donderdag 10 oktober 2013

Summer holiday 2013 part 1: Canyoning in the Sierra de Guara

Even though I still haven't finished my journal of last year's summer holiday (I will, I promise! Better late than never right?!), I thought it was time to record the adventures of this summer. Autumn is starting to take over, but in my head I can sometimes still feel the Mediterranean sun on my skin. Its warmth is slowly fading, but the memories definitely aren't!

Mark and I had two weeks off, the last two weeks of August. The main season is almost over by then (so...not too many noisy tourists, and more important: not too many Dutchies still celebrating their holidays abroad. Seriously, you will run into those 'cheeseheads' at the most obscure places, even though we're from such a tiny country!), but the temperature is still perfect! Our first destination was Sierra de Guara, a sparsely populated area in the north of Spain, just south of the Pyrenees. You can compare the Sierra de Guara a bit with the Grand Canyons in the United States. It is a mountain massif (most of which is part of a national park) with a number of rivers cutting through it. Over time (lóts of time), these rivers have formed spectacular gorges, cracks and canyons through a process called erosion. Which makes this region just perfect for what we came to do: canyoning!

On the French side of the tunnel...foggy, but still dry. 

After a prosperous drive to the south of France, we had to make a decision: stop somewhere, camp for one night and drive the last bit to Lecina (our destination in the Sierra de Guara) the next morning, or keep on driving and arrive at Lecina that same evening. We chose the latter option, everything went so well and quick until then, the sun was still shining and we had enough time left. So it seemed like a sound choice! 
Well, of course we shouldn't have done this. It's probably never wise to drive 1400 kilometers in one day. 
You cross the border between France and Spain by driving through a one-way tunnel, high in the Pyrenees. On the French side it was a bit foggy, but still dry...and on the Spanish side it was literally pouring. Bienvenido a España!

Driving through hairpin bends over small roads (some even unpaved), along deep ravines (which, thank goodness, were pretty much invisible due to the mist and rain) it started to rain even harder. Like I already mentioned before, the Guara is very sparsely populated and some small towns are even completely abandoned, which gave our trip a spooky touch. At one point it was raining so hard that it became impossible to keep on driving. The windscreen wipers did the best they could, but they simply could not equal this amount of water. So we stopped at the side of the road and opened a huge pack of potato chips. 
Because food is always a solution :P.
Marks car got covered with moisture and was filled with the sound of ticking raindrops and cracking paprika chips. Outside it started to get even darker, because the evening was setting in. Yup, we should've stayed on the French side.

A while later, the amount of rain diminished enough to take off again. We continued our way towards Lecina. The number of towns and houses we passed decreased even further, until I seriously started to doubt if we were still on the right track. I believe I even sensed a hint of uncertainty in Marks voice, my never failing navigator. We should really arrive soon now, if we wanted to still be able to put up our tent and maybe find something to eat. At that moment, we were both a bit worried and frustrated, but right now, afterwards, I also kind of love this part of our trip. Thinking back of it fills me with that bittersweet sense of complete desolation and adventure. A feeling I did not often experience so far during my travels in Europe!

The Escalade base daylight.

Anyway, around 8 in the evening we finally arrived at the camping, which lies pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Exploring the dark, slippery terrain, we found the base camp of our course organization (Escalade) somewhere at the very back end of the camping. Finally, people! Dutch-speaking people! (Seriously, 90% of the Spanish people we met did not seem to speak a word English. And we happen not to speak a word Spanish, besides 'si' and 'ola'.) They were still eating, just starting their desserts. There were some participants of the course of the week before, all of them cozily sitting under canvas covers around wooden camp tables. Mark and I were welcomed at the table of the guides and chief of the camp. One of them introduced us to everyone, but it was too dark to really distinguish any faces (so the next morning everyone had to be introduced again). We were lucky, the cook of the camp told us she had some leftovers of their diner! It's a good thing it was so dark we couldn't see what we were eating, because - even though we were very hungry - we both thought it was, eehm..well, let's say 'a very special meal'. I don't mean to be unthankful, we were happy to have our stomaches filled again. I just hope I won't ever have to eat that 'special meal' again, whatever it might have been. 

After diner we went back to our camping field, trying to find a fairly dry spot. Which was impossible of course, it was still raining steadily. So we ended up building our 'emergency tent' (a small one, that we only brought for staying the night along the road) out of the car. Eehm...yeah, how should I explain this... We sat ín the car, with one window just a little bit down. Mark put the frame of the tent together and shoved it out through the window opening, while I was acting pretty useless and filming him with my phone, because it all seemed just so hilarious and terrible at the same time.  In the end, we had a tent. A wet tent, with wet bedsheets and wet not-so-happy campers. All we could come up with at that point, was to run to the camping bar and settle down for Bailey's. The bartender must have seen I needed it, because he gave me a double portion.

Mark building the tent, while our bedclothes were drying in the sun
(including my teddybear :P )

The next morning we woke on the hard ground. Because why should our air-mattress stay filled with air when all other things went wrong anyway? Oh was a new day, and the sun was shining. So we crawled out of our wet tent and sat down to cook water for coffee. Priorities first, and I think we deserved it! It took like forever before the water finally boiled on our small camping stove, Mark almost started showing withdrawal symptoms. Luckily we only had to do this ourselves that one morning. The canyoning-course was all-inclusive (breakfast, lunch and dinner...and coffee), and would officially start that same day in the afternoon. So we had plenty of time left to set up our real tent and make ourselves a little home for the coming week! I left this task to Mark, while I broke down our emergency tent and laid everything to dry in the sun. We met our neighbors the evening before already; a very kind German couple who also came for an Escalade (canyoning) course, only a more advanced one. That morning another attendee arrived, who would be in our own course group. He set up his tent besides ours, and so our camping field became cozy and dry in that saturday-morning sunshine.

In the afternoon our course officially began. Now let me start with explaining a bit about canyoning, and about why we chose to do this for our holiday. Canyoning (or canyoneering, as it's called in the US) is traveling in a canyon (following its course) using a variety of techniques, like abseiling, ropework, and technical swims, climbs and jumps. I took this definition from the wikipedia-page about canyoning, which I actually found pretty accurate, comparing it to what I've learned so far. So, if you're interested: read on over there! Why did we choose this kind of holiday? Canyoning is kind of related to climbing. You use a lot of the same techniques, especially when it comes to the ropes, belaying and abseiling. So with that in mind, we hoped to expand our knowledge on gear and ropework, but also on subjects like the weather, geology, etc. All those things are equally important to climbers as well as canyoneers! In other aspects, climbing and canyoning are also completely different though. The water adds a whole new dimension, and  canyoning (especially when you compare it with single pitch sport climbing) needs a lot more preparing and planning beforehand. We were just curious to see how we'd like this! And so our canyoning adventure began :)

The Rio Vero.

We met a couple more course attendants, though luckily the groups were quite small. It was the last week of the season for Escalade, so we were their very last course-group! All other attendants were male, but thankfully there was one other girl in camp: the girlfriend of the chief of Escalade, who was a guide as well.
We decided to go to the 'Basender' that afternoon. Our camping was located on the Rio Vero, one of the rivers flowing through the Sierra de Guara. Actually it's not much of a river these days anymore, rather a shallow stream. But a long time ago, the Vero must have been a strong flood, because it formed a deep gorge with several side branches. Its walls are high (around 800 meter), with lots of holes and little caves in it (typical for limestone). The Basender canyon is one of those side branches I mentioned, ending in the Rio Vero. From our camping, it took about 45 minutes to get to the start of this canyon, most of which involved climbing. This is inevitable, because with canyoning you always descend, following the river or river bed from its highest point to where it ends in the final current (in this case, the Rio Vero). This is not how it has always been though, by the way! In the earliest days of canyoning, brave men tried to defeat the canyon uphill, against the current (why, oh why?!)! 

Carrying boats upwards ladders...great idea guys.

The Basender is now a so-called dry canyon, there's no stream of water in it anymore (though I believe it still happens to become filled with water again when it's the rainy season). This meant that it's a perfect canyon to practice abseiling and rope techniques, without having to worry about the water-aspect yet. In the next picture you can see a typical canyon-topo: a little map that shows the process of the canyon, including all rappels or abseils (stated with R's, the height of the abseil next to it in meters), typical landmarks and other information. As you can see, the Basender doesn't have very high abseils and is a real beginners-canyon. One shouldn't think of it as a inferior canyon though, because it's also a very beautiful canyon with lots of so-called halls (open cave-like spaces) and stunning geological structures and formations. Our first encounter with a real canyon could definitely have been worse! Although we did not yet have to worry about the specific techniques of abseiling, ropework and belaying during this first day (the guide did all this technical work, we only had to enjoy and admire), we already found out that a lot of techniques were familiar to us, similar to what we do when climbing. We were ready for more!

I will make a little day-to-day list and try to give a short(?) summary of what we did on that specific course day, to provide you with a clear overview and spare my dear readers the (maybe very boring) details :)

Sunday: we did the Basender once again, only this time we had to execute a lot of the techniques by ourselves, after they were explained to us in the base camp. Did I also already tell you about the camp dog, Boef (belonging to the chief and his girlfriend)? He was a very enthusiastic young sheep-dog, crazy for balls and flashlights. He came with us this day to the Basender, with his own little harness for abseiling! Such a shame I don't have a picture of this :)

Filling our water bottles at a natural spring in the Rio Vero.

Monday: we started with more theory lessons. We practiced a lot of knots and how to build a variable abseil, and learned a bit more about necessary materials. In the afternoon, we had to show our newly obtained skills in the Portiacha canyon, another side branch of the Rio Vero. This canyon had some higher abseils (31 and 35 meters), that were really exciting! In the evening, we made plans and preparations for the big canyon we would do on tuesday.

Me abseiling in the Portiacha canyon.

Tuesday: on this day we probably did the most exciting canyon of the whole week: the 'Foz de la Canal'. This canyon, about an hour drive away from the camping, was our first canyon wíth water (and oh my goodness, it was cold!) Absolute climax was its 70 meter free abseil insíde a waterfall. I will not forget that moment, standing on what felt like the top of the world, looking down over the edge, seeing the waterfall disappear into a small current somewhere deep down under me...and then letting myself slide down the rope right into that mighty falling mass of water. It clanked onto my helmet, the 70 meter wet rope was heavy to put through my belay was hard work, but totally awesome. Oh yes!

The 70 meter waterfall/abseil in the
Foz de la Canal canyon.

Wednesday: time to relax a bit after our heavy day before, so we started with more theory lessons about weather, geology and safety. In the afternoon, we got the directions to another side branch of the Rio Vero and were sent away on our own, towards this 'mystery canyon'. Our assignment was to draw our own map/topo of this (dry) canyon, and compare it afterwards with the real one. It was a fun task, giving even more insight in the specific topography related to canyoning.

Thursday: today we did the Liri canyon (another one with water), on about 1,5 hour driving from the camping. The furthest away so far, and of course the one on which our car stopped working. I'll get back to that later, in part 2 of this summer holiday journal. The Liri was comparable to the Foz the la Canal, only without that superhigh abseil. It did had a lot of smaller abseils though (12, I believe), so plenty of opportunities to practice and get a bit more accustomed to quickly setting up and taking down abseils. We still lacked a bit of speed in those parts, which is definitely necessary if you want to do longer canyons (and get out before dark :P). The Liri also containt some nice jumps and natural water slides, which are fun! 

Happy Mark. I love seeing that smile so much :)

Friday: on this last day we did our least scary/exciting canyon, but also the most beautiful one. It was the Rio Vero canyon, which contains a lót of water. So plenty of swimming was involved, following the stream through cave systems, small tunnels and rock parties. The Rio Vero canyon doesn't contain any abseils, but it's neither a very simple, danger-free canyon. Every year a couple of accidents happen here, because water can do crazy things in caves and holes. For example there are syphons, gaps between underwater boulders. These gaps can create strong currents that can suck body parts in, trapping people underwater. Mark almost fell into one of those, and scared the hell out of me. Never do that again mister! There was also a sump (underwater passage), and some secret pathways that were pointed out to us by our guide (making us follow routes we otherwise would have never dared!). The Rio Vero canyon ended near Alquezar, a historic town around a medieval castle. Here we settled down for some well-deserved cold beers, before the taxi came to pick us up.

The pics of Marks waterproof cam turned out quite blurry, but this was
inside the Rio Vero canyon.

So...did we like our week of canyoning? My first answer is a definite YES! We had an awesome week that I wouldn't have missed. Of course we had our lower moments and frustrations, but overall it was a wonderful, adventurous and challenging experience. I'd like to add some pro's and con's though, just to make my point :)

  • Canyoning means awesome surroundings. Period. You will reach places that are otherwise impossible to reach, finding treasures that mother nature has hidden very well. The geological structures, rock formations, different kinds of colors and caves you get to see are simply breathtaking.

  • Canyoning is quite adventurous. It's more adventure than sport, actually (although the more difficult canyons require an excellent physical condition and perfect knowledge of techniques, material and rescue possibilities). It also requires a lot of preparation beforehand. You really have to sit down and make a plan. Make note of the time you need to get to the starting point of the canyon (which can reach up to several hours!), how long you will be inside the canyon and how much time is required to get back to your car afterwards. You have to take note of the weather, and its consequences for the canyon, especially when it's a water canyon. Rain can mean flooding, or even result in dangerous flash floods! You have to take note of the abseils, and how long they are. This will help you decide what materials you will need, how long your ropes have to be, etc. Besides this, you will have to prepare what you will take with you in your special canyoning backpacks. Besides ropes (which already weigh heavy enough), you want to bring as little as possible. You at least need a rescue set though, and when you will be in the canyon for, say, six might need some food too (oh..and coffee? Maybe? No..?). Well, you get the idea. Traveling through a canyon isn't something you undertake without preparation.

Landing on the ground, freeing myself of the rope. 

  • The water is cold. I mean, seriously, freezing, terrifying cold. After all, it's melting water. So even during summer it's still not comparable to the water you normally swim in outside. I am probably not someone who can stand cold very well, and having my period on the first day we went to a wet canyon might neither have helped. That very moment I jumped in the first deep pole, wearing a wetsuit that was a little bit too big (allowing the water to flow in way too much and quickly), my stomach cramped together and the coldness literally hurt. After a while, you'll get used to it. Getting a smaller, better fitting suit the next day also helped a bit, but still I had my moments where I was wondering if this terrible cold was really worth it. Of course you will never have perfectly fitting gear when it's provided by the course organization. It might be possible to solve this problem by buying a very good neoprene suit that fits me perfectly and is also thick enough...but that brings me to the next con:
  • The materials you need to go canyoning yourself are expensive. Reaaally expensive. We actually hoped we could use some of our climbing gear, but it turns out most comparable materials differ a tiny bit from each other and can't be used for both purposes. Climbing gear normally isn't 100% waterproof (doesn't have to be, so why make it more expensive?). Climbing ropes are dynamic, having a certain stretch (so falls won't be too static). Canyoning ropes on the other hand, have to absorb the water very well, and are more or less static. You will only be abseiling on them and don't need to take falls. These are just a few examples of a lot of subtle (but important) differences between climbing and abseiling stuff. So, if we want to proceed with this newfound activity, we will have to invest in new materials and gear...not something you decide on overnight!
You surely want to know you can trust your gear!

  • To get to the starting point of a canyon, you sometimes have to walk/ascend for a long time. Of course this is part of the adventure, and the route often goes through beautiful scenery. A canyon can really start in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization or roads! But well, if we wanted to go hiking, we would've chosen another holiday. In this situation, it's just something that's necessary to get to the point where you can begin with what you actually came for: descending the canyon. The fact that the route towards a canyon can take up to 6 hours, resulting in being tired of climbing all those hours before you even start canyoning, can be a little bit annoying. For the Foz de la Canal we had to ascend 500 meters in altitude, which was normally done in 1 hour (already pretty fast!). The macho men in my group though thought it was necessary to show off and do it in 45 minutes, with me trying not to loose them or keep them down. Seriously guys, was that really called for?! Pff, men...:P
Minutes before that terrifying 45 minutes of ascending.
Look at those macho men!

To summarize it, canyoning is definitely super duper awesome, but it also takes time, energy and money. It's not the easiest activity to undertake, but the trouble you will go through beforehand will be paid back for once inside the canyon. And don't forget the ultimate feeling of reward and satisfaction when you're finished, relaxing with a cold beer, evaluating the exciting, difficult or beautiful moments you just had and going through the pictures you took with your go-cam.

I'm a bit jealous of the German couple, who took the advanced course as I mentioned earlier in this journal. Their last day of canyoning was quite special, also for the guides who came with them. They traveled towards the canyon on the evening before, sleeping in a mountain hut (with only their neoprene suits with them, because you can't take any clothes with you in the canyon!). The next morning they had to rise incredibly early to ascend (by foot) to an altitude of 2500 meters, where their starting point was. Can you imagine the temperature (of the air as well as the water!) on that height? They would be inside this very difficult, technical canyon for about 14(!!!) hours, which meant they had to hurry and keep going if they wanted to get out before dark. So, a bit of pressure was involved. Afterwards one of the guides who went with them showed us pictures and movies he took with his waterproof cam. There was a lót of water, strong currents, crazy water slides and waterfalls. They were all extremely tired, and satisfied. Now thát is the kind of adventure you can undertake when going on with canyoning and proceed to learn the necessary knowledge and skills. Kind of promising, and attracting...

I do hope we will pick up canyoning at one point again. I don't know when and I don't know where, but I'd love to do it again.

Well, that was the first part of my summer holiday journal! I hope to write the second part soon, in which I will tell about the broken car adventures, and our second week in France, where we went for rock climbing (which is the wrong sequence, we found out. After canyoning all the callus on your fingers will be gone...and hell that hurts!). If you have any questions or comments so far, please feel free to let me know!

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