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Down climbing for Christ

By Gary Fallesen

BASASEACHI, Mexico — Tim Trezise first attempted mountaineering in reverse — better known as canyoneering — when he was living in Utah in the early 1990s.

The slot canyons of the American West always have been inviting to adventurous people, even before descending into these off-the-beaten hiking paths was dubbed something special.

“It’s way harder than backpacking,” says Trezise, a full-time missionary in northern Mexico. “That’s why I call it ‘backpacking with an attitude.’”

I recently had the opportunity to experience canyoneering with Trezise (pronounced “tree-SIZE”) when I led a group of climbers to Basaseachi Falls National Park in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Basaseachi is not a national park as Americans know them with visitor centers, restaurants and campgrounds featuring bathrooms and showers. The only way to clean the sweat from our bodies was to jump into the 50-degree water in the Rio Basaseachi.

In our 3½ days in the canyon below the 850-foot waterfall, we saw no other people.

No wonder. Before setting out, the 39-year-old Trezise warned: “This will be some of the most strenuous hiking you’ve ever done. I won’t hold any punches.”

He was not directing this comment to a bunch of couch potatoes. He was talking to a group of people that counted among them several who had climbed Africa’s great Mount Kilimanjaro, who had stood on the peaks of all of the 4,000-foot mountains in the Northeast, and who had ascended ranges on four continents.

However, none of us had tried what Trezise refers to as “amphibious, technical hiking” — aka canyoneering.

I’d never climbed with a group that carried ropes, harnesses, helmets and … a $3 vinyl inflatable inner tube from Wal-Mart. “The secret weapon of canyoneering,” Trezise jokes. The inner tube, found in many backyard pools in the United States, would help us cross rivers if the water was too deep and there was no other way to proceed.

Canyoneering is a problem-solving, route-finding passage through a subterranean world. Problems found along the way range from waterfalls and slides (deep pools of water), slots (narrow canyon walls where there is no choice but to swim), boulders as big as motor vehicles or houses, cliffs and scree (loose rock) to forests, bugs and snakes — or all of the above.

It is demanding, requiring climbing, rappelling, hiking and swimming.

After spending seven hours to cover a little more than seven miles from our camp on the Rio Basaseachi to the base of El Gigante, a 7,169-foot big wall that is home to the world’s highest sport-climbing routes, Joey Rooks sat barefooted. The difficult terrain had ripped up both of the Chicago-based climber’s feet.

“If the Discovery Channel had done a documentary on this, I wouldn’t have had to come down here and gotten my feet all blistered,” the 27-year-old Rooks says, smiling in spite of the pain.

Bandaged up, he would go at it again the next day and then on our final day he would gingerly put one foot in front of the other as we made the 1,400-foot ascent out of Candameña Canyon. The last 1,000 vertical feet were on less than three-quarters-of-a-mile of steep switchbacking trail.

“We saw some of the most incredible country I’ve ever seen,” says Todd Paris, a 34-year-old from Pottersville, Warren County, who has climbed in a dozen countries.

Paris says he actually prefers canyoneering to backpacking.

“You’re not carrying a full pack and going up all the time,” he explains. “For the most part it’s flat. There’s up and down, but it’s relatively flat overall.

“It’s stop and go, too, so you don’t get out of breath.”

Unless, of course, you’re trying to keep up with Trezise. This husband and father of two is the site director of EduVenture Mexico, a study-abroad program for college students with a sense of adventure. EduVenture, which is based in Tucson, Ariz., and has programs in Mexico, Fiji and Indonesia, integrates academics, physical challenges (such as canyoneering) and cross-cultural experiences in 14-week semesters.

Trezise is a jack-of-all-trades sort of guy who aspired to be a U.S. Olympian in kayaking with his brother, Ken, of Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1990s. His love of whitewater kayaking and rock climbing came together in canyoneering.

The sport, which was called one of “the next big things” by National Geographic Adventure magazine a little more than a year ago, normally only garners headlines when disasters occur. As with many adventurous activities, it is the subject of much rubbernecking when things go bad. Things such as Aron Ralston amputating an arm after being trapped beneath a boulder while canyoneering two years ago in Utah or a flash flood drowning several canyoneers in 1999 in Switzerland.

Canyoneering is unusual in that you are faced with the possibility of dehydration and drowning at the same time.

But we didn’t think about the negative when we were faced with the positive side of the sport: the opportunity to see the underbelly of a rugged wilderness setting. Standing in a canyon, surrounded by 800-to-1,000-foot cliffs as the moonlight bathes our weary bodies, we drink in a part of the world rarely seen — even on the Discovery Channel.

This story originally appeared in the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle newspaper on May 1, 2005.

Map reading

Members of EduVenture Mexico – (left to right) Jill Inge, Sergio Rosas, Tim Trezise and Daphne Paul – study a map before scouting a new arroyo (stream) while canyoneering in Basaseachi Falls National Park. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)

Canyon descent

Climbers descending into Candameña Canyon for 3½ days of canyoneering in Basaseachi Falls National Park in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)

What is it?

Canyoneering is sometimes referred to as “amphibious mountaineering.” Tim Trezise, a veteran canyoneer, says it involves “swimsuits, Chaco (sandals) and drybags instead of heavy boots, crampons and an ice axe. Flash floods instead of avalanches. A stiff neck instead of dealing with the effects of altitude.”

The American Canyoneering Association’s Canyon Rating System is divided into four parts:

Technical Class — “1” is non-technical canyon hiking; “2” is basic canyoneering (requires scrambling); “3” is intermediate (real technical climbing that is difficult and dangerous), and “4” is advanced (aid climbing, rappels, complex rope work).

Water Rating — “A” is normally dry or very little water; “B” is water with no or a light current, and “C” is water with a strong current (including waterfalls).

Risk Rating — No rating is normal risk; “R” is risky (not for beginners), and “X” is extreme (could result in death).

Time or Grade — “I” is a couple of hours; “II” is a half-day; “III” is most of a day; “IV” is a long day (usually requiring a headlamp); “V” is more than one and less than two days, and “VI” is two days or more.


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