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M Technical Canyoneering for the Ultralight Backpacker

by David Chenault

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Article Summary:

One of my favorite places to backpack is the Colorado Plateau, in the southwestern United States. Folks with much broader and wide ranging experience than me agree; it's one of the coolest backpacking destinations on the planet. Part of what makes the Colorado Plateau (CP) so enthralling is the variety of terrain, and the often shockingly vivid contrasts found within an outwardly monolithic desert landscape. While the massive vistas are as good as those in any mountain range, the most striking and unique places within the CP are the most narrow and tortured canyons. They define the CP and set it apart from any other place. Travel through these canyons often requires extra-ordinary approaches and techniques, things not well replicated by any other backpacking environment. This article will outline approaches for multiday travel in the most rugged and iconic places within the CP, and suggest methods and places for further information and training.

The article will restrict itself to technical and semi-technical canyoneering, the peculiarly American sub-genre of canyoning, which has evolved specifically for the CP. Canyoning, as practiced in places like Europe and the mountain ranges of the American Rockies and Cascades, is most often done in relatively broad granite or limestone canyons. Canyoning often involves flowing water, a rarity on the CP. Also, CP canyons (and thus canyoneering as it most often conceived) are most often sandstone. Dryer sandstone canyons, often in serious wilderness, demand a different approach than flowing water canyons cut from harder rock. A separate treatment and term makes sense, and thus this article will restrict itself to canyoneering techniques, which are quite distinct from canyoning. Technical canyoneering has a simple definition; it is canyon hiking where ropework, 5th class climbing moves, or both are required to negotiate the route in question.

Extended Scenes from Dan Ransom on Vimeo.

What does technical canyoneering look like? These outtakes from Dan Ransom's Last of the Great Unknown show a lot. Ransom et al's film is well worth the purchase price.


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