Canyon Tales
by Ryan Cornia

I wanted to post a somewhat lengthy trip report from Spain. The trip, 2.5 weeks, included 1 week set aside for enjoying the canyons and ‘via’s in Sierra de Guara.

— Short Version —

Spain, and Sierra De Guara, are amazing! Go! Stay in Alquezar, and be prepared for some amazing canyons. We did 4 in 3 days. Next time I would spend 2 weeks in Alquezar and plan on doing many more canyons.

— Long Version —

We began our journey in Barcelona, where I met up with Cristina after I spent a few days in Madrid, and she some time in Italy with family. Keep in mind, this was my first time driving in Europe. Let me just say the first rotary was a challenge! I am proud to say I only went around twice before getting the right exit. I digress.

Cristina and I left Barcelona heading for Barbastro, and ultimately either Rodellar or Alquezar. Surprisingly, given my normally OCD personality, I prefer to travel off the cuff—no reservations other than the rental car for the entire trip. En route we come to a cross roads. Left to Rodellar, right to Alquezar. A quick consult of the English guidebook, points out many canyons in both places, but Rio Vero is at Alquezar. On to Alquezar!

In talking with various people that had canyon’ed in Spain, all recommended Rio Vero. This is considered an easy, family friendly canyon (according to the guidebook), that doesn’t require any rappels. We drove to the trail head the first day to get a lay of the land, then made arrangements for a shuttle first thing the next morning. Of course, being my usual self, I decide we should do Basender canyon as well, a tributary to Rio Vero that will dump us into Rio Vero 1km below the usual spot. Two canyons in one day, this is gonna be great!

Morning finds us zooming up a narrow winding road far faster than I would drive it, but our Spanish shuttle driver is apparently well versed on the road. He drops us off, asking repeatedly, “Neaoprene? Neoprene?” One other note from everyone I talked to about Spain was to take a 5mm farmer john. I shrugged this advice off, thinking Crisitna and I were not cupcakes, and a full 3mm suit would be ample in the hot weather we were anticipating.

• Basender •

Canyons in this area of Spain are great, as the trailheads all had large signs describing the canyons, gear needed, and an overview map. The trail to the head of Basender was easy to find and follow. 30 minutes from the car found us at the first rappel. The canyon is dry this time of year, and an amazing limestone gash in the earth. The book claims 5–7 short rappels. The canyon is as described, and we find ourselves in Rio Vero about 1.5 hours from being dropped off.

• Rio Vero •

Rio Vero is truly spectacular. Immense limestone cliffs with large caves in them used by prehistoric man line the canyon. As we head down we pass an Ermita, or old hermit’s house. Beautiful and amazing.

Soon the roar of a waterfall is heard and Rio Vero gets its game on. The canyon narrows from a wide open canyon to a narrow, deep canyon with crystal clear flowing water under huge boulders. This first section is a little intimidating, but as beautiful as anything I have ever seen. The first swim, however, tells me it’s going to be a long day in a 3mm wetsuit. The water is ice cold.

Down we go, smiling and laughing our way under and around the large boulders in this section. I must have taken 50 pictures in less than a km. I think human nature is to compare new places to old places in our past. This place, however, has no comparison. Maybe a little like Deer Creek in the Grand Canyon, but not really.

After the first section, the canyon opens again, and we stop in the sun for lunch and to warm up.

The next couple of hours are easy hiking with occasional swims or boulders to work around. Casual. Nice. This was a good choice. From the description and overview map, I am convinced we are nearing the end at every bend. Oh how I was mistaken!

The final section begins with a pile of boulders you have to navigate through. By boulders, I mean BOULDERS. The size of houses. Not being a jumper, finding a route over/under/through them proves challenging and time consuming. Thus begins one of the longest stretches of canyon in my recent memory. Once through one pile of boulders, you walk a ways, before coming to another ... then another ... then another ... The cold and constant route finding are taking their toll on both of us. We keep stopping in the sun to warm up, which is nice, but the first pool, after warming up in the sun, is a slap in the face.

Finally we come to a boulder pile I can’t find a reasonable way over or through. Stuck! I am getting frustrated and ready to be done. Keep looking! Cristina peeks around one side, I the other. No go. Out of frustration more than courage, I leave the rope with Cristina and squeeze down a hole. To fit, I have to take off my pack, squeeze through (with water flowing down), the drop into a pool. This goes ok, but leaves me under a large boulder only a few feet above the water. Squeezing under, I spy dry land. It goes! I shout back to Cristina to come join me gleefully, but know I am loosing energy fast. She comes down and, in getting out of the boulder pile, I manage to break my pelican case and loose my precious camera.

Just around the corner we see 2 French tourists playing in the water, and a bridge just below them. We have made it! What a trip! The suggested 5–6 hour route, that I expected to take 6–7 with Basender, has taken us about 9. Although exhausted and beat up, I am humbled by the beauty of the day.

We spend the next day doing a Via Ferrata by Rodellar and resting up. Having eaten a small piece of humble pie in Rio Vero, we decide to hire a guide to get some schooling on these flowing canyons. The guide agrees to do 2 canyons the next day. Rio Formiga and Gorgonchon.

• Rio Formiga •

I have never been guided in a canyon. In fact, I take a bit of pride in doing anything myself, so am not sure how being ‘guided’ is going to be. I think Cristina is looking forward to it. No stress of finding the right route or getting stuck!

The guide, Paux, is great and informs us the first canyon will include 2 French women. The second will just be Cristina and I. During the approach, and throughout the entire day actually, I marvel at the language soup. The guide speaks English, French, and Spanish. The French speak French and a tiny bit of English. I speak English. Cristina speaks English and Italian. With an odd fluidity, everyone in the group moves in and out of different languages. I marvel at the ease we can communicate with so little language in common. It’s fun, and re–affirms my embarrassment at only speaking one language fluidly ... With very few words in common, but a lot of gestures and simply words, we all seem to understand each other very well.

At the first rappel, the guide proceeds to put the rope through the device for me, and tie a second safety rope he can lower me by as I rappel. Awkward! I feel a little insulted but understand a guide has no context of a person’s experience and has the responsibility of keeping all safe. I was treated no differently than the people in the group that had never rappelled.

Once in the canyon, however, I am thankful to have Paux with us every step of the way! The canyon has flowing water, and is punctuated by numerous jumps. Paux knows just where to downclimb through the boulders, where it’s safe to jump, and where it’s too shallow and we need to rappel. I study his direction carefully and ask many questions. Although not normally a jumper, by the end I was getting into it. Cristina did not seem to appreciate any of the jumps. The biggest, I would argue was about 20 meters if it was a meter. Paux swears it is not more than 6 meters. I’m willing to compromise a bit on my number and settle on 8m. Definitely the biggest jump I’ve ever made and fantastic fun.

All too soon the canyon was over, goodbyes exchanged, and we headed over to Gorgonchon.

• Gorgonchon •

Gorgonchon has a reputation. It is very short but has claimed numerous lives. Paux says it is the narrowest canyon he has ever been in, so I am intrigued. The canyon starts easily enough with a downclimb and swim or two, then comes the meat of the canyon. Here the canyon drops 10 meters or so down a waterfall. This is apparently the tricky spot. If you rappel, you get sucked into a cave from which there is no return. The alternate route is to high–stem down canyon 10 meters or so past the falls, then chimney down to water level. Paux sets up a safety rope for the traverse. Cristina slips and slides her way over. The water polished limestone is much harder to stem then S. Utah.

Below this obstacle we swim through a narrow canyon. Not narrow by Utah standards, but beautiful and fun. Unfortunately the entire canyon is only 150 meters or so, and ends just when you’re getting into it.

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4 canyons in 3 days. Woo hoo! What a trip. We rounded out the week hiking and doing Via Ferratas. Alquezar is an amazing place and highly recommended. If I were going again, I would recommend renting a wetsuit there (5–6 euro), not carrying one over in luggage. I’d also recommend hiring a guide for the first day if you’re not used to water canyons. Having spent a day with Paux, I’d be comfortable doing more of the easier–rated canyons now, and hope to go back in a year or two. With over 100 canyons in the close vicinity, there is no shortage of things to do.

Ryan Cornia
September 28, 2009

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