Splashing, sliding, dangling and diving in Jasper’s hidden canyons
“Just imagine you’re like a drop of water,
flowing down a crack in a mountain.”
Joe Storms of the newly minted company Rocky Mountain Canyoning is briefing participants for the first ever commercially-guided canyoning trip in Jasper National Park.
Myself, Estelle from Tourism Jasper and Kirsty from Maligne Adventures are getting ready to splash, slip, rappel and swim through the slots, slides, drops and pools made by millennia of rushing water in Two Valley Canyon (locally referred to as BS Canyon).
Clad in a black drysuit, draped in slings and carabiners and with miniature video cameras protruding from various pieces of his kit, Storms looks a bit like 007 as he does his final safety checks in the smooth-walled gorge just off the Maligne Lake Road. Storms’ business partner, Scott Campbell, looks equally as extreme with his various ascending and descending devices and specialized non-slip, rock-hopping footwear. As for Estelle, Kirsty and I, we’re decked in farmer john-style wetsuits, bright blue splash jackets and crotch-hugging, canyoning-specific harnesses. We might look like chicken-legged platypuses, but we’re actually aquatic guinea pigs. Commercial canyoning is big in Europe and New Zealand, Campbell says, but it’s relatively new to Canada. Rocky Mountain Canyoning got its permit to operate just four weeks ago.
“This has been years in the making,” Campbell says. “It’s very exciting.”
And beautiful. Having walked a few hundred metres down a sparkling hallway of limestone and bright green moss, our small group congregates at the first of what will be many ledges we have to negotiate. As crystal-clear Two Valley creek spills over the short drop, Campbell reminds us to find secure foot placements. Our neoprene booties feel for solid connections beneath the cold water, and we look for hand holds in the adjacent rock wall, occasionally using an outstretched arm from one of our guides for leverage. At some slippery spots we connect our harnesses to a rope which either Storms or Campbell use to lower us down; at other points we sit and scoot on the water-worn stone to facilitate a smooth landing. Estelle, who, through rock and ice climbing pursuits, has accumulated hundreds of hours on a rope, is at ease self-rappelling down some of the deeper drops. For Kristy, it’s her first time lowering off a ledge of any type, let alone one which marks the top of a cascading waterfall.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Kirsty says, her Australian-accented exclamation barely audible over the hydraulic rush. Later, when she jumps from a three metre-high rock into a glacial pool and plunges in over her head, she’ll repeat the same sentence, only louder.
That sense of empowerment is what Rocky Mountain Canyoning is trying to foster for its clients. Canyoning requires a certain degree of fitness, but the challenge is less physical and more mental, Campbell insists.
It tests people at a psychological level,” he says. “You’re in a canyon, it’s narrow, there’s water, it’s noisy. It’s a part of the mountain environment that most people never see.”
For Storms, canyoning is a special activity because it melds the terrestrial with the aquatic. That transition is what hooked him on the sport more than a decade ago.
“There are certain technical movement skills required but you don’t need the same level of endurance as you would as a mountaineer, provided you’re OK with water and heights,” Storms says.
Oh yes, the heights. For the most part, when we’re clipped into a rope, we’re being lowered down relatively short drops, between one and three metres. However, near the end of the four-hour outing, we come to a much larger precipice: a 14 metre sheer cliff which twists around a corner of the spiralling canyon so that you can’t see its bottom. I muster what remains of my nerve, sit back in my harness and air out. Less than a minute later, my hair dripping wet underneath my helmet, I’m high-fiving Estelle and basking in a sunny spot in the canyon.
“You’re so extreme!” she laughs.
“Just like a drop of water, going with the flow,” I stammer.
Rocky Mountain Canyoning will operate out of the Maligne Adventures office starting in September.