Cold canyoning: descending winter ice

Canyoning in winter involves getting cold and wet. Laurent Poublan explains its unique appeal.
Pack a towel. And a drysuit. © Laurent Poublan
By Will Gray

The adrenaline buzz of scrambling, jumping, and swimming through canyons hit another level for French adventurer Laurent Poublan when he tried it with some friends in mid-winter, at temperatures dipping well below freezing.

“It was a crazy project,” he recalls. “But so exciting. I remember the air temperature: -10°C, altitude 1,500m. The scenery was extraordinary - the ice and snow totally changed the canyon!”

For the last seven years, he and two colleagues have been pioneering the growth of this new sport in and around the Pyrenees. Now they are starting to take it global. In his own words below, he gives us the lowdown.

Going for a cold swim. © Laurent Poublan

What is it?
Simply, canyoning in icy and snowy conditions.. Many people think it’s similar to ice climbing but it’s not, as the waterfalls are not frozen but still flowing. That is why the experience is so exceptional: abseiling down ice accompanied by the smooth sound of falling water and the silence of immaculate and wild snow. It combines the thrills of adrenaline and meditation!

Rappeling down a chilly waterfall. © Laurent Poublan

The dangers
It’s only dangerous if badly practiced and not well organized. Everyone who does this sport is already a high-skilled canyoneer. The basic thing to know is how to pick the right canyon according to the group and to the weather conditions. It’s all about preparation.

The gear
We’re developing kit for winter conditions, including dry clothing, technical and thermal undergarments, shoes, gloves and hoods. Ropes keep being improved and are adapted to ice canyoning. And for some exposed canyons, we could have crampons and ice climbing gear to help us. Scroll down for the full kit list!

Where else can you find an ice-bridge waterslide? © Laurent Poublan

Where to go
Anywhere in the world where it is cold enough and where summer canyoning already exists. On average, however, if there are 10 canyons in an area, only three or four will be suitable because in winter access may be very dangerous – gorges are subject to avalanches too.

The skills
Ice canyoning requires 85 percent traditional canyoning skills – trip preparation, weather conditions, hydrology, geology, personal equipment, vertical and horizontal progression, vertical/cliff set-up, rescue and self-rescue. The other 15 percent deals with high-altitude canyon skills.

Ice canyoning often requires real climbing. © Laurent Poublan

The appeal
The fantastic and unique scenery, the wild and adventurous atmosphere and the fact that we are the only ones to progress in the canyon, which is very different from being with the summer crowds.

How to get involved
Come with us! Our next sessions will occur in Pyrenees and Alps in early February and trips in Norway and Chile have also been scheduled in February and March.

Fancy a cold shower, anyone? © Laurent Poublan

The best place to go
I love the French Pyrenees, but I have also enjoyed very good times in technical canyons in Italy. I dream of doing it in Nepal, as I’ve already practiced canyoning there and the Nepalese valleys, the villages and local people are just wonderful.

Ice canyoning training sessions are offered by Experience Canyon. 

The newly established International Canyoning Organization for professionals (www.ICOPro.org) has 2,500 registered members and is working to create canyoning centres around the world.

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