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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

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Adventure Travel

Mar 07, 2017

Canyoneering in Costa Rica: The Wild First Descent of Gata Fiera Canyon

Daniel Rocchi and friends recently made the first descent of a new canyon in Costa Rica, a country that holds vast, untapped potential for canyon exploration.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

Over the course of their expedition, they faced close calls rappelling down monster 400-foot waterfalls and death-defying plunges into pools below them, never quite knowing what was around the next corner.

Costa Rica is “virgin territory” as far as canyoning goes, according to former firefighter turned translator-canyoneer Daniel Rocchi. At 37 years old, Rocchi — who is half-Italian and half-Irish but has lived in Costa Rica for most of his life — has done “almost exclusively first descents” in the country.

And just recently, with friends from the local Toros Canyoning Group, Rocchi completed one of his most stunning first descents to date.

Poas, a Costa Rican volcano, rises about 4,600 feet above sea level, and is covered in verdant vegetation. On Poas’ slopes, Rocchi and the Toros identified a striking canyon with the Quebrada Gata river snaking through it. Carrying the volcanic minerals from the volcano, the Quebrada Gata colors vary from turquoise to deep blue. The Toros knew they had to go explore. What they found were massive waterfalls, dangerous rappels, and a tropical wonderland.

The Outdoor Journal caught up with Rocchi to ask him about the Toros’ descent and find out more about the nascent canyoning scene in Costa Rica.

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Aerial view of the upper segment of the canyon. The lush tropical foliage grows even on the steepest walls. Photo: Jean Paul Dinarte

Who are the Toros? How did you guys get started canyoneering?

Most members of the group come from a caving background. While there are caves in Costa Rica, they are limited to a few specific areas of the country where there is limestone rock and they are fairly limited in size. When we learned the techniques required for canyoneering (such as being able to retrieve the rappel rope, contingency anchors, etc.) a whole new world of exploration opened up for us. Costa Rica is a tropical country with an annual rainfall of around 100 inches, but mountainous areas receive as much as 25 feet of rainfall, so there are plenty of mountainous rivers and streams that have carved beautiful deep canyons that have never been witnessed by the eyes of mankind. From fairly tepid cave explorations we suddenly discovered we had world class canyoning routes waiting to be explored.

As a group, we have already made first descents of 9 routes (Pilas river, Middle Gata Canyon, Lower Gata Canyon, Mordor Canyon, Middle Desague Canyon, Juco river, Cataraton river, Lajas Canyon, Fantasma Canyon), as individuals we have participated in dozens of other first descents.

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In the background, Daniel is trying to fix the power-drill after its failure, while in the foreground, Victor and Johan are working the hand drill. Photo: Eyleen Vargas

When did you guys make this first descent? How else completed it with you?

The first part of the first descent was on January 21, 2017, in the lower section of what we baptized Cañon Gata Fiera (Fierce Cat Canyon), along the Quebrada Gata river.

It’s a relatively short segment: just short of a mile in length (1,449 m), dropping a little over 1,000 ft (350 m) with very unpredictable flow levels than can go from manageable to lethal in a very short timeframe.

Completing the whole route required 4 attempts in total. On previous occasions we had to abort prior to the point of no return (a 400 feet waterfall that is the crux of the route) due to bad weather and the risk of flash floods.

The team changed slightly with each attempt, since there’s seven of us in Toros, but only four participated in our latest attempt: Johan Aguilar, Scott Trescott, Victor Carvajal and myself.

We completed the route on February 12, 2017.

Daniel rappels off the edge of the 400 ft. monster waterfall. Photo: Victor Hugo Carvajal
Daniel rappels off the edge of the 400 ft. monster waterfall. Photo: Victor Hugo Carvajal

How did you guys find the canyon?

We’ve been studying and systematically exploring the area since we formed as a group last year. We use topo maps and Google Earth and scouting trips to identify the most ambitious routes. One of our team members, Jean Paul Dinarte, is a wizard flying his DJI Phantom drone, so he’s been very helpful at gathering intel prior to trips. Once we have all of the info we can get, we figure out the logistics and come up with an approach plan.

Is Gata Fiera Canyon hard to get to?

This particular route segment actually has a real easy start: a road passes right by where we enter the river. The hard part is getting out of the canyon after it drops 1,000 ft into the larger Canyon of the Toro river, which is surrounded by jungle and very steep cliffs on each side.

Eyleen rappels down the last segment of the multi-pitch, as Johan (above) prepares to switch ropes mid-descent. Photo by: Victor Hugo Carvajal
Eyleen rappels down the last segment of the multi-pitch, as Johan (above) prepares to switch ropes mid-descent. Photo: Victor Hugo Carvajal

What was the actual descent like?

At first the river flows almost flat, with only a couple of small rappels and a few natural water slides. It’s cold, so we used thick wetsuits, but other than that, it seems fairly innocuous at first.

It’s the last 600 meters where the difficulty ramps up significantly. The walls grow taller and close in, forming a narrow slot, which ends in a 200 ft waterfall dropping into a large pool in a deep ravine. That first rappel is a beautiful hanging glide; the waterfall jet was shooting above and beyond us as we descended. After that it was a short downclimb following the river until the final “monster section”: a 380 feet multi-pitch drop with strong, potentially lethal flow and a uniquely funneled and twisting shape.

We started down this section, but after dropping 100 ft we reached a tiny rock platform where we needed to bolt a new anchor, but it was right next to the waterfall’s spray and so we couldn’t use the power drill. It was late in the day and dark clouds were closing in, so we decided to abort through a complicated escape route to avoid the risk of a flash flood. Rain and canyoneering don’t go well together. Flash floods can form and they can spell disaster or death for a team mid-descent.

On our final attempt at this route, the power drill stopped working right in the middle of this section again, so we were literally stuck hanging more than 200 feet off the ground. Fortunately the power drill suddenly sprung back to life at the last minute, we were able to put in a final bolt and by extending one of the anchors with some 7mm cordelette we were able to safely reach the ground and complete the route.

Victor, Johan and Daniel at the bottom of the route's last rappel, after 12 grueling hours. Photo by: Eyleen Vargas
Victor, Johan and Daniel at the bottom of the route’s last rappel, after 12 grueling hours. Photo: Eyleen Vargas

What techniques do you guys use on your descents?

Hiking and rappelling is what we spent the bulk of our time on. The hikes usually have a good dose of downclimbing involved, and because of the strong currents, the rappels are oftentimes quite technical and involved rigging a contingency anchor, so that if someone gets stuck in a strong current the person at the top can control the abseiler’s descent from the top anchor.

Jumps are a GREAT way to save gear. On a first descent, you often don’t know exactly how many rappels you will be facing, and thus you’re not sure regarding the amount of gear that you will need to leave behind on each rappel (fixes, webbing, quick-links, etc.). One way to save gear, is by jumping. Of course, breaking a leg in a difficult canyon can be lethal, so we generally send down our lightest team-member rapping off a human anchor (meaning a rope tied to the rest of the group acting as counterweight). The first guy down can test the water and check if it’s deep enough for the rest of the team to jump. If he gives the ok, we can save a lot of time and gear by simply jumping.

Scott jumps into one of the many emerald pools of Gata Fiera canyon. Photo: Victor Hugo Carvajal
Scott jumps into one of the many emerald pools of Gata Fiera canyon. Photo: Victor Hugo Carvajal

Do you think there are a lot of other opportunities for first descents in Costa Rica?

Absolutely. Costa Rica is an unexplored treasure. We are a tropical country with high mountains, hundreds (if not thousands) of rivers and a very rainy wet season that has sculpted some amazing canyons. But at the same time, canyoning is very new here. Near the beaches and tourist areas there are a lot of lightweight commercial canyons available for tourism, but exploration canyoning is almost unheard of in this country.

We have managed to find some world-class routes (a few are multiple day routes with dozens upon dozens of waterfalls) on the slopes of Poas volcano, but we have even higher mountains running down the central spine of the country, so I’m certain we have only barely scratched the surface. If the explorations we have scheduled for this dry season are fruitful, I’m positive that Costa Rica will be on the radar of all the top canyoneers very soon.

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Travel

Sep 25, 2019

Hiking in the Tetons: When a Teenager Discovered the Power of Nature

On a family camping trip in Wyoming, a future environmental journalist writer witnessed nature’s raw power.

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WRITTEN BY

Millie Kerr

As soon as we began ascending Wyoming’s Hoback Peak, black clouds appeared on the horizon. My family had only been camping for several days, but I’d come to expect the sky’s mid-afternoon mutation. The problem was, our guide had us climbing the region’s highest ridge, not traversing lower ground as we had on prior days when thunderstorms were a near-certainty. Every step up the mountain amplified our distance from clusters of trees, whose towering crowns and fallen trunks offered protection from direct and ground lightning.

“Should we turn back?” I asked my father. My lone ally on this treacherous vacation (our first and last llama trek) shrugged, “Not unless Loren pipes up.”

From the moment I met him, our guide Loren reminded me of a juvenile golden retriever refusing to be trained. His boundless energy betrayed naïveté, or was it something else?

We continued hiking upward. The higher we climbed, the closer we came to those ominous clouds, now enveloping the sky.

I was only fourteen—and a wispy sliver of a girl—but I never let age nor size get in my way. “Loren,” I shouted, “The storm’s coming. Shouldn’t we go back now?”

He paused for a moment, sniffing the charged air, and responded, “We’ll be fine. It’s not heading our way. Onward and upward!”

Within minutes rain began to fall, morphing into hail as lightning struck the apex of a nearby mountain, an alarming reminder that we trekked vulnerable terrain. Entirely exposed and the tallest objects in sight, we’d become mobile lightning rods.

To find cover, we needed to make our way to higher or lower ground, and I ascended more slowly than the others. In a pinch, they might be able to scramble to safe cover, but what if I couldn’t keep up?

The storm quickly escalated, and I knew that I had to descend even if it meant traveling alone.

“Loren,” I yelled into the wind, “Can we please turn around now?” to which he answered, “We have to get to higher ground to find cover. Follow me, everyone, and hurry!”

My mother and brother rushed after him. I tugged at my father’s shirt, begging him to retreat with me, and he acquiesced.

Without discussing the consequences, he relayed our decision to the rest of the group, urging everyone to join us, but Loren insisted that anyone able to continue to follow him to elevated turf, to more expansive tree cover than what we’d find below.

I’d already lowered myself to the ground, preparing to inch downhill like a crab. My dad rebuked then joined me. Two slithering bodies covered in mud, we ignored the painstaking switchbacks plodded the previous hour, reaching a nest of trees within minutes. We removed our packs and perched atop hefty logs; thunder, lightning, and behemoth hailstones raging all around us.

Then we held hands and prayed and waited for the storm to pass.

When it did, my father and I emerged to altered terrain. Tromping across icy slush, we spent a seeming eternity looking for camp. The llamas, our packhorses for the week, had scattered, and our tents were blown over, their contents dispersed like bits of city garbage.

We located the jittery animals and tied them to nearby trees before setting to work on our tents. These tasks afforded a momentary distraction from nagging questions: Were the others safe? Had we made the right decision? When would they come back, and what if they didn’t?

Suddenly, movement on the horizon. My Dad and I jogged up the banks of a mild ridge, peering into a vast post-storm haze. “Mom! Jeff!” I shrieked.

They shouted back, but with their calls came the distinct sound of laughter.

“It was no big deal,” Loren bragged minutes later as he wrenched off his jacket and mud-soaked boots, “We found cover in no time. You should’ve stuck with us.”

At the time, he seemed to be posturing—saving face—but over the years, my perception shifted: I no longer see doubt on Loren’s face. The man wasn’t merely a risk-taker—he was arrogant. He stared directly into the eye of a storm as though he were its equal match, as though his survival that day made him stronger than nature itself.

You can follow Millie on Twitter and Instagram.

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