A 135-foot rappel in Oak Creek Canyon
Andrew assisting an intermediate canyoner at the top of the waterfall
Rappelling through the flow in Oak Creek Canyon
Photo credit: Gus Schiavon
There's rock climbing, there's swimming, and then there's canyoning, which combines a little bit of both — and then some. Canyoning has been described as rafting without the raft, but this up-and-coming Colorado adventure sport seems to defy most attempts at definition. Better let the expert, Andrew Humphreys, owner of Canyoning Colorado, tell (and show you) all about it.
First things first, what exactly is canyoning?
Canyoning/canyoneering is the sport of descending into a steep creek with enclosed walls. These creeks cut deep into the landscape, forming narrow canyons with waterfalls. Each canyon presents different features and challenges, and as you approach a waterfall or cliff edge you decide the best route down. There are multiple ways to move through canyons, including walking, rappelling, scrambling, jumping and sliding.
Rappelling into waterfalls … is that dangerous?
As always, there are inherent risks when exploring natural environments, and due to the nature of the activity it is not possible to eliminate all risks. If you're new to canyoning, a professional with experience and training in the sport can significantly reduce these risks. Canyoning Colorado employs instructors with international certifications specific to canyoning. If you want to do it on your own, it is highly recommended that you seek out a canyon-specific training course, since the techniques and risks are different from other rope sports, like rock climbing.
Take us through one of Canyoning Colorado's expeditions. What can people expect to see/do/experience?
If you came prepared, you'll have your swimwear on beneath your clothes and a good, high-energy breakfast in your belly! After an introduction and pre-trip briefing by your instructor, you'll jump in our van and take a short drive to the canyon. Here, you'll get suited and booted, wearing a neoprene wetsuit, harness, helmet and the boots you hiked up in.
This is when the training begins. Your instructor will introduce the equipment and basic progression techniques, and after a few practice rappel sessions it's time to begin the descent. The enclosed canyon walls are sculpted by thousands of years of erosion, intricately carving narrow passageways, large rooms and pools. This unique environment is both awe-inspiring and committing, and you'll see places that only canyoners can get to.
After some walking, scrambling and down-climbing through the creek, you'll reach your first waterfall. With the support of your instructor you will set up and rappel down, carefully navigating the vertical terrain while the water crashes around you — or even better, on you! With each rappel, you'll feel your skills and confidence improve. The biggest rappel in our Portland Creek beginner canyon is 60 feet.
Once you reach the end of the canyon, there is a short climb out. With the assistance of ropes and your instructor, you'll gain the rim of the canyon. If you signed up for a half-day trip, you'll receive your Canyoneer Initiation certification and say your goodbyes to instructors and fellow teammates. If you signed up for the Combo Tour, you'll take a break for lunch (included) before heading back out. The full-day Combo Tour is our most popular!
Can anybody try canyoning, or does a person need to have climbing or outdoors experience?
No previous experience is required to go canyoning in Ouray. As members of the International Canyoning Organization for Professionals (ICOpro), we train all of our customers in the canyon. While having fun, you complete the Canyoneer Initiation and receive a card from your instructor as confirmation of what you achieved. For our intermediate and advanced trips, previous experience is required. These trips are long and demanding, and your instructor will help you build upon your knowledge to take on bigger and stronger waterfalls.
How did you first get into the sport?
In 2009, I moved to New Zealand and became a canyoning guide in Queenstown. My background as an outdoor guide with experience in whitewater and ropes meant I was a suitable candidate for the job, and I learned and worked alongside canyoning professionals from around the world.
After some more formal instruction I began working year-round in canyons, traveling between the northern and southern hemispheres (back-to-back summer)! I worked in Switzerland, Japan, Greece and Indonesia, slowly becoming a leading expert in the sport. In 2015, I organized a canyoning expedition in Taiwan — the world’s longest descent in a canyon at the time. I started Canyoning Colorado with my wife in 2016.
What are some of the best spots for canyoning in Colorado?
Ouray, of course! There are more water-filled canyons per square mile here than anywhere else in the United States. There are certainly more canyons in the San Juans, and quite a few popping up along the I-70 corridor. There are also some dry canyon areas in the Western Slope.
Tell us about one of your most memorable canyoning experiences.
With thousands of descents in my lifetime, I can think of quite a few experiences! If I have to choose one, there was a slide in Switzerland that I thought was really fun/funny. It was the perfect angle that you could jump in the air and land directly on the slide — no, it didn't hurt. After about 20 feet of sliding, your body would leave the rock and you'd fly over a 10-foot gap, then reconnect with the rock before entering the pool below. You couldn't see the gap from the top, so it definitely came as a surprise. But the real surprise was when you came back to the water's surface. The landing pool was a popular nude sunbathing spot, and the people there were certainly startled to have someone drop from the waterfall above!
For those interested in canyoning, what's the best way to get started?
Book a day trip and see if you like it. Once you've progressed from beginner to advanced canyoning trips with professional instructors, it's time to start thinking about venturing out on your own. We offer an eight-day Canyoneer Level 1-2-3 recreational course for those looking to be autonomous in the canyon. This highly intensive course is regarded as one of the best introductory canyoning courses in the world. We are offering the course in August and September of 2018.
Any misconceptions about canyoning you’d like to clear up?
It’s a common misconception that the best time to go canyoning is in July and August. The combination of expert instructors and canyoning-specific equipment means you can go canyoning May through October in Ouray.
Why are you inspired to live and work in Colorado?
Colorado's mountain ranges are world-famous, and they offer real mountain-town living. My wife and I picked Ouray for our business, not only for the variety of canyons but also for the beauty and lifestyle. In addition to canyoning, I can go kayaking, ice climbing, rock climbing and skiing within a 20-mile radius, sometimes with only a five-minute walk from the front door. We are lucky to call the San Juan Mountains home.