French Pyrenees lead the way in this exhilarating sport
For those who want an adventurous winter holiday, head for the Pyrenéan ski resort of Luchon. Situated in the heart of the Pyrenees, the Luchon area is a great destination for those who love multi-activity winter breaks. The specialist adventure holiday company The Adventure Creators offer a range of made-to-measure activities including the exhilarating sport of winter canyoning.
What is winter canyoning?
Numerous rivers and gorges run down from the 3000m peaks that form the natural barrier between France and Spain in the central French Pyrenees. In the hot summer months they provide a natural playground, a fun way to escape the heat of the day. In the hands of a qualified professional you use ropes to abseil down steep sided gorges, slide down natural toboggans or jump several metres into deep cooling rock pools.
However, in winter, canyoning takes on a very different and altogether more serious character. The idea that it would be fun to immerse yourself in icy cold river water was born in the river gorges of Quebec in Canada and over the past decade or so, it has gradually made its way across the Atlantic. Today, the Pyrenees leads the way in the development of winter canyoning in France.
What are the challenges?
The biggest challenge in winter canyoning is psychological. It is after all counter-intuitive to immerse yourself in freezing cold pools of mountain water and to ‘go swimming’ when there are icicles hanging off the rocks! The rivers also run fast in winter so security is taken seriously by your fully qualified and experienced guides. This is not an activity to be taken lightly.
So, your first question is sure to be just what protection will you have against the cold in order to avoid the onset of hypothermia? Don’t worry. For a winter canyon descent you will be fully kitted out in head to toe insulated neoprene drysuits under which you will wear a warm layer. The only body part that remains exposed is the face.
What can I expect from a winter canyoning experience?
The winter canyoning experience starts with the walk up to the starting point for the canyon descent. In full-on winter conditions this can be a spectacularly beautiful experience, with snow-covered trees and the snowy high mountains as the backdrop. The approach is always a great warm-up and snowshoes and/or crampons may be required depending on the conditions underfoot. Once at the start point, your gear and approach shoes will be transferred to the guides’ dry sacks for the descent.
Before you set off you’ll be given a thorough safety briefing and brought up to speed with abseiling techniques and rope work. Once you and the guide are happy, the fun can begin!
Your first plunge into the icy water will take your breath away, but you’ll soon find yourself jumping from icy ledges into deep rock pools, abseiling down icicle-edged waterfalls and sliding down natural toboggans into the chilly waters below. This is an exhilarating and intoxicating activity like no other.
The winter canyoning takes place around Luchon, near Saint Beat for ‘initiation’ and up the Oô valley for people who want a more adventurous day out! The descents are always chosen with safety in mind. There are get-out spots en route which allow the not so brave to skip any parts of the descent that they don’t wish to undertake.
Is winter canyoning for me?
Because of the nature of winter canyoning and the environment in which it takes place, this is a sport that is generally reserved for people over the age of 14 years. It goes without saying that you need to be a confident swimmer and not be afraid to be under water. A certain level of fitness would be useful as the walk in to the start of the canyoning descent may be demanding depending on the conditions. Some knowledge of ropework would be useful but not essential as your guide will cover the essentials before you set off.