Getting her feet wet: Putting the can in canyoning

“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

 

The catchphrase at the bottom of Joe Storms’ business card is a challenge in no uncertain terms.

And so, with an invitation to experience canyoning with Storms and his nascent Jasper National Park company, Rocky Mountain Canyoning, I took the plunge. 

Our adventure was to take place at Ogre Canyon, a geological feature known to few outside of the climbing community. The canyon lies about seven kilometers outside of the community of Brule, just outside of Jasper National Park. To get there, we drove along a gravel back road lined with bushels of Saskatoon and Buffalo berries and featuring the occasional horse jam. We left the van in a muddy pullout along the access road, bringing with us only the gear we’d need for the trip – wetsuits, hydroskin thermal layers, harnesses, helmets, splash tops and neoprene booties. From there, we made our way up a low ridgeline toward the canyon access point, about a 15-minute hike from the trailhead. To the east we could spot the first waves of the foothills; to the west, Roche Miette cut the sky like a great red diamond. Brule Lake stretched outbelow, along with the occasional passing freight train. The ridge itself seemed to come up out of nothing. As one of the other two clients on our trip put it:

“Now I can tell my mates that I’ve been atop the first of the Rocky Mountains.” 

Relishing our adventure time, we played around in the upper canyon before heading downstream, bridging across the limestone walls and hunting for fossils 

along the way. Being only 5-foot 4-inches tall proved a bit of a challenge to properly span the chasm in spots, but Storms helped me find alternative routes.

“It’s not about height,” he said, “it’s about finesse.”

It’s also about psyching yourself up. As we made our way back to where we’d ditched the ropes and got ready for the real business, one by one, we hooked a double-locking carabiner into our harnesses, stepped our heels over the edge of the precipice and took a deep breath. Looking at Storms, who had lowered himself over the first small ledge and who could run across nearly-vertical walls like some kind of aquatic mountain goat, I was confident that he wouldn’t let me plummet to my death. Still, there’s something about dropping into a wet, rocky unknown that makes the heart beat a little bit faster. I pulled in the slack and stepped over the edge.

“Going down!” I shouted.

I tried my best to walk down the wall, but I lacked Joe’s sure-footedness. In fact, I had the traction of a gerbil in a bathtub. After about 30 seconds of flailing, my feet finally found flat canyon floor. One blow on the whistle meant we were on the ground and off the line.

“Tweet!”

Joe rappelled after us, pausing partway to flip upside-down, Spiderman-style. To my distress, Spidey pulled the rope down after him; this was the point of no return. The only way out of the Ogre was down.

After the first rappel, however, the next eight became less scary and more thrilling. Joe taught us to be each other’s safety nets and we began to rappel ourselves without his help. We seemed to shrink into the canyon as the walls around us grew taller, stretching towards the pale blue roof of a clear day.

About four rappels in, we hit the highlight of the trip: the infamous Turbo Wash, a high-volume and low-temperature waterfall that shoots through the route. The rock leading to the Turbo Wash is smooth like a slide and curves around a boulder before dropping down, so most of this rappel was out of the sightline from the anchor. Rather than rappelling ourselves, Joe lowered us in so we could enjoy the ride.

Sitting on the cliff, about to drop into the powerful cascade, I was momentarily alone, save for the tugs on my harness. Even with an intense harness wedgie and my wet gerbil paws still a far cry from our guide’s aquatic goat hooves, I’ve never felt so intrepid. The last time I did something for the first time? As a matter of fact, it’s right now.

“Going down!”

Megan Warren // info@thejasperlocal.com

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