Well there hasn’t been too many noteworthy events as I turn into my last week in Switzerland. Had my ups and downs over the last couple of weeks (mostly visa related!) but overall it has been a blast. Enjoyed myself here and sorry to be leaving a couple of weeks before the end of season, the usual mayhem will be unleashed but while that’s happening, I should be summitting Kilimanjaro and trying to avoid catching malaria! The last week basically saw me be at the hands of mob justice and go canyoning for the first time.
So the last day, myself and another one of the lads, Graeme, were royally destroyed by a plethora of yoghurt, milk, beans, ice cold water and plastic cups being flung at us in the name of charity. The camp I work for selects a charity to support each year and as part of the fundraising efforts, a number of us were put forward to be “racooned” (dolled up in makeup and the kids paid to fling stuff at us).
Myself and Graeme being the “Popular” ones, we received this preparation. Being bound up like the Life Of Brian and the kids were let loose, baying for our blood.
Our makeup job does suggest that the artist has never seen a raccoon before. As Jodie pointed out, we looked more like members of Kiss!
So charitable job done, on to the weekend and freedom. I got the invite to come canyoning with Tom, Chris and Caz. Having never gone before, I automatically said yes (even though the hangover the day before made me more amenable to curling up in my duvet and crying myself to sleep). Plus I was going to get to see a part of Switzerland I’d never been to before, all the way to the edges of the Rhone Valley and up to the Italian border to a small village called Gondo. We’d watched videos of the canyon online but I still wasn’t sure what to expect (Gondo Canyon).
About a two and a half hour drive, we motored on. It was weird going east, it’s the deepest I’ve been into Switzerland and we crossed the invisible language line, the signs suddenly sporting much more Germanic names. Now is not the place to go into Swiss German and its intricacies but even after my time in Austria I was finding the slogans sprouting on some of the placards mildly incomprehensible.
Gondo itself was a bit of a letdown, I expected a picturesque little Swiss alpine village, instead we were confronted by a grim fortified encampment that hadn’t changed much since the Migration Period aside from taking some architecture cues from Soviet apartment blocks. A pity since the surrounding landscape was spectacular.
The Swiss Leningrad.
Canyoning according to it’s official definition by the way is the technical descent of canyons using such techniques as abseiling, downclimbing, swimming and jumping to name a few. It was a mild bit of a mind boggle to look at the route description and have each one called a pitch, especially when as a climber you’re more used to going up!
We’d expected the river to be a bit higher due to the rainfall, but didn’t expect the absolute torrent of whitewater we were confronted with upon arriving at the foot of the canyon. The warning signs written in four languages with a red flashing light were also not too encouraging. We proceeded up along the road for a wee recce, scoping out any part of it we could. It was scary. Still, Tom reckoned a bit of it was doable and we’d come all this way, so we suited up, helmets, wetsuits, harnesses and sense of humour all ready, the rain a grim harbinger of what was to come….
I joke. It was great but still nerve-wracking to begin with! As Chris said, we had to get a little bit wet.
What’s the worst that could happen? Language Bonus Tip! Gefahr=Danger!
Despite the above photograph Caz is not a model for Tiki Wetsuits.
We made our entry into the first pool and yeah…..cold. I yelped a little and then resorting to gasping in shock as it basically cut off the bloodflow to my extremities. A waterfall was making a nice bit of whitewater in a plunge pool just up from us so we went to have a little play, heads going under the water for the first time. Getting up near it was harder than it looked, but necessary for the obligatory photo!
I don’t think I’m smiling here. It’s more of a grimace or howl of “Get me out of here!”.
We swam a bit further down, the canyon being quite odd as it varied from being deeper than a man to only reaching knee-height. In the next pool there was a couple of constructed steps and we clambered up some dodgy looking ropes on the slick stone to get to jump off points. I think I got the most scared there as it was just the start and even something only a few metres off the ground was enough to get me whimpering. The steps themselves were an odd bag of wood and wire and it took me a little bit to actually muster the balls to leap forward. The tree branches obstructing our landing point were another little worry. I heartily avoided the second one that was a couple of metres higher!
Chilling in a canyon, as you do. Chill being the operative word.
The next section was a much hairier option. We’d been warned about in the guidebook so we took it easy heading down to check out. The water was a lot more fast-flowing and the quote “intimidating from above” from the guidebook came back to haunt me. It looked terrifying in the whitewater and even the toboggan had swollen into a torrent that looked suitable for breaking anyone heading into it. The standing wave below the waterfall also looked horrible, leaving you prone for a battering or a “dicking” as the lads helpfully informed me was the technical term.
Cold and scared, I opted to head around the walk-off point to the bridge just below it, Chris following while Tom and Caz said they’d inspect it. Heading for a bridge, we tried to relax as we watched them tread their way down.
Henceforth they can be known as the Truckstone Brothers.
After spending a few minutes scoping it out, the two lads wisely retraced their steps and came up to where we were, both seemingly not in the mood for being smashed off rocks or pummelled by whitewater. We moved on abit further into another pool and the lads messed around with some slides while I starjumped to try and retrieve some semblance of warmth. We also had a peek over some of the drops to see what was in store. We also were a bit perplexed how some people got to some jumps.
See that block in the left middle? That’s those jump platforms like the ones I mentioned earlier, a good twenty feet below us!
Suitably impressed by the river height, views and drops, we now had the chance for our first abseil!
Interesting to say the least in wet shoes, I tried doing it the conventional way (my memory in Chamonix not quite forgotten!) but naturally slipped and bashed myself off the rock for a lovely dead leg. I settled for a less dignified but much more settled position of just hanging in the harness and letting myself scrape down the rock.
I was not looking forward to going back in the water!
Despite the waterfall just up from it, this one was surprisingly gentle though the drop over the side was enough to make your leg shake a little. Or maybe for me that was the hypothermia. Still didn’t stop me posing for every photo I could though.
A more impressive view of our second descent.
I was so cold at this stage that I chose to opt out and look for a route to climb out. Being a bit befuddled and not all with it, the lads brought me back to do the last pitch as it was our get out point and me wandering around Switzerland dazed and in a wetsuit wasn’t a winning combination. Reassured, I clipped in to be lowered down.
Embarrassingly enough, Tom had to remind me not to abseil into the waterfall.
I was glad I went down. The pool down below was under an immense waterfall with a beautiful stone arch the centrepiece. Following Caz’s instruction, I climbed up to near the get-out point and curled up to keep warm. The lads meanwhile went for some jumps, Caz’s first one being a mild panic for some as he came out of the water flopping like a drowning fish. I was more interested in feeling sorry for myself but started getting some motivation again.
Tom. No stranger to gravity.
I think it was when they went for round two that I ignored the shivers and decided one quick hop in would sort me. And it did. The stone was so wet and slick that standing up was hard, I had to clamp a hand on Chris’s knee to find some solid support to rise. Having witnessed backflips, calm leaps and even Tom’s casual little trot and hop, I figured I could at least muster up some last vestiges of elegance for the show finale. But….as the photos show….I went down with as much grace as a sack of spuds.
The water was a bit more fast-flowing but enough cold-addled me remembered them telling me to start swimming as I popped up and to make for the edge. I flopped about like a seal for a few seconds trying to get a grip on the wet rock but I was a lot more content than I had been a few minutes before. Now frozen solid and despite Tom’s reassurances that my core temperature wasn’t 25oC as I’d then be dead, I bowed to the inevitable and bid adieu while the lads messed around for a last few leaps.
For some reason I can’t help but be reminded of this clip.
The waterfall in all it’s glory.
Caz and Tom added for scale.
The walk uphill to the car meant I was nearly my old self by the time I made it back. The lads made it back up shortly afterwards and we headed home for a kebab in Aigle though not of course without an obligatory last photo.
Would I go canyoning again? Yes. Would I ensure I brought wetsuit socks and a hood? Yes. Was it a good day? Absolutely. Was it cold? Brrr. Coldest I’d been in a long while though it was a different kind from the sort you get on the mountains. It’s been a few years since I’ve been river kayaking in winter so it was good to face an old nemesis again. Time to fatten up I think, I’m a long way off being a polar bear! It’s definitely a great adventure and I see now why Tom enjoys it so much!
Thanks to the lads for a good day and the Alpine gods for once again deciding I’m too much of a small fry to be worrying about. Next blog will probably be written from Ireland so thanks for reading.
Go raibh maith agaibh agus oíche mhaith.
A good day out.