Canyoneering is one of the latest adventure sports gaining popularity in the United States. Our brave writer tackles the rugged terrain of Utah to see what has thrill seekers hanging by a string.Photographs by John Burcham
There’s a little bit of a ledge from which to ease into the descent. Beyond that, though, the wall of oblong rock slabs -- my entry into the depths of Utah’s Water Canyon -- drops vertically 100 feet to the ground below. I’ve rappelled before, but my previous experience isn’t making sitting in a harness, dangling over nothing but empty space, any less nerve-racking. My adrenaline starts to kick in.
“Feet wide, take small steps, have fun,” instructs my guide, Jeremy Draper. I take a few baby steps, lowering myself so that my legs are perpendicular to the canyon wall, to begin my descent. I slip into a rhythm that allows me to look around and enjoy the view of the top of nearby Canaan Mountain.
This area in and around Zion National Park is the capital of canyoneering, a relatively unknown adventure sport that combines climbing, rappelling, bouldering, swimming, and hiking. Canyoneering is more than a thrill; it’s an exercise in problem solving and backwoods improvisation, as participants may have to calculate how to squeeze between canyon walls a few feet wide, navigate sheer rock cliffs, or swim through troughs of muddy water.
“It’s kind of like the average joe’s extreme sport,” says Draper, who has been guiding canyoneering trips for Zion Rock and Mountain Guides for the better part of a decade. “You see some cool stuff and get a little excitement sliding down ropes.”
Canyoneering, or canyoning, as it is sometimes known, took root in Europe in the 1970s and became popular in the United States in recent years. Today, the sport is practiced everywhere from Canada to Switzerland to Australia … even in Japan. Dean Woods, who owns Zion Rock and Mountain Guides, says he first began exploring U.S. canyons in the 1970s but that the sport didn’t become better known locally until about a decade ago.