Canyoning in the Pyrenees
Summer afternoons lazing on the beach are deeply satisfying for a short period of time. But there comes a time in every Barcelona resident’s life when the call for something more invigorating takes hold and just won’t let go. After all, life in Catalunya has far more to offer than just the sand, sea and sky. So this summer, consider going to the Pyrenees for a new, and quite possibly unique, experience. Climb into a wetsuit and put your best foot forward, or rather, downward. Welcome to canyoning.
Not for the faint-hearted, canyoning involves climbing, swimming, crawling, abseiling, scrambling and even li-loing down narrow gorges formed in the rock face, riddled with numerous drops and waterfalls. Spectacular rock walls form the backdrop to this adrenaline-fuelled sport, called ‘baranquisme’ in Catalan and ‘canyoneering’ in the States.
Although this sport is practised worldwide, wherever rock faces and water are to be found, the Catalan Pyrenees are an ideal location, due to the temperate Mediterranean climate and accessible gorges. There are numerous centres in Catalunya that offer canyoning excursions, ranging from half-day trips for beginners without experience to ‘perfection’ courses for seasoned canyoners.
Mac Dulcet is an instructor at Rafting Sort Rubber River in the region of the Pallars Subirà comarca in the Lleida part of the Pyrenees. The centre was set up 1986, and is the oldest of its kind in Catalunya. Its employees guide groups down the Congost Collgat, a canyon with varying levels of difficulty. “Canyoning has become the centre’s second most popular activity, after rafting,” commented Dulcet. “It became hugely popular in 1988.”
The initiation routes for first-timers feature jumps down waterfalls that measure between eight and 10 metres. The perfection routes for more hardened canyoners have jumps of up to 25 metres. “Many people try canyoning, although people who do the sport are generally between 25 and 30 years old,” Dulcet said.
However, thanks to the different types of excursions, the age range of people wanting to try the sport is not limited to only young adults. “Children and adults over 50 are quite capable of doing the initiation route. It’s a sport that anyone can have a go at, provided they have a basic level of fitness, can swim and don’t suffer from vertigo.”
Vertigo is, in fact, one of the biggest problems when tackling a downward journey through the canyon. “We’re trained to help people that get blocked. If they freeze up on the rock face, we start by talking to them. If that doesn’t work then we move them into another position in which they feel safer.”
The sport does, however, involve a degree of risk and it is essential to go on part of an organised excursion with trained professionals. Although no serious accidents have happened during commercial excursions to date in Catalunya, fatal accidents have occurred in other parts of the world. In Switzerland a group of tourists drowned in 1999 while on a canyoning adventure trip as a result of flash flooding (instantaneous floods as a result of heavy rain or thunderstorms). Hazards like this, although real, do not pose a huge threat as long as the activity is carried out with professionals. “Eighty percent of all accidents associated with canyoning take place when people go by themselves, unaccompanied by experts or professionals,” warned Dulcet.
Esteban Verges is the manager and canyoning instructor at Cercle Aventura, a company specialising in adventure sports with over 17 years of experience, situated in the Cerdanyà region of the Pyrenees. Verges has been involved in canyoning for 25 years and also stressed the importance of going with trained experts. “Accidents have happened in Catalunya when people have gone canyoning without proper guides.”
The legal training required to be a canyoning instructor involves obtaining a specific license.Experience, however, is equally important. “Trainers should have several years of experience behind them,” stressed Verges. “This is just as essential as having the correct licence.”
The origin of canyoning is, like many other sports, based on a real-life skill that was once essential for survival, according to Darren Jeffrey and Travis McDaniel in A Brief ATS History of Canyoneering. Native American Indians camped at the bottom of southern Californian desert canyons during the winter, making use of the shelter and food. In the summer months, they hiked to the top of the canyons along narrow gorges where the climate was cooler. Following the European invasion of America, Native Americans used these established canyon routes to flee and hide from these interlopers. Gradually, the invaders came to understand that specialised equipment was needed to climb and descend the hundreds of canyons that formed the local landscape.
Documented accounts of canyoning expeditions as a technical sport in the US exist from the Sixties, with the advent of rock climbing and mountaineering. In Europe, canyoning began in the Eighties and Nineties, and is currently one of the most popular adventure sports.
How and where:
Season: end of March to the beginning of October, although the best time to go is during the hot summer months.
Equipment: climbing gear, static ropes, wet suit, waterproof top, helmet, buoyancy aid and first-aid kit. Hiking shoes or trainers that can get wet are also a must. The company organising the excursions will provide most of this equipment, but it is best to ask beforehand exactly what is provided and what must be taken along.
Cost: an excursion typically costs anywhere from €30 to €80 depending upon the level of difficulty and time involved. Initiation canyons generally last half a day, while routes of greater difficulty can last up to an entire day. People wanting to try the sport can book individually or with a group, with the former being incorporated into part of a larger group.
Rafting Sort Rubber River, Pallars Subirà (Lleida), www.rubber-river.com
Cercle Aventura, Cerdanya (Girona), www.cercleaventura.com
Three other thrills:
Descend the rapids with just a plastic sledge-shaped board as a float and a pair of diving flippers. Not for the faint hearted.
Rafting Llavorsí. Lleida, Tel. 973 62 21 58, www.raftingllavorsi.com
For just €20 you can bungee jump (ponting in Catalan) from a 25m high bridge close to the town of Esterri d’Àneu in Lleida.
Yeti Emotions, Tel. 973 62 22 01, www.yetiemotions.com
Although the best months for rafting are April til June, there’s still enough water in August to get the adrenalin rushing. Half a day costs €40. A full day costs €80 and includes a well-deserved midday paella al fresco.
Turisnat Pirineus, Tel. 973 62 10 08, www.raftingpallarsaventura.com