Every month activity expert Judy Armstrong introduces a pastime to help you make the most of France’s great outdoors. Judy has bases in England and the French Alps and her recent adventures include ice diving in Tignes and walking the GR20 in Corsica.
CanyoningIt’s hot outside – so, how best to cope with the temperature? I recommend the following: wedge yourself into a wetsuit, jam a helmet on your head, wriggle into a harness, clip onto a rope and leap down a waterfall. Then swim down the river, slide down a slippery rock chute, scramble over a few rocks and leap into a pool. No, I haven’t gone mad. This is a sport called canyoning, and it’s about as much fun as you can legally have outdoors. It sounds extreme – but honestly, it’s not. With the right instructors, equipment and location, it’s suitable for all but the youngest adventurers. And for les petits, a toned-down version called randonn�e aquatique is the perfect antidote to computer games and television cartoons. Provided you can swim, aren’t terrified of heights and are ready for a fun-in-the-sun challenge, canyoning could be just up your street. Actually, make that your river.WHAT IS IT?Canyoning is a means of moving down a waterway; a river, gorge or canyon. It can involve walking, climbing, scrambling, abseiling with ropes, swimming or just sliding with the flow. The best locations feature narrow gorges with beautifully sculpted rock, or slabs, waterfalls and rock chutes for jumping and sliding (also called toboganning). France is home to some of Europe’s best canyoning locations so read on for some ideas.
TECHNIQUES & SKILLSFor your first time canyoning, it is essential to join a guided group. In fact, most people only ever tackle the sport with instructors, taking advantage of local knowledge, safety and access to specialist equipment. A crucial element is your sense of adventure. As for techniques, if you need to use a rope to descend a gorge, an instructor will show how to use the harness and descender. It’s not difficult or even particularly technical, but concentration is key.Hazards include the risk of flash flooding (a downpour in the distance can affect a river or canyon with startling speed, and it can be difficult to escape from a steep-sided gorge) and hypothermia (this happens when you get too cold and is a good reason to wear a wetsuit). Jumping into pools is only a good idea if an instructor says it’s safe.
EQUIPMENTWetsuit: Besides keeping you warm, it protects from abrasion, sharp rocks and spiky vegetation.Buoyancy aid: Depending on the canyon location, you may be supplied with a buoyancy aid: a close-fitting life jacket suitable for wearing while swimming. If your instructor says you need it, you need it. Rivers can be deep, and no matter how strongly you swim, you are never unsinkable.Footwear: You will be descending gorges and jumping down waterfalls, so shoes will get wet and must cope with slippery surfaces. Trainers are acceptable but it’s safer to wear shoes with sole grip, support, synthetic/mesh uppers, drainage ports, maybe even neoprene collars. They are usually called amphibious, watersport or canyoneering shoes. Brands worth checking out include The North Face, Merrell, adidas, Salomon, Five Ten.Helmet: Canyoning takes place in a rocky environment so the chances of banging your head or having a rock fall on you, are reasonably high. Make sure your helmet fits! If it falls off when you leap down a waterfall, it’s useless.Harness: Specialist canyoning harnesses are made from materials that resist abrasion and don’t soak up water. Compared with a climbing harness, they have a higher clip-in point for the rope, making it easier to handle with wet or cold hands.Other specialist kit includes static ropes, descenders, rope packs and first aid kits. Leave this lot to your instructor. The sport of canyoning is growing in popularity. Many adventure companies now offer introductory half-days or full day adventures, including equipment, instruction and, sometimes, insurance. Prime locations include:
n Rh�ne-Alpes: The northern Alps of Is�re, Beaufortain, Maurienne, Annecy and Vercors are hotspots for canyoning. The combination of snow-covered peaks, abundant waterfalls and relatively easy access draw learners and experts alike, with glorious Lake Annecy as a popular base. • Near Annecy: Angon and Montmin canyons offer inspiring introductions to canyoning, with waterfalls and wilderness. In the Beaufortain, the Canyon du B�n�tant offers vertical drops down fast-flowing waterfalls. In the Maurienne valley, the Canyon de l’�cot is famed for its sculpted rock and smooth vertical drops. The Vercors massif is cobwebbed with deep-cut canyons, with Le Canyon des �couges au Sec as a must-do for experienced canyoneers. • Annecy: Takamaka: Options include a two-day course with a descent of the Angon canyon. Tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 60 61, www.takamaka.fr Mont�-M�dio: www.montemedio.com and Sensation Montagne: www.montagnesensation.com. Highlights here include Angon and Montmin canyons. • Beaufortain: Canyoning en Tarentaise: Tel: (Fr) 4 79 01 03 66(tourism office tel: (Fr) 4 79 38 38 62, www.lebeaufortain.com)• Maurienne: Bureau des Guides, Aussois: Tel: (Fr) 4 79 20 32 48 (tourism office tel: (Fr) 4 79 83 23 94, www.maurienne-tourisme.com). Options include a half-day introduction in the Canyon de l’�cot near Bonneval-sur-Arc (Tel: (Fr) 4 79 05 95 95, www.bonneval-sur-arc.com)• Also check out the Sports section of www.rhonealpes-tourisme.com tel: (Fr) 4 72 59 21 59n Mercantour: The Mercantour National Park, in the Provence-Alps-C�te d’Azur region, has that sublime combination of Mediterranean climate, coast, mountains – and rivers. Mercantour has some of the richest options for canyoning in France, with sites including: • Le Var et le Cians: the Clue d’Amen is famed for its high, narrow waterfalls which are tackled by jumping or abseiling. It’s wedged between the Gorges de Daluis and du Cians, exciting destinations in their own right. • Les Vall�es de la Roya-B�v�ra: Clue de la Maglia is a classic, with its series of jumps, abseils and swims in a deep river, with a passage through a magnificent cave as a highlight. • La vall�e de l’Est�ron: Home to prime routes including Clue de la Cerise, Clue des Mujouls, Clue de Saint-Auban and Clue d’Aiglun, with it narrow passages and emerald water. For inspiration and details, visit www.guideriviera.comn Loz�re: Natural wonders in the sunshine department of Languedoc-Roussillon include the C�vennes national park, Mont Loz�re and the Gorges du Tarn and de la Jonte. Top sites for canyoning include the Canyon du Haut-Chassezac, which features glissades on smooth granite and short waterfall abseils. Other top spots are the canyons Rieutort, Fustug�re and Roujanel, all in the Mont Loz�re area. There is so much choice that operators, including Mont Loz�re Aventures (tel: (Fr) 4 66 49 22 61, www.montlozere-aventures.com) offer multi-day courses.Other canyoning companies include:Grandeur Nature: Tel: (Fr) 4 66 46 80 62, www.grandeurnature48.comBulledo Quezac: Tel: (Fr) 4 66 32 28 15, www.bulledo.frC�vennes Evasion: Tel (Fr) 4 66 45 18 31, www.cevennes-evasion.comGorges du Tarn et de la Jonte:Duffau Serge, au Rozier: Tel: (Fr) 6 88 75 71 86, www.foret-acrobates.com Loz�re-nature � Saint Georges-de-L�v�zac: Tel: (Fr) 6 33 90 31 36, www.lozere-nature.comn Ari�ge, Midi-Pyr�n�es: The Pyr�n�es has a clutch of highly regarded canyon sites in the Gavarnie and Sierra de Guara massifs. Lesser known but equally exciting are the canyons of Ari�ge, including sunny Lanoux and the gorge of Canyon de Marc fed by water from Montcalm, the highest summit of Ari�ge. For beginners, the little Canyon de Mounges is perfect for confidence-building, and for thrill seekers, the Canyon de l’Artigues has a dozen waterfalls for abseiling, jumping and sliding. A new topoguide, Canyons et Cascades, gives a comprehensive low-down on the sport in this area. Operators include:Ax-les-Thermes: Montagne Passion : Tel: (Fr) 5 61 64 31 51, www.montagnepassion.comAx-les-Thermes: Bureau des Guides : Tel: (Fr) 5 61 01 90 62, www.guides-ariege.comn Haute Savoie: As you’d expect from one of Europe’s adrenaline magnets, Chamonix and the surrounding area is spoilt for canyoning choice. Companies including Oxo Mont-Blanc Canyoning, Cham Aventure, Evolution 2 and Kailash Adventure offer canyoning in their watersport programmes. Tel: (Fr) 4 50 53 00 24 or visit www.chamonix.com for more information.