Beyond Helmets and Harnesses
by Michael Henkin
I've always had an equipment fetish, with a particular attraction to technology. Broadly defined, technology is the application of knowledge, so if you use the right equipment under the right circumstances, then canyoneering can be seen as an enlightening experience - growth through the application of knowledge.
"Under the right circumstances" for me means feeling confident at each moment in the canyon, reaching, at a moments' desire, what I call a "bathrobe and slippers" mindset. Jean-Claude Killy defines confidence as preparation. While ingenuity and problem solving skills can get you through tremendous challenges, the right equipment can facilitate elegant, graceful, efficient preparation for almost anything.
Sometimes the right equipment means adapting gear from other sports to do new things. You might also need to customize the gear quite a bit, but the reward is being better able to tackle the unique challenges encountered in technically demanding environments.
Technical canyoneering offers an outstanding opportunity to indulge my equipment fetish, as there is little "standard" equipment developed for this emerging activity. Most of the equipment in use today is rock climbing gear, plus some watersports and general purpose hiking gear.
Over the past couple years, my canyoneering partner John and I have discovered some unique combinations of equipment which has made canyoneering a lot more fun, enjoyable and (we believe) safe. A few items have been borrowed from caving, one from kayaking, and one from backcountry skiing.
You may be familiar with the ongoing debate between wetsuits and drysuits for "wet" canyons. The arguments go something like this: "Wetsuits are better than drysuits because if you damage one in the field, the wetsuit does not materially compromise its warming qualities." Alternatively, some say, "Drysuits are better than wetsuits because they keep you dry and warm in very cold water and they are light."
Having been in sub-40 degree water during both summer and winter canyoneering trips, I've opted for a drysuit. Also, having tried both Goretex and regular nylon drysuits, when I finally made a purchase, I went with a Goretex model. A key difference is the ability for the Goretex to breathe, allowing your perspiration to escape rather than being trapped inside the suit and potentially making you wet, cold and miserable.
I've had great success with my Kokatat Goretex Dura drysuit. Wearing a total of 300 weight polartech layers underneath, my drysuit kept me toasty during a particularly cold descent down Neon in December 2000 (37 degree water). It is extremely lightweight, has a flyzip and reinforced knee and seat sections.
While the Dura comes with reinforced Cordura patches, I have modified the suit by treating other key abrasion areas (forearms, elbows, shoulders, thighs) with FREESOLE (made by McNett Corporation). I was able to create a super tough layer that has withstood a lot of abuse. WARNING: I'm not sure Kokatat endorses this type of treatment, and doing so may invalidate your warranty.
However, it is impractical to coat your entire drysuit with FREESOLE, and no single layer of nylon can guarantee breach-less descents, particularly if you are upclimbing and downclimbing lots of root jams or doing serious stemming. Therefore, if you go with a drysuit in abrasive canyons, you still must move carefully during your descent.
To find an even better protective system for abrasive cayoneering, I investigated the technology developed for caving coveralls, which are designed to withstand lots of abrasion. The combination of heavy-duty caving coveralls with my Kokatat drysuit ended up being fantastic.
There are quite a few different brands of tough nylon coveralls on the market. Inner Mountain Outfitters seems to carry the widest variety I've seen around. The number one criteria for choosing a coverall should be fit, as it is critical that the coverall not constrict motion when worn on top of your drysuit and any other layers you typically wear underneath.
Although I might look a little like an airline mechanic with my blue Lost Creek Deluxe coveralls on, this lightweight, super durable suit gives me the feeling of putting on a suit of armor. The heavy ballistic nylon is super tough, and the Deluxe model has extra reinforcement on the seat, thighs, elbows and knees. I'm also still able to comfortable move with up to 300 weight polartech under my drysuit, and my coveralls on top of the drysuit. I like to wear my harness on the outside of the coveralls. In fact, a seat harness, along with a simple chest harness (like a Petzl Torse caver's chest harness) helps keep both the drysuit and coverall well oriented around the torso.
My friend John got a Helix coverall by IMO/Meander, which is also a good choice. A nice feature of both the Lost Creek Deluxe and the IMO/Meander Helix is a roll-up hood, which is great for rain and snow storms.
I've been a headlamp fan for many years, as I fully appreciate the virtues of a hands-free light. I was pretty excited when Petzl finally came out with the Duo a few years ago as I was looking for a good, lightweight waterproof light (warning: don't try taking a Duo scuba-diving-its really just water-resistant).
One of the great new advances in headlamps is the current generation of LED headlamps that are just hitting the market. If you like lightweight, and you like long battery life and super-long bulb life, then LED headlamps are for you.
I bought a Petzl Tikka as soon as it hit the market, and recently took it on a canyoneering trip to the Escalante area. The Tikka is meant to be a backup light, weighing in at a feathery 2.5 ounces (including batteries) and using a simple, linear 3-LED bulb. Battery life is rated at 150 hours (although you don't get full brightness as the batteries get weaker), and bulb life is rated at 100,000 hours, or 10 years under normal usage.
One of first things you will notice about LED headlamps are the cool blue beam they emit - almost like the iridescent glow of twilight. Its hard to describe in words the type of effect the light has, but it's pretty nice, particularly in a narrow canyon at night. You'll notice that the beam is broad and dispersed, kind of like really bright moonlight. To me the light feels more "natural" than a focused halogen beam.
There are also LED bulb conversion kits for regular filament bulb headlamps. It might be worth considering investing in an integrated LED headlamp, as LED reflectors are specially designed for LED bulbs and you may not have optimal light dispersion when using an LED bulb in a filament reflector headlamp.
I personally believe LEDs are going to take over the market for headlamps and flashlights of all sorts. Another side benefit is that the LED is much more rugged than a filament bulb, since it does not have a filament inside which can fail with vibration. To get an idea of how far LED lamp technology has already gone, take a look at the Action Light by HDS Systems. Now that's my kind of light!
Ever spent more than a couple minutes trying to lasso a rope around a root jam, log jam or other natural anchor to assist in exiting a hole/pool or upclimbing a waterfall/dryfalll?
Having engineered my way out of a few deep holes with well placed rope tosses, I decided to investigate a lightweight, easy way to quickly place a rope anywhere nearby without having to rely on accurate throws. The solution lay in modifying a simple avalanche probe.
The beauty of the Collapsible Avalanche Probe by Komperdell of Austria is that it weighs a mere 10 ounces, and is only 19 inches collapsed. The pole reaches 8.5 feet fully extended, which means a six foot tall person can reach as high as 16 feet to accurately and quickly place a rope where its needed. I've seen a few other brands out there, just make sure you check weight and length (extended and collapsed) when shopping for a probe.
There are a few different ways to attach a small rope guide at the end of the pole. I actually used some duct tape and the hook from a coat hanger, sort of the MacGuyver approach. However, you'll feel more like James Bond when you experience super smooth and deliberate rope placements in seconds as you whip out your telescoping apparatus in a 15 foot deep keeper hole.
Probe Poles are a bit hard to find off-season. Here's a few links:
For many weeks after a multi-day canyoneering trip, I find myself spending a lot of time pondering the unique obstacles encountered in the canyons as well as possible technologies which could make overcoming those obstacles more graceful. I look at all the equipment I use as experimental, as I want to be open to new ways of tackling technical challenges using new gear. My next experiment will be to construct a collapsible ladder to escape virtually any bobber pool in style...
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