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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

Aug 13, 2019

Carnets de Trail: Montalin Ridge – Hochwang

Episode 3: Sébastien de Sainte Marie's "Carnets de Trail" series continues, this time near his new home in Graubünde.

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Sébastien de Sainte Marie is a steep-skier, runner, climber, The Outdoor Journal ambassador, but above all a lover of wide-open spaces. Sébastien has carried out first ski descents in the Alps, Chablais and Aiguilles Rouges. He made the first ski descent of “Brenvitudes” on the Brenva side of Mont Blanc, as well as off the English Route on the south face of Shishapangma (Tibet) from an altitude of 7,400m. In this series entitled “Carnets de Trail” (Trail Notebook), Sébastien shares all his favourite trails, with all the information you need to experience the same trips yourself.

Since my recent move to Graubünden, Switzerland, I have not stopped looking at this impressive mountain facing my new home, Montalin. Eventually, I found the time to check out the view from the top.

A shot of Luisa having left the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf.

The Key Information

Time: For walkers 9h. For runners between 4 to 5h. There are some sections, specifically on the ridge, where you cannot run.
Distance: 22km for 2100m uphill, and then 1400m downhill.
Location: Start from Chur and end in St Peter (where you will find a bus and train station).
Difficulty: The entire area between Montalin (2266m) and Hochwang (2532m) is located between T2 and T3 with a T4 passage just before Hochwang.
Gear: Trail running shoes are important, in addition to a light bag that you can use for water. Sticks might be helpful at the start.
Good for: The ridge is not very difficult, with good stable terrain and the views are amazing. The first long uphill looks tough, but it’s a soft incline. This route really is something for everybody.

Descending just before the Hochwang

Route

This little adventure starts from the Church of Saint Luzius in Chur (621m), heading up to reach the atypical little Chapel of Saint Luzi nestled in the rocks. The path then continues along Mittenberg (1114m), the chalets of Bargs (1600m) and leads to Fürhörnli (1887m). Curiosity leads us down a short detour to reach the summit of Fürhörnli and its summit so that we can enjoy a few seconds of breathtaking views of the river Rhein.

From there, the path becomes steeper and narrower up to the summit of Montalin (2265m). It is classified as an “alpine” path. From the top of Montalin we follow an excellent path towards Obersass to reach a pass located at about 2180m. We then leave the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf (2260m). The start is steep but then the ridge is flat and wide and only stiffens before the Ful Berg (2394m). Seen from afar, the raidillon before the Ful Berg looks scabrous, but once it has passed its test it is easy. The ridge then takes on the appearance of a dolomite with beautiful delineated rock towers just before the ascent to Schafläger (2429m) and then to Tüfelsch Chopf. A short roller coaster ride and here we are at the top of the Hochwang (2532m) to close this magnificent ridge. From the summit head towards Ratoser Stein (2473m) but quickly turn right to descend towards Triemel (1850m). The view is magnificent but a good half of the concrete path reminds us of the kilometres and the difference in altitude already covered. The path, road at times, then leads us back to St Peter’s which will be the end of our itinerary.

It is possible to do many variations of this itinerary, including a departure from Maladers (1025m) to reduce the positive altitude difference or on the contrary to extend the ridge to infinity on the Ratoser Stein then Cunggel (2412) and this until Mattjisch Horn (2460m) for the most daring.

The dolomite just before the Tüfelsch Chopf

Tips

– This is a route for dry and stable weather.
– Plan for sufficient water supply throughout the whole adventure, because apart from a small torrent at Walpagära (2338m) we were short on options.

The little extras

– It is possible to sleep 300 metres just below the ridge and just above St Peter at the Skihaus Hochwang
– There’s nothing like a good ice cream after an adventure in the mountains and if you’re in the mood for hot chocolate or walnut pie, then you can enjoy the great bakery and confectionery coffee.

Another shot, just before the Hochwang

Useful links:
Trains and postal buses
– The Chur Tourist Office located in the station will answer all your questions
The site to plan your trip with an online topographic map at 25:000.

Sebastien de Sainte Marie would like to thank Luisa for featuring in the photos and his partners Scott and Outdoor Research.

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