Clambering Through Crevices: Canyoning Nepalese Waterfalls

Adventure Issue 84 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Alex Teh

I was shivering. My legs were quivering as if I was faced with a huge, dangerous, wild
animal. Instead, I was faced with a hug dangerous, wild six-foot drop into a water crevice, which seemed impossibly deep for an acknowledged non-swimmer. “Jump!” yelled  Chandra Ale from a spot beside the pool. The forceful jet of water coming from the waterfall above seemed determined to drown me as I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and leaped.

Canyoning is a sport that originated in the United States and involves traveling in canyons using a variety of skills and techniques derived from extreme sports such as abseiling (rappelling), rock climbing and mountaineering. Mostly done in canyons with fast flowing water, it has grown to be a very popular outdoor pursuit in countries such as France, Germany, Australia and Japan.

Although it may sound simple, canyoning is an activity that involves abseiling, sliding, jumping, swimming, and climbing down waterfalls through steep canyon walls to deep pools. This sport is unique combining many extreme skills and abilities into one, allowing the experienced and intrepid canyoneer to explore some of the most inaccessible, yet most gorgeous places on the planet. And as Nepal is undoubtedly one of the world’s most ruggedly beautiful places, canyoning seems to be tailor-made for the absurdly gorgeous canyons of in the mountains. Although just a recent introduction to Nepal, in 1996, the sport has taken off in a big way and many agencies now offer it to their clients. According to Chandra Ale, an outdoor expert and canyoning guide, he was among the first to try it out in Nepal.

“Just off the 95km marker on the Friendship Highway to the Tibet border, I made the first descent of the high canyon in 1998, beside the Borderlands resort. Man, was it fun!” he exclaimed.
In practice, canyoning will seem very familiar to those who have been rock climbing, just that it is done in the opposite direction. Immediately after the guides have done first descents for that particular canyon, they knock bolts into pre-drilled holes, screwing them on with a wrench, all the while, hanging precariously from natural anchors. There will always be a two-point anchor system, so that all activity is perfectly safe, even if one anchor fails.

When clients arrive for the activity, they are given a preparatory session at a low rock face just outside the Borderlands Resort. There, they take a crash course on how to lower themselves using the rope and what to do in case of an emergency. They are also taught rope safety and shown the type of equipment that they will be using.

And what is different from canyoning in the West and in Nepal is that canyons in Nepal are much more accessible than those in the West. According to accounts, it takes many hours just to trek to a suitable canyoning site in the West, whereas, in Nepal, many canyoning sites are located near the main highways, due to the mountainous nature of the country. Typically, a van can bring clients to the road near the site in the early morning, then the canyoning guides (typically two strong, experienced men) lead the way into the beautiful nearby canyon site.

After a grueling, yet peaceful walk up to the top of the canyoning site, the pre-trip briefing begins in earnest. The participants are required to change into the proper canyoning attire, starting with a thick body suit, waterproof and with padded knees and elbows, has padding for the knees and elbows, to protect the skin from the rough rocks that they’ll encounter. Next, they put on special booties, a type of footwear that is waterproof and that gives a good grip on the slick surfaces of the wet rock. A helmet is essential because knocks are inevitable, and a nasty bump to the head must be avoided at all costs. No hard objects are also allowed on the body. The most important equipment, however, is the body harness. The harness is specially made for canyoning, as it has a bum rest, which is a piece of thick cloth so that the participants can slide on their bums on the rough, wet rocks.

The participants are then tied up to the waiting rope while the guides fix up the lines. To get the full experience of canyoning, participants should also descend fast and practice a controlled descent so that the fun factor is increased. They also need to face the rock wall to look out for any obstacles and sharp outcroppings, which might knock into them.

After they’re locked into the safety ropes with their carabineers, the clients are ready to rock and roll! As many adventure seekers have discovered, the most exciting spot is at the very edge of a high waterfall. After the first descent (or pitch), they rappel another 25 meters down a steep canyon past wild rock formations and through powerful blasts of water. At the end, there is one last long leap into a waiting pool and then out and bundled off back to the resort or to Kathmandu.

Although the sport might look risky, the actual risk is much lower than the perceived risk. The guides, the first rate equipment and the continuous attention to client safety is reassuring, and there have been very few reports of serious injuries during canyoning. Some English tourists whom we met during our adventure told us about their canyoning experiences—that they didn’t find it very physically demanding and that it was “bloody good fun.” A 2-day package costs around 6000 rupees for the clients.

As I stood on that narrow strip of rock, with a wild waterfall coursing through just above me, of course, all these thoughts of safety did not make their way through my mind. All I could think about was whether I would land safely and make it back alive. But, I really had no choice. After I leaped, there was an interminable silence and an agonizing wait before my legs hit the water and I struggled to get hold of the lifeline that had been thrown out for me. Funny, though that was my only pitch for the day I was totally hooked on canyoning. Guess what—I’m going to do it again the next time I visit Nepal!