Descending the Zemola Canyon in the Italian Dolomites

Canyoning - Is It The Perfect Sport?

Posted by Matt Heason on Sep 06, 2019

I remember watching a documentary once as a kid discussing the Badlands of South Dakota (USA), which in some far distant age played host to a large lake which was held back by a big plug of ice. Something caused the ice to rupture and within the space of 24 hours the entire lake emptied itself through a single narrow point which created one of the deepest canyons anywhere on the planet. Even at the age of 11 or 12 or whatever I was, I remember being amazed at the power of water to be able to cut through thousands of feet of rock and earth in 24 hours. Still to this day if the question is ever posed to me 'where and when would you go in the history of the planet if you had a time travel machine?' it is to South Dakota to watch this natural phenomenon taking place. 

I've written a few bits and pieces over the last year or so about how naming a sport or a hobby or a thing gives it credibility and a certain allure. Wild Swimming is a good example. Really, wild swimming is just swimming. It's something the human race has done for ever, but stick the world Wild in front of it and it becomes a thing, a thing with its own society, community and a raft of lovely new guidebooks. This is not a criticism, it's more an observation.


Canyoning is maybe less of a thing and more of a sport in its own right. It's essentially an extension of what we might in the UK, call Ghyll Scrambling, where you travel down the length of a river. Again, people have traced rivers from source to sea for centuries, but Canyoning differs by seeking out just the most technical sections. By technical, think steep, with waterfalls, pools and a relatively large amount of objective risk and danger. Like caving and cave diving, canyoning pioneers are pretty impressive folk, for the first people to descend a canyon are pioneering in the truest sense of the word. I've watched films on French teams being helicoptered into the most amazing jungle clad cliff faces on remote Pacific Islands (Reunion Island is home to some of the world's most amazing and extreme canyons) with thousands of metres of rope and tonnes of equipment in order to be the first to explore these amazing places.


With getting on for 30 years of rock climbing experience and a natural love of the water, (wild) swimming and exploration, I feel like we are living in a golden age of canyoning where websites such as and guidebooks such as Simon Flower's amazing 'Canyoning In The Alps' - are at our finger tips, whilst the likes of Decathlon stock a fantastic range of specialist kit to make the sport both safer and more comfortable.


We've just returned from a family trip to the Italian Dolomites. We set out with the assumption that we were on a rock climbing trip, my wife and I returning to a place we'd visited as students many moons ago, but with two boys in tow who've taken to climbing like monkeys to a temple. We'd assumed that our time would be spent juggling weather forecasts and psyche levels on the limestone towers made famous by the 1st World War and films like Cliffhanger. But the reality turned out somewhat differently. We did climb. But we also went canyoning.


Initially we were driven to the southern fringes of the world famous mountain range by a prolonged string of violent afternoon thunderstorms. The weather down there was better, and we knew from Simon's guide that there were a handful of canyons to explore. We'd done a few canyons in France over previous summers, generally feeling our way with cobbled together bits of climbing gear and general purpose wetsuits, watching and learning from guides as they efficiently took groups down the same routes. This year we were a little better prepared. I purchased a Decathlon (Maskoon) canyoning wetsuit top having shivered my way down the Upper Chassezak canyon in the Ardeche last summer. Actually, that was the only specialist bit of kit we had with us. The boys already have 5mm steamers, we used climbing harnesses, wore board shorts and trainers, and carried everything in a heavy duty waterproof rucksack. One lesson I had learned from last year was to take shorter ropes as they have a tendency to be carried by the constantly flowing currents and get tangled.


So we arrived near the town of Belluno in the sun, weary from a long, long drive, but psyched for some action. And boy were we rewarded. Simon's book has a couple of pages on the grading system and we aimed low to start with to get familiar with it. Like many grading systems there are multiple levels to it. The Aquatic character is the principle one we were concerned with and is graded from 1 to 7. 1 being a walk in calm water with brief swims, and 7 being the realm of complete nutters. I quote: 'Progression in very strong currents, rendering swims and pools very difficult to negotiate; violent movements of water, with a danger of prolonged submersion or entrapment; simple jumps over 14m or jumps over 10m with an awkward take-off, trajectory or landing; sumps of more than 3m long or deep; technical sumps over 1m, with a current or poor visibility". Suffice to say we wanted to avoid 7s…


All the canyons we did were fully equipped with stainless steel abseil stations which, combined with the topos in the guide book - meant we felt comfortable what we were doing. The abseiling was by no means always easy or straightforward and a level of competency is definitely required at all times by all parties. We had good 5mm wetsuits, neoprene socks, a dry bag with first aid kit and mobile phone, a knife on hand to cut a rope in an emergency, spare food, and enough slings and karabiners to keep everybody safe on the anchors. We wore running shoes with rubber designed to be stick well on wet rock and the boys wore neoprene gloves and hoods too. I carried a waterproof camera which, to me, was one of the most essential pieces of equipment. We carried a 30m and a 20m rope which between them, worked perfectly for all the canyons we chose. Oh, we also wore helmets as slipping is a very, very real danger.


A quick note on ropes and abseiling. The single most significant thing that is required of you whilst canyoning is to pull your rope down after the first abseil. If an abseil is 10m, then you loop a 20m rope through the bolt/s, descend the twin ropes, and pull one end once everybody is down. At that point you are totally committed. There is literally  no going back. Not even the best rock climbers in the world would be able to ascend some of the overhanging, wet and slippery faces that you go down. The only way is down, to carry on in the knowledge that others have been there before you, equipped the route with the necessary equipment, and mapped it out in a topo in a guidebook. A flash flood is your worst nightmare so it's essential to be well aware of the weather forecast in the local area. It only remains then to not have an accident. If that level of commitment floats your boat then you really ought to try it.


As a reference to anybody else heading out to try any of these canyons I'll list those that we did with a brief description of how we found them. I can say that the guide was spot on in every instance, one of the best guides I've ever used for anything. The only thing to be wary of is the time given to get down them. In virtually every case we took at least 50% longer than the guide suggested, but that's largely a combination of being a group of four, with two boys who like to keep going back and doing jumps and slides again and again!


So, in the order in which we did them:


Torrente Chiadola - *** V3.A2.III

Was a nice introduction. Super short walk in and out. A few abseils, a few jumps, a few slides. Very enclosed. Felt safe.


Alba-Molassa *** - V1.A3.II

More of a float, walk and swim in amazing rock scenery this one. Nothing technical about it. No equipment other than wetsuits needed. We didn't take helmets, but wished we had done.


Zemola ***** V4.A4-5.IV

Having tackled the first two and then reading about this gem in the guide, described as one of the best canyons in Italy, we decided to push the boat out and up the grade. We skipped the first section as the pools sounded a little too turbulent for us as a family. We were not disappointed. Here's what I wrote about it on Instagram that evening. Truly, truly spectacular. Relatively technical compared with the previous outings, but all achievable with a level head. It was so good that we met friends there a week later and did it again with them. Interestingly there was much less of a frisson the second time around as we knew exactly what to do. This was a good illustration that even though the canyons have been equipped and we were not truly pioneering, doing them for 'our' first time required a level of concentration and commitment above and beyond most other sports.


Ciolesan *** - V3-4.A3.III

Snuck this in on the last day. The boys' favourite as it had more jumps and slides in it, including one jump into a white water plunge pool we measured at 9m, and a slide-jump perfect for flipping off. We also came across a fire salamander deep within the mossy confines of the lower reaches, underneath a cascade of spring water. A few relatively technical abseils.


I titled this Blog 'Is Canyoning the perfect sport?'. Clearly there's no such thing otherwise that's all everybody would do, but for me, and for us as a family, it’s definitely our favourite. It's a fantastic mix of exploration, commitment, technical movement, acrobatics, adrenaline, sublime and ethereal places that very few have trodden, flora and fauna. It's like being in the rib-cage of the earth, curving rock arches and flutes on all side. Entering the real world, bathed in sunshine as you exit a canyon and remove your wetsuit and helmet is akin to removing your walking boots after a long day on the hill, but a hundred times better.

Video & Photo Gallery Below:


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