Canyon Tales
by Koen Viaene

Just came back from a week in a novel canyoning destination—the island of Crete in the Meditarrenean. Apart from the tourist trap Samaria Gorge, there are dozens of other ‘walking and scrambling’ canyons where little to no ropework is required—kind of like the CP but here in limestone. A team of Greeks have been exploring the technical canyons as well and those we went to take a look at. To our surprise we found enormous slot canyons, some very steep and sometimes with enough water to get in trouble.

Here’s our description of the 5 we did:

• Ha Canyon •

Every Greek on the island knows this one (from the outside). You can see the gigantic slash in the mountain from maybe 15 miles away. Legend has it that the German invaders stashed loot in there before fleeing at the end of WWII ... some returned after the war but left their lives anyway in the freezing waters of the gorge. It’s oriented east/west and gets no sun at all. We looked hard but didn’t find anything, no skeletons, no weapons, no treasure, damn! What we did find was a slot canyon of mind-boggling dimensions, a tourist brochure states that it has a depth of 700m. I think this might be a bit exaggerated, but its sheer walls are simply huge with around 22 rappels in about 1 km of length. Water was running but not in large amounts; it probably dries up within the next few weeks.

So water was not the issue but rockfall was. About half of the canyon was pitted with fresh scars of rocks exploding on the bottom, and twice some big ones came down within 50 yards of us, quite unnerving because you could hear them coming from all the way above (but couldn’t see them until the last moment). As a farewell gift, my friend Marc got hit on his helmet by a small rock about 10 feet from the exit, no harm done. The topo states a 10 mile drive from bottom to top but we only had one car. So we legged it and found an old, steep, abandoned goat–track which led us to the top in just under two hours, a 700m climb, and nightfall.

• Tsoutsouros Canyon •

About 8 rappels in a nice, sunlit canyon. Good flow. Nice but not exceptional. We still had only one car but we had a rendezvous with two of Marc’s friends who are working on the island. And where could we best wait for them but in Zorba’s bar, right at the beach and maybe 300 yards from the exit of the canyon. The consequences of mass tourism on Crete means that you can drink either Heineken or Amstel ‘beer,’ but out of principle we tried the local Mythos brand—and a good choice too.

• Kavousiou Canyon •

Other canyoning friends had arrived by now but because some luggage/gear got sent to another airport, we decided to try the only dry technical canyon ... NOT. 7 rappels, a good flow and some swimming in a very nice slot canyon. An interesting experience in only shorts and t-shirt.

• Portella Canyon •

Right next to Kavousiou canyon and with a heavy flow. About 10 rappels and a strange marking on the topo: ‘potential syphon’ at the bottom of a 130 ft rappel ?!? The advice was to equip a long running line and then a guided 170–foot rappel on the left bank. I said my prayers and went straight down the waterfall anyway, a narrow and steep channel were the flow stayed concentrated. At the bottom I rappelled in one of the most exceptional spots I’ve ever seen in a canyon: the waterfall plummeted down into a cave with a big pool at the bottom. One of the sides of this vertical tunnel had been eroded away into a half-moon shaped gaping mouth with stalactites hanging like huge teeth down from the devil’s jaw. You have to swim through that gaping 10 x 5 ft mouth into daylight again.


We lost Marc on the hike out, he hadn’t been to Kavousiou the day earlier due to a severe hangover (about 3 liters of Mythos and one litre of moonshine Raki brought by his friends the evenings before. He had gone on in front and resurfaced all scratched up from the maquis two hours later.

• Arvi Canyon •

13 rappels—the biggest one a 260–footer—that looked promising! This canyon had the biggest flow of them all. We encountered an old shepherd who guided us to the start of the canyon. Right at the start there was a small cave pockmarked with bullet holes. With sign language and a few words the shepherd explained to us that there used to be a statue of a saint in there, but the Germans had shot it to pieces during the war ... cute.

The first part of the canyon would have been uneventful if not for the sheer multitude of plastic and metal pipes in and out of the canyon. Water is a precious commodity here and tapped wherever it’s found. The problem is that the locals don’t take away the old pipes, the just let them be. As a consequence the canyon was turned into an enormous junkyard of old piping and even older ladders, a lot of them right under the waterfalls. You had to watch out. On the topo was marked at one drop ‘pipe jammed under waterfall’ but this was the case of nearly every drop.

Anyway, we were a party of 12 and half of us had just arrived on top of the big waterfall when we heard somebody screaming upcanyon. Now I don’t know if you know the sound of someone screaming for her life—I hadn’t but now I have—and I’ve got no appetite to hear it ever again. We stumbled over each other to climb back upcanyon, I’m pretty sure none of us can do that again so quickly. What happened was that someone had rappeled down a waterfall (20–foot, vertical and concentrated flow) and got her foot trapped between an invisible metal derelict pipe and a rock.

By arching backwards she could just barely hold her head out of the waterfall but was slowly being pushed over backwards. This would not only snap her leg but also drown her. She was screaming for help and not to loosen the contigency anchor, which action would topple her over upside down. A few of us dove under the waterfall to get the pipe out of the way and I supported her from below. Somebody got above her to shield her as best as he could from the waterfall. The guys took turns trying to get her foot unjammed because the pipe wouldn’t budge and you couldn’t breathe under there. I couldn’t hold her anymore, so I swapped places with the others and dove under the fall to try the foot. I was working with numbed fingers (the water was freezing), blind, deaf, and with hardly any oxygen.

What now followed is something I’ll remember for as long as I live: I was jammed in there by the bodies of my mates trying to keep our friend from snapping her leg and drowning, but I could still feel her slowly going over backwards. I tried undoing the buckles on her 5.10 shoe but those were jammed against the rock and I couldn’t get hold of the ends. Then I tried cutting the shoe away but I wasn’t wearing my usual belt but a lightweight one with one of those new Petzl knives on a carabiner—me, the great advocate of being able to grab your knife blind, in a panic, suffocating and with numbed fingers found myself in exactly that position and loosing precious seconds. I gave up with the Petzl knife and, by twisting my upper body, I could stick my head half out of the waterfall and screamed for a decent knive ... which was placed in my hand immediately (thank god for teamwork).

I tried to cut the straps on the shoe but the place was so tight that I couldn’t get a decent feel of where I was exactly cutting. I had lost all feeling in my fingers. At a certain moment, I tried to move my left hand—I couldn’t. I fumbled around and found out that somebody has standing on my hand!! Some sharp squeezes in an anonymous calf and the foot released my hand. By now I was certain that she had broken her leg and was probably drowning or dead already. I desperately tried again at the buckles and by some wonder was able to release one of them—or so I thought. I lost all consideration for an already broken leg and somehow janked the shoe off (after several tries). This didn’t free the foot as such because her leg was in a 45° downward angle. I put my shoulder under her knee and heaved upward for all I was worth and felt the foot slip free ... finally!

It took a few moments for the rest of the team to realise that she was free and to get out of the way so I could get myself out of that hellhole. The other guys had worked with five people to keep her head out of the water and she miraculously escaped with just a bruised ankle, shivering, and with some sawing marks on the metal buckles of her left shoe which was otherwise undamaged—I had aimed straight on the buckle. Me? I was completely done for as were a few others of the team. We could barely lift a hand, so exhausted were we—both physically and mentally. I had been under the waterfall for what seemed both an eternity (being drowned slowly) and a blink (working franctically). My mates judged it around 10 minutes.

So, both shaken and stirred, we went over to the next obstacle—the big waterfall. It thundered down into a dark chasm of which we couldn’t see the bottom and to get to the anchor you had to install a fancy caving–like running line with four intermediate points. Once at the anchor, you were hanging free off your cowstails straight above the abyss. I went one of the last down because I didn’t trust my strength anymore, and I wanted the others to equip the four following waterfalls before I got down so I could continue without wasting more energy. I was right about my strength. About 1/3 down I couldn’t hold on anymore (double 8/9 mm rope) because my fingers were minced meat from wrestling with the shoe and getting stepped on. I had put on new gloves, which slipped like liquid soap.

The only thing I could do was to hang on a few remaining seconds for dear life—literally—I couldn’t even heave the rope over the tooth of my Pirana ... all this in a thundering waterfall which beat the crap out of me and a 200–foot void under me—scared shitless! I spotted what looked like a tiny ledge 50 feet below and went for that. I just barely reached it, trembling from fear and exhaustion. Whew, a 4–inch ledge held me, on the outer edge of the waterfall where it was mostly spray. I ditched the gloves, changed the position of my backpack and adjusted the braking on the Pirana before continuing down into the bowels of the earth.

What followed is one of the most thrilling stretches of canyon I’ve ever done. Imagine Pine Creek with higher rappels, twice as narrow, the walls so high and twisted it’s almost utter darkness. F*****g incredible! All with a thundering noise and spray from the waterfalls richocheting down.

Most of us got out their lights and continued down the chasm. Absolutely incredible. We made short work of the rest of the rappels and emerged a few hundred yards further on in a banana plantation and 50 yards from the car we had put there in the morning.

That night, the local bars had some very, very good customers!

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Crete is a fantastic canyoning destination; we did just the rap ’n’ swim kiddie canyons but ones that we will remember (get some decent schooling from Rich first if you want to try those). The island is equally suited to the CP–style hiking canyons, some of those monsters are multiday adventures. Almost all of those end up on deserted beaches with no roads. Sometimes boats can pick you up, sometimes you have to hike a rugged cliff trail to the nearest road or village.

We’ll be back.

March 26, 2005

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© 2005 Koen Viaene