the rappel. All other times, I use a fireman’s belay.
Use releasable rigging
Releasable rigging should be used whenever possible and especially with anyone not proficient in performing self-rescue while on the rope. It takes a bit more skill and thought, but it really doesn’t take much more time if you plan on releasable rigging to begin with.
My preferred setup is the munter mule overhand, but many other options exist. The key is to learn one, practice it, and use it regularly.
Extend the belay device
Especially with those who haven’t spent much time dangling from a harness over the edge of a cliff, extending a belay device can make rappelling much more comfortable by preventing flipping upsidedown and prevent hair, clothing, or fingers getting sucked into belay devices. It also makes it easier to create friction since you have more space to move the rope back behind the belay device. If you’re using a prusik, extended belays will also give you more wiggle room on the size of your prusik loop.
To extend the belay, you simply connect a sling, draw, or other fall-rated material to your harness belay loop or hardpoints and attach the carabiner and belay device to the extension. It’s essentially creating a new and bigger belay loop.
How to rappel
Rappelling, just like so many other skills, is highly situational. The principles applied will always be the same, but the actual steps or procedures used will look different in every unique situation. Judging the terrain, skills of the team, weather, equipment, and other variables will dictate how to rig and execute a rappel. We won’t go over every nuance of rappelling here, but we’ll cover the main principles that – if followed – will greatly reduce your risk of becoming a rappelling statistic.
Let’s jump in at the top of a cliff. Whether we got here by climbing up from below or are lowering down, the same general sequence will apply.
Here’s a video I made of a canyoneering sequence you may see in canyoneering.
How to perform a fireman’s belay
A properly performed fireman’s belay is a reliable way to stay safe while on rappel. It takes two people with one at the bottom of the rappel.
The belayer at the bottom holds the rappel rope(s) while standing close to, but not directly under the rappeller’s fall line. If at any point the rappeller loses control, the belayer can simply pull the ropes tight and lock the rope at the rappeller’s belay device arresting a fall.
I see fireman’s belays performed frequently and most times they’re not done properly. A proper fireman’s belay requires that the belayer is under the rappeler so the angle of pull on the rope will lock the belay device. The belayer should also be in a protected position to avoid rockfall. This may be accomplished by stepping a foot or two to the side or back from the fall line. As rocks and debris often fall during a rappel, the belayer must have a helmet on and stay attentive throughout the rappel.
The rope should be loose enough to allow the rappeller to control her movement, but tight enough that a good tug on the rope from the belayer would lock the belay device. It’s easier to lock the rope tight if the belayer is standing and has her arms extended out so there’s more room to take in slack.
Read more about why I always wear my helmet while climbing or rappelling.
The belayer should be ready to pull down on the rope at a moment’s notice as accidents can happen very quickly.
Safety check the system before rappelling
Now that you’ve got the rappel rigged properly with a backup in place, it’s time to check the system before you launch off. Ideally, you’ll do a partner check, but often when rappelling you’re the only one at the rappel station so performing a self-check becomes necessary.
Never skip the safety check step as it’s too easy to get complacent and forget a step. Too many accidents could have been avoided had a team done a simple safety check.
I like to use the acronym CHECK for my safety check.
C – Clothing
Ensure your clothing isn’t loose and liable to get stuck in a belay device or get in your way while you’re rappelling. Hoodie strings, sleeves, shirttails, or necklaces can all get sucked into belay devices and while on rappel, that spells trouble. Tuck them in, tie them off, or take them off before rappelling. If you have a backpack, clip it to a sling from your harness and hang it between your legs for the rappel. If you’re too topheavy, you risk flipping upsidedown.
H – Helmet, Harness, Hands, Hair (that’s a lot of H words!)
Check your helmet to ensure it’s on and fastened. Ensure your harness is on correctly including doubled back if it needs to be. Check your hands. Did you put on your rappelling gloves? Check your hair. Long hair can get stuck in a belay device. Tie it back.
E – Environment
Check the environment for things like excess noise, wind, sun exposure, weather threats, animals, other climbing groups, etc. I like to take a final inventory of my gear to ensure I’m not leaving anything behind. This one covers a general risk assessment of anything that could interfere with a safe rappel.
C – Connections
Check all your carabiners or other connections to ensure they’re locked, not cross-loaded, or otherwise at risk of not working properly.
K – Knots
Check all the knots in the system including the prusik and anchor knots.
When running through the CHECK process, partners should check each other. It’s easy for people to get complacent and not check that the rope from the belay device goes properly through the carabiner. That’s when bad stuff happens!
Other safety skills you’ll want to learn as you get some experience with the basics are listed here but I won’t cover them in detail in this article.
- Passing a knot
- Ascending and load transfer
- Rigging a releasable rappel
After you’ve completed a thorough safety check, it’s time to test the system.
Test the rappel system
At this point you should still be safely tethered to the anchor with your personal protection. With this connection, you can safely test the rappel rigging to see if you overlooked anything. Do this by choking your belay device as close to the anchor as you can and fully weighting the rappel rope. Let the rappel rope slide through the belay device freely until the prusik locks tight.
If everything is rigged properly, you should be able to weight the rappel rope, the anchor, your harness, and the prusik all without any issue and you’re ready to go live.
Beginning the rappel
If you have a fireman belay, call out “On belay?” and wait for the response “Belay on!”. Once confirmed that you’re on belay, you can safely remove your personal protection. Be sure to keep one hand firmly holding the brake strand throughout the rappel start.
Once your protection is removed and you’re in position to rappel, call out “On rappel”. I have a habit of doing this vocally even when I’m rappelling alone. It’s just part of my routine now.
Learn more about climbing commands in this article: Belaying: Everything A Beginner Needs To Know – Don’t Let Go Of The Rope!
As you begin the rappel, sit back into the harness and gradually walk back toward the edge of the cliff.
Usually, the most exhilarating part of rappelling is the start. If you’re lucky and you have a good sloping start with a high anchor, it’s not at all challenging to just walk backward as you weight the harness keeping your feet shoulder-width apart.
More often than not, you won’t have a perfect start to your rappel. Sometimes you’ll have anchors right on the edge of the cliff or even down on the face of the cliff. You may have an overhanging start. It’s not going to work to simply walk off the edge in these cases. Each scenario is different, but you can make any start easier by choking up as close to the anchor point as possible. This may require that you sit on your butt or downclimb a bit to get a stance on the face of the cliff. Just don’t let go of the brake strand!
If you’re facing an overhanging or sharp edge, sit on the edge and slowly roll on your hips until you’re hanging on the rope. This can be pretty awkward, so don’t expect to have a graceful start on every rappel.
Hard starts can also pose a risk to the anchor and the rope. As you drop over the edge, be watchful of what impact your movements will have on the rope and anchor system. Do what you can to avoid shock loading the anchor or dropping the rope roughly onto a sharp edge. Move slowly and also keep an eye on your hands as its easy to pinch them between the rope and the rock.
Keep it smooth
Once you’re beyond the start and have a good rappelling stance, keep your eyes looking down so you can anticipate and avoid any obstacles along the rappel. Move steadily but smoothly down the wall. You may see people bounding down the wall in huge leaps, but this is terrible rappelling form. It adds unnecessary stress to the system and puts you in less control of your descent.
Be mindful of the friction on your rope. If you’re moving too fast, work to get the rope back further so it’s in line with the rappelling rope above you.
Wet or skinny ropes, especially on single-strand rappels, will require more friction, so plan for this in advance.
Read a trip report where I was on a wet, icy, single rope rappel: Donut Falls Rappel – Trip Report
You can add more friction to your system with a couple of carabiners by clipping one to your belay loop and the other to the belay carabiner and running the brake strand through the belay loop biner and then through the carabiner hooked to the belay device carabiner. This can be done while on rappel if you have the carabiners handy.
Watch for your landing
As you progress down the wall, keep an eye out for your landing spot. Whether on the ground or at the next belay station, you should be paying attention to where you want to end up. Watch for the ends of the rope so you don’t get hung up on the knots or land in an awkward place.
Once you reach your landing you can get stable footing under you if you’re on the ground or set up an anchor if you’re doing a multi-pitch. Once you’re secure, remove your prusik and the belay device from the rope and call out “Off rappel!” so the rest of the party knows what to do next.
A note on unclipping your rappel device either at the start or the end of a rappel. DO NOT DROP IT. It’s easy to let that little thing slip out of your hands and leave you hanging – er – unable to hang. If you find yourself in that predicament, you’ll be happy to know how to use the munter hitch.
So that’s the general sequence and process of rappelling. Of course, the myriad circumstances you find yourself needing to rappel will change this up a bit, but follow the principles outlined here and you’ll stay safe.
Here are a few additional considerations to help you make better decisions in various scenarios.
Vertical sports are, for the most part, team sports. Most of the time you’re with a partner or even a whole crew of people. There may be mixed experience in the group and varying levels of knowledge and skill. I frequently take beginners out climbing or canyoneering and learning how to work as a team so everyone gets up and down safely is paramount to continued success and fun.
The first rule of leading groups is, don’t take a group out unless the collective group has sufficient skill and experience to lead the entire group through the objective successfully. This typically means at least two people are proficient in everything we just discussed as well as all the other requisite skills for the adventure at hand such as outdoor navigation and wilderness first aid.
When a group is rappelling, the sequence of who rappels first and last is important to think through.
The first person down will be “testing” the integrity of the anchor and the rope placement. This often means the larger people go first as those up top are able to back up the anchor if it’s at all questionable. The first person down also won’t have a fireman’s belay at the bottom so will need to use a prusik as a backup belay. The first person should have enough skill and experience to manage these challenges and to help others from below when they get there.
The middle sequence of people isn’t hugely critical and each party may elect a different strategy for the middle folks.
The last person on rappel or if you’re a canyoneer, the LaPAR (Last Person At Risk), needs to have specific skills as well. If a person gets stuck on rappel for whatever reason, the last person, or someone still at the top, needs adequate skill to rescue the stuck rappeller. If releasable rigging is used, the last person needs to know how to operate the releasable system to lower the stuck rappeller. The munter mule is a good releasable system all rappellers should learn.
The LaPAR will need to be able to rerig the anchor to be retrievable if needed and will need to ensure the rope placement is ready for a clean pull from below. We’ll discuss pulling the rope in a minute, but basically, this person is the last chance to make any adjustments to the rope placement to ensure it doesn’t get stuck on the pull. The last person also needs to ensure no gear or trash is left behind at the rappel station (Always practice Leave No Trace!)
Additional thoughts on working with inexperienced teams
A good team works together quickly, and efficiently with everyone doing their part. As mentioned, oftentimes you’ll have beginners in your group. Here are a few tips to help beginners or veterans alike in certain situations.
Single vs double rope
So far we’ve discussed what a double-stranded belay looks like. A single strand rappel is mostly the same with a few key differences. The first is that with only one strand of rope, you’ll have less friction. Plan for this accordingly.
The more important consideration for single rope rappels where you’ll be pulling the rope from the bottom. An unfortunately simple mistake to make is connecting your belay device to the wrong side of a retrievable rappel rope. One side is meant to be pulled from below and the other is meant to be rappelled on. If you confuse the two and clip into the wrong one, gravity will win. This mistake is easily avoided if you perform the CHECK process and the system test discussed earlier. It’s always better to take a few extra seconds to be safe than to rush and get injured or killed.
Pulling the rope
Once you get to the bottom of the rappel and the team is ready to proceed to the next waypoint, you’ll need to pull your rope. At this point, all the planning and preparation for a good rope pull should have already occurred.
Even before you built your anchor, you should have found a good placement for the anchor to give the rope an easy pull. This means the masterpoint of the anchor should be in direct sight of the ground if possible and shouldn’t have any obstructions to the pull.
While at least one person is still at the rappel station, I always like to have someone on the ground conduct a test pull to ensure there aren’t any issues that can be fixed by the person at the rap station.
If there are knots in the end of the rope, be sure to untie them before pulling the rope. Begin the pull and try to keep a good smooth motion on the rope to prevent it sticking. Once the rope tail comes free of the anchor, you may need to give the rope a yank in a specific direction to keep it out of trees, or other obstacles.
Sometimes even with all these precautions, you’ll stick a rope. It happens. I won’t discuss all the options you have when you stick a rope here. If you have a stuck rope story, share it below for others to learn from.
Rappelling isn’t a skill you can master by reading this article. As with all skills, practice makes perfect. I recommend you take what you’ve learned here to a nearby playground or tree and practice the skills in a safe environment. Practice rigging an anchor and connecting your belay device. Practice checking the system and develop your own sequence and habits so that when you get out in the field where there are real risk and uncontrollable variables, your skills will be sharp and you’ll stay safe.
Heat exposure and dehydration
Hot hikes in and out of canyons are very common. You should prepare well for these hikes, but sometimes we underestimate the amount of water needed. Even if we do have enough water for a normal day, sometimes things don’t go as planned. You often end up in the sun much longer than anticipated. Having a backup plan for how to deal with heat and dehydration is important. Do you know how to find water in the desert? Do you carry a water filter? Also, wearing the right clothing to keep you cool and protected from the sun can go a long way. Full brimmed sun hats and long sleeve shirts can mitigate the heat and keep you from becoming a raisin.
One of the more common and perhaps the slowest way to die in a canyon is hypothermia. Canyons can deceive us. You go in when it’s 105 degrees outside in the middle of August and pretty soon you find yourself sloshing around in a deep and shady pothole filled 45-degree water that you may not easily be able to get out of. Unless pack wetsuits, drysuits, and also dry changes of warm clothes, you may actually freeze to death on a hot summer day. It happens regularly and sometimes entire groups disappear only to be found in a pothole dead from hypothermia. Who knows how long they struggled to get out. I don’t want to find myself in that fix.
Often inexperienced canyoneers drop into potholes that can be difficult to escape from. If you don’t possess skills and equipment for pothole escapes such as pack tosses, potshots, hooks and eretrier ladders, you may be stuck. If you don’t leave someone on the upstream side of the water, nobody may be able to help you out.
It’s critical that before you descend canyons with the potential for keeper potholes, you prepare yourself with the proper skills and gear.
Never let the entire group commit to a pothole until someone is successfully able to escape the downstream side. Leaving someone with a rope above the pothole allows people to get out if the pothole proves impassable. This safety tip may not get you down the canyon, but it will save you from dying a cold death in the pothole.
One quick way to die canyoneering is to enter a technical canyon without the right skills, experience, or equipment.
Let’s start with skills. Canyoneering, like any technical sport, requires techniques that are unique to canyon environments that you don’t usually learn rock climbing or in other rope sports. Many competent alpine climbers come into canyons and find themselves at serious risk because they don’t have the skills they need. To avoid dying from lack of skills, the simple solution is to only go with competent leadership experienced in canyoneering.
Even with a leader with technical skills, having the right experience and preparation is critical to not committing lethal mistakes in a canyon. This means not going into a canyon without doing your homework and knowing what you’ll run into in the canyon. If you’ll need a 200-foot rope, and you don’t have one, you’ll be in trouble. Also, if you bring an old rope not designed for canyoneering, you may suffer the consequences
Technical canyoneering isn’t hiking. Many inexperienced people end up in popular canyons without the necessary gear. Instead of rappelling, they try to downclimb or jump and frequently end up with sprains, fractures, or worse.
Flash floods are a powerful and destructive force behind the formation of our canyons. That formative force is also one of the greatest dangers to canyoneers. If you’re new to canyoneering, you may be tempted to jump right in and go explore. Beware – even on what appears to be a sunny clear day with no rain on the forecast for the area of the canyon, a quick hitting and isolated thunderstorm up to 50 miles away can send a lethal wall of water rushing your way.
So how do you know if it’s safe to commit on that first rappel? We won’t delve into forecasting floods in depth here, but to keep from dying, the main rule is to check the forecast for the entire drainage that feeds the canyon you’ll be in. If you check that no rain will come down the entire drainage and you avoid hanging out in the canyon longer than needed, you can usually stay safe.
But even with careful checking of the forecast, micro storms can dump enough water into a drainage in a hurry and when you’re in a canyon that’s only wide enough to fit through sideways, it doesn’t take a ton of water to kill you.
What do you do if perchance you do end up getting stuck in a canyon with a flash flood coming your way? You find high ground. That’s simple to say and much more complicated in practice, but in general, this requires you understand the signs of flash floods and pay attention to your surroundings so you always have an escape route when you need one.
Reading the signs of an approaching flash flood and reacting quickly are key. When passing through canyons prone to flooding you should continually think through your escape plan. Keep it top of mind and you’ll be able to react more quickly in case the worst happens.
Even with careful preparation, flash floods can strike like a thief in the night.
This one is related to flash floods and hypothermia and often occurs simultaneously with them. But people also drown in the absence of flash floods or keeper potholes. You can jump into a pool of cold water and drown because you’re wearing heavy clothes, shoes, and a backpack and don’t have the swimming skills to get out. This isn’t very common, but it can happen and should be planned for.
In class C canyons with flowing water, drownings are common when people don’t have the skills or training to swim safely. Getting your foot caught in a crack or on a log can quickly flip you face down into the water and you may not have the strength to right yourself if the water is flowing swiftly.
Although not common, snakes, scorpions, and spiders live in many canyons around the world and given the tight quarters in most canyons, you can easily find yourself sneaking up on and surprising creatures that don’t want you around. They can and will bite or sting. Medical support can be hours away and that’s if you can actually contact someone to let them know you need help. Sometimes you have no choice but to hoof it out and depending on the situation, death can be the outcome. You can pack snakebite kits, but the best prevention is to stay alert and be watchful of dangerous animals.
Do your homework beforehand so you know what species you may encounter and be comfortable identifying them.
Many canyons lie far off the beaten path and require overland navigation skills to safely find. Making mistakes with your navigation can be costly and even fatal. Going down the wrong drainage could mean you end up on a longer rappel than you’re prepared for, end up in a keeper pothole, get lost in the desert, or end up stuck in an impassable canyon.
I wrote a series of articles all about navigation. Brush up on your skills here so you don’t get lost:
- Leave No Trace
- Human Waste
- Rope Grooves
- Sharing Beta
- Ropes – Canyoneering ropes come in many breeds, colors, and styles – all designed for the rugged canyoneering environment.Some will fit your needs better than others for various reasons. This article will help you pick the right rope to add to your family and will discuss the care and feeding of canyoneering ropes once you adopt one. Let’s drop right in and see what makes canyoneering ropes so special. What makes a canyoneering rope tick? Canyoneering ropes are not the same as climbing ropes. They’re designed for static loads, sandy, muddy, wet, and abrasive conditions, and find their greatest joy by getting you from the top to the bottom of a canyon safely. They also know their owners may be carrying them many miles to and from the canyon – often in scorching hot conditions. That’s why canyoneering ropes are often narrower in diameter than climbing ropes. To survive the harsh conditions of canyon life, canyoneering ropes have evolved a thicker, tougher sheath and tighter weave than their climbing rope cousins. Their sheaths are typically made from polyester or Technora to make them light and durable and often have cores made of polyester, polypropylene, or Dyneema. The tight weave and core material and design makes canyoneering ropes very low-stretch. This is a huge help to their happiness and well-being inside canyons where stretching and bouncing leads to abrasion and damage to the poor ropes. The static nature also helps you, the rappeller, out when you’re 200′ feet over the edge and trying to stay in control of your descent. All these characteristics make canyoneering ropes uniquely suited for life inside canyons, but how do you choose the right one? Which canyoneering rope is right for you? The short answer to this question is – it depends. It’s largely a matter of personal preference. I won’t leave you hanging there though. Let me break down all the characteristics of canyoneering ropes you should consider when you go to the rope shelter to pick the right one to bring home to the kids.If you already know about canyoneering ropes, but want some solid info on the best ropes on the market, check out the canyoneering rope info sheet we put together for you. It has all the technical specs you need to make an informed decision including, price, weight, diameter, materials, and my comments on the best use for each rope. Get the Canyoneering Rope Info Sheet Diameter The current diameter range for mainstream canyoneering ropes runs from 8 mm up to about 10 mm. You can find strange ropes that are only 6 mm but those are for special people with special needs. We won’t discuss those here. Large diameter ropes over 10 mm can also be found, but again, let’s leave those to the eccentrics. The main concerns when evaluating a rope by its diameter are durability, weight, and personality. Personality describes the way the rope behaves while in use. A skinnier rope will typically generate less friction through your rappel device than a thick rope so you’ll have to prepare for that. Skinnier ropes also behave differently when trying to use friction hitches such as prussiks so practicing with your rope before getting into a canyon is recommended. The weight of a rope can make a big difference when you’re packing 300′ or more feet of it across endless miles of desert terrain. It also helps the rope pack into smaller space so you don’t need as big of a pack. Durability will be increased the thicker the rope is so choosing a skinnier rope is probably best for those with experience in handling canyoneering ropes in canyon conditions since mistakes in setting up rappels over sharp edges or getting ropes sandy and muddy can quickly reduce their life expectancy. Some other factors to consider when choosing the right diameter canyoneering rope are what rope size your rappel device of choice works best with. Some rappel devices don’t play well with skinny ropes while others aren’t designed for the beefy ones. Read the manufacturer’s instructions. Also consider the canyons you plan to descend in the near future with this new rope. If you’re aiming for bolted canyons with clean pulls, any diameter rope will work. If your canyon has difficult raps with sharp overhangs or snaggle-toothed rocks, you’ll want something more durable. Diameter also depends on your own weight and the weight of those you plan to bring along for the ride. If your rope is skinny and doesn’t like Clydesdales dropping on it, it will give you too little friction.– Material It should be obvious that different construction materials give canyoneering ropes different personalities and characteristics. What a canyoneering rope is made of makes a difference. Technora, Dyneema, polyester, and polypropylene are the most common materials used.
- Technora – Technora is an aramid fiber with high tensile strength, high abrasion resistance, and a high melting point. These traits make it ideal for many canyon situations. In canyoneering, long rope pulls can generate substantial heat, so Technora’s heat resistance is a desirable attribute. Technora may sound amazing, but it’s primary weakness shows up when things get wet – and they often do in canyoneering. Technora can absorb more water than polyester and Dyneema so Technora ropes tend to get heavy and waterlogged when you let them swim.
- Dyneema – Dyneema (AKA – Spectra) melts at a much lower temperature than Technora but doesn’t absorb much water. Dyneema is super strong so a little bit goes a long way and Dyneema ropes tend to be lighter than similarly sized ropes. Dyneema is slick as snot which means it doesn’t hold knots very well so if you’re not confident in your knot skills, Dyneema sheathed ropes may not be the right choice for you. One other interesting tidbit about Dyneema – it doesn’t pick up dyes very well so it’s often plain white, but if the albino rope is the look you’re going for, it’s a great color variety for you.
- Polyester – Polyester make great canyoneering ropes because the material is cheaper and it’s a very static material compared to the other options. Polyester is hydrophobic meaning polyester canyoneering ropes definitely don’t like drinking in tons of dirty canyon water. They stay pretty dry and also have good abrasion resistance. One area polyester canyoneering ropes tend to get poor marks is their tendency to stiffen up with age. This isn’t necessarily bad, but an old arthritic rope can be a bit harder to handle and can develop a crotchety personality.
- Polypropylene – Polypropylene canyoneering ropes are lightweight and resist absorbing water. They often float depending on the core material and sheath thickness. Polypropylene ropes also melt more easily than others. They can be great ropes for wet conditions, but not always the best all-around.
- One 200′ Imlay Canyon Fire
- Two 120′ Imlay Canyon Fire
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- Keep it clean – Clean ropes are happy ropes. Your rope is bound to get dirty in the canyon, just be sure to do what you can to avoid throwing it in the mud or sand. When you get home from the canyon, wash your ropes. Avoid using any chemicals to wash your rope with except for mild soap. Never use any oxidizers like bleach.
- Keep it dry – wet ropes degrade more quickly and can grow mold and mildew. Be sure to dry your rope out after it gets wet and before you put it in storage. Hang your rope loosely in a cool place out of the sun to dry it.
- Don’t abuse it – stepping on it, leaving knots in it, storing it in the back of your car in the hot sun, or using your rope in ways you shouldn’t such as sport climbing will kill your rope in a hurry.
- Keep it safe – perhaps the fastest way to destroy your rope is to rappel with it running over sharp edges without any edge protection. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but do your best to rig your rope in a manner that won’t damage it.
- Get better at rappelling – hero-style rappels with the guy bounding down the side of the building may look cool in the movies, but is poor form for canyoneering. Rappels should be steady, controlled, and not jerky. Shock loading your rope over a sharp edge or swinging back and forth will wear your rope out faster than nice, easy rappels.
- Keep it out of the chemical cupboard – ropes and chemicals don’t mix. Getting battery acid, oil, bleach, or even sharpie marker on your rope can weaken it and degrade the fibers. Keep it out of trouble.
- Don’t let it get sunburned – UV rays will degrade your rope over time. It should be stored in a cool dark place – just like your potatoes and onions, just don’t store them together. After cleaning and drying my ropes, I store them loosely coiled in bags to keep them from accidental exposure to anything that would do them harm.
- Core Shot – core shot is any time the core is visible through the sheath. This is a sure sign you need to cut your rope.
- Core Damage – Each time you inspect your ropes (which should happen every time you pull one out to take on a trip), run the entire length of rope through your hand and feel for bumps, divots, or other imperfections in the core. If you find one, it’s time to cut the rope.
- Sheath damage – if you can see the core at all through a worn-out sheath, either cut the rope if it’s isolated, or discard the entire rope if it’s uniform. When you discard a rope, be sure to cut it into short pieces that can’t accidentally be used to rappel or climb on.
- Frayed sheath – this is beyond just a bit of sheath fuzziness. When entire bundles of the sheath are frayed or broken, it’s probably time to cut the rope.
- Shiny rope – if your rope is shiny like it has a glaze on it, you’re probably descending too fast for your belay device. The glazing is typically heat damage to your sheath. Discard!
- Discoloration – if your rope looks like it just got came from the groomers and they bleached or dyed it, it was probably exposed to chemicals or UV rays and should be discarded.
- Old Age – the life expectancy of a rope that never goes out to a canyon to play but sits on the shelf its entire life is still only about 10 years. Soft goods like rope that keep you alive can wear out over time and should be retired even if they still appear to be in good health.
- Loss of Faith – Sometimes there’s no apparent reason why a rope shouldn’t be trusted, but if you feel hesitant about going out on a limb with a specific rope for any reason, retire it.
- Anchor building gear
- Wet Suit
- First Aid
Recent Articles on Canyoneering
Additional canyoneering resources I use all the time
Canyoneering USA is a great resource for anyone wanting to get into Canyoneering, especially in Zion National Park. Tom Jones is one of the grandfathers of the canyoneering community and a great wealth of wisdom.
Road Trip Ryan is a fabulous resource for canyon beta. Ryan Cornia is adding more canyons (and other adventures) all the time. If you want to get more details you have to join the mailing list, but it’s worth it.
The American Canyoneering Association This site is run by Rich Carlson – the father of modern canyoneering. The ACA provides certification courses in canyoneering for all levels. They also schedule rendezvous and other events.
Candition.com is a valuable resource for planning a trip. You can get recent canyon conditions and share your own observations for others.