Canyon Tales
Agony and Ecstasy
by Mike Dallin

A brief update about Spain, from Barcelona through the Rendezvous. Feel free to send on and/or post on the egroup, with apologies to Randi if she has already posted this info or for stealing her thunder if she was planning on posting it.

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After my last note from Mallorca, Dianne and I made our way back to Barcelona, rented a car, and after getting lost made our way to the mountainous monastery of Montserrat. This ancient monastery—founded after 880 AD when a vision of the virgin Mary was seen in a nearby cave—offered lots of diversions, from large gothic cathedrals to long prayerful hikes among conglomerate pillars, cliffs, and monuments scattered around the preserve. During a hike to the mountain’s highest point, Dianne and I found a small conglomerate slot canyon—it was dry, boasted bolts, and had evidence of old water projects inside. We climbed around in it, and I returned a day later for more photographs, including one of a timid, 6–inch long black lizard mottled with yellow spots.

Then it was off to the medieval town of Montblanc, complete with narrow streets, ancient towered wall, banners, and people dressed in period costume. We stayed at an inn built in the early 1800s, ate food cooked over a roaring fire, and enjoyed the ambiance. The next day we searched for castles to explore but, being the Spanish Labor Day, most were closed, cost too much, or were too dilapidated to enjoy. We made our way to L’Ainsa in the Spanish Pyrenees and Morillo de Tou, site of the rendezvous. A bit of further driving took us to Lamiana, a small restaurant high in the mountains with several bunk houses that would be our lodging for a few days.

Then back to Morillo de Tou where I finally met Koen after trading emails for who knows how long, plus Rich and finally Randi as well. Dianne came down with some sort of sinus infection and was feeling horrible, so we skipped the planned presentations from various canyoning organizations throughout Europe (plus Rich’s take on the ACA). We were in bed by 10.30, the rest were home by 2 AM. Rich’s presentation was late—11.30–ish—but by all accounts went really well, no mean feat considering a sizable chunk of the rendezvous participants (150+ I was told) spoke very little, if any, English.

The next day we joined a few dozen of our closest friends for Mascún, known as one of the most spectacular canyons in the region. Rich and I got separated from the group during the hike in to help two young women hikers find their way. We examined tracks to find our way again and caught up with the group at the first drop. Crystal clear water (Rich estimated 15cfs, I estimated closer to 5) tumbled down a sculpted limestone slot to unseen depths below. Perhaps 75 other canyoneers were stuck at this bottleneck. I was told that some canyons in Europe see 1000+ descents per day in high season, but canyoneers are much more efficient and the bottlenecks wouldn’t be much of a problem and nobody seemed concerned despite our Pine Creek–ish visions of doom. In the end, it really wasn’t problematic; we only had one other bottleneck. The first drop was a 7–meter jump into a pool followed by a long rappel.

Below, more rappels, many more jumps, some long, some short. I haven’t seen canyoning like this in the states! Lots of smiling people. Many in our group were French and spoke little English. I speak essentially no French, Dianne precious little. Smiles and laughter sufficed for communication. One canyoner in particular was interested in my digital camera setup—in fact, many were. Apparently, quite a few want to make the move to digital.

Several examined my camera and case. Multi–linguist Koen provided translation for the tougher questions. One French canyoner, JJ, plans on putting together a CD–Rom with rendezvous pictures and asked that I send him mine ... all 150+ photos that I took!

The canyon narrowed into a dark slot with lots of swimming. There is no water–side vegetation here and, like the rest of the canyon, no mud and precious few boulders to hop. There wasn’t even any gravel at the water level—just open limestone with crystalline water rushing over it, surrounded by towering limestone pinnacles above. This narrow slot is likely one of the holiest places I have seen, and it just kept getting better—it narrowed into a short cave. At the end of the cave was more swimming and a small patch of sun. Koen suggested we wait in the sun for a group ahead to make their way down 4 drops. He said it was dark and cold there and we would be better to wait in the sun for them to pass.

We ate lunch but I went ahead to Dianne who had made her way ahead of the group and set up the rope on the first drop of the dark section. I told her of our plans to wait and swam back for lunch. Another group of 4 went ahead of us and used Dianne’s rope, again with smiles and laughter abounding. Koen and the rest of the group then caught up, and several French canyoners kept a now–freezing–cold Dianne warm while we negotiated the tight drops. Soon it was back into the sun, with a few more drops and jumps, and then an hour hike out back to the car. We made many friends in what a lot of us now consider one of the best canyons we had seen.

On the drive down, a tragedy sobered us. Koen received a phone call—someone had drowned in a nearby canyon earlier that day and could he help with the recovery? He and two others kept in close contact with the authorities. Eventually, it was determined that their help would be needed and they were off. The rest of the group ate a quiet dinner in a loud restaurant, checked in quite late at Morillo de Tou, and then drove up to Lamiana. Koen was there, it turns out he wasn’t needed after all. Several (7–9) others were trapped in the canyon after the death, either unable or unwilling to go on. They were rescued by nightfall and plans were made to return the following morning for the body recovery. Details were scarce and conflicting.

Next morning we learned what happened—a very experienced Spanish canyoner (some called him a ‘canyon marshal’ or something to that effect, not sure what that meant except that he was high up in the Spanish canyoning circle) descended into a churning pool. The water was too high and the current strong. The rope length was not set correctly and the loose ends in the pool wrapped around his legs and effectively pinned him underwater where he drowned. Efforts to resuscitate were not successful. He was not part of the rendezvous, though 3 rendezvous participants were there and saw it all happen. Randi had descended the same canyon the day before and all of us were quite upset. Dianne and I had previously mentioned the possibility of trying the canyon the next day, but those plans were now put to a halt.

The next morning I woke early and had the traditional breakfast of coffee and buttered toast at Lamiana. The sight and sound of a helicopter removing the body just a few kilometers away was sobering. Then, back to Morillo de Tou to find plans for the day. It was too late to do a wet canyon—too much water and snowmelt. After much confusion, we joined Koen on a conglomerate canyon that would have “a glass full of water running down it.” Many of our French friends joined us for a group size of 15 or so.

After a bumpy scenic 4x4 drive in (with several hilarious mishaps) and a short hike to the top, Koen announced that the women of the group—5 or 6 of them—would lead the men down the canyon. Dianne and the others jumped at the opportunity and fixed ropes for us gumby men. Koen remarked that this was the first time in years he had been led down a canyon. The canyon itself did have a glass full of water running through it, and also had tight, twisty slots. If it was red sandstone it would not be out of place in Utah.

Lots of photos were taken and an unexpected bit of miscommunication allowed several of us to ‘explore’ a narrow and pretty section of the canyon that was rarely descended. Then, more scenic driving back to Morillo de Tou, a bit of packing and dinner, and unfortunately Dianne and I were off, joined by Randi, back to the Barcelona airport and home. After 16+ hours of traveling—including sleeping for 4 hours on the cold marble floor of Barcelona airport—jet lag is the name of the game and now, 10 AM, I am ready for bed again.

May 8, 2003

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© 2003 Mike Dallin