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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe

Downstream over rocks and waterfalls – my first time canyoning

Updated on 13.03.2019 in Sports


I must have been crazy to jump off a cliff into a river, but lived to tell the tale.

Getting to the water

The big day has finally arrived. In a moment of weakness, I agreed with a friend to go down the Stopfer, a canyoning route in Kühtai. Now, I don’t have any experience of canyoning, and am pretty scared of the whole idea, but Richard Sturm is actually an approved Tirolean gorge- and canyoning guide, and so I let myself be talked into it.

I double-check my list of items to pack: good shoes, a swimming costume, a change of clothing, and good nerves. Richard will bring all the other equipment, like a helmet and climbing rope, with him. We drive via Sellraintal into Kühtai, past grazing cows and slopes full of alpine roses, to the car park somewhere between Kühtai and Ötz, where we will also finish our tour.

                   Vorbereitung ist alles, das Seil wird ordentlich in den Rucksack gelegt. Profis sagen dazu in den Rucksack schießen.
                Vorbereitung ist alles, das Seil wird ordentlich in den Rucksack gelegt. Profis sagen dazu in den Rucksack schießen.

                   Vorbereitung ist alles, das Seil wird ordentlich in den Rucksack gelegt. Profis sagen dazu in den Rucksack schießen.
                Vorbereitung ist alles, das Seil wird ordentlich in den Rucksack gelegt. Profis sagen dazu in den Rucksack schießen.

Preparation is key

Before we set off, we check our equipment again and leave in the car everything that we won’t be needing over the next 2.5 hours. Our rucksack is made of a piece of tarpaulin, divided into two compartments, and we stow the climbing rope neatly stowed into the upper compartment, handy for when we need it. When I say ‘we’, I mean Richard, who patiently answers all my questions. Then we hike up to the start through meadows full of colourful flowers. The climb takes about 30 minutes, ending up at a road from where I can see below me another canyoning group who have just abseiled down off a bridge.

Like a teletubby

We put on our wetsuits, helmets and climbing belts. Now I look like a teletubby. Richard explains to me what I should do in the gorge, how abseiling works, how I should slide down correctls, how I can the carabiner that holds me, and how strong all the material is. My skepticism must be clear in my expression, but I trust Richard and so we press on.

The bridge

During the past couple of days this bridge has been in my mind a lot. Abseiling 18 metres into a gorge! My block of flats has 4 floors, which makes it 18 metres high. I can’t imagine abseiling down from the roof to the garden – but that is exactly that I am about to do, near enough. Richard secures the rope to the railing, and when the carabiner at one end has been clipped onto my belt, he tells me to climb over. I’m still feeling OK at this point. Now I’m standing on the edge of the bridge, feet shoulder-width apart, clinging to the red iron rail with both hands. Richard says I should lean backwards until I can feel the climbing belt taking my weight. OK, still no problem. Next, I should take my hands off the bridge, so only my feet are in contact with anything solid. Now I am beginning to feel nervous. I know that looking down will make me scared, so I focus on Richard and his instructions. I realise that the rope is holding me up and my feet are only guiding me. It seems to be happening all by itself. I concentrate again, stepping down onto the lower concrete beam, slowly learning to trust the rope. I need to, because I don’t have time to worry about it. I’m too busy being amazed at where I am and what I’m doing.

The magical world of the gorge

I’m almost disappointed to be at the bottom so quickly. Brrr! I‘ve landed with both feet in cold water. The river Nederbach, which drains out of a reservoir, flows down over dark grey rocks and past lush green bushes, smelling of mossy woodland. As my Neoprene socks fill with water, I release the carabiner and Richard abseils down, looking like some kind of action hero. Within ten seconds he is standing next to me and packing the rope away into his rucksack. And then we start walking – in the river. The gorge has a bit of an enchanted feel about it, like somewhere tropical, only colder. We walk downstream and after just a couple of minutes we find ourselves in front of a waterfall that I had noticed on the walk uphill. I have an urge to stand underneath it, just like the models in the shampoo adverts I’ve seen on TV! With a helmet on, the crashing water doesn’t feel so hard, but it is freezing cold. Afterwards we chill out in a small pool, allowing our wetsuits to properly fill up with water.

Lemmings and rock-sliding

Soaked but now relatively warm due to the wetsuit, we wind our way through the gorge. Now the first water slide over the rocks awaits me. I can’t see how I can possibly get down it safely, so Richard goes first and then climbs back up to me. One moment I am sitting on the edge of a rock, and the next I am in the water, too quickly to know whether I enjoyed it or was frightened. After I surface, I decide it was fantastic.

The next challenge lies before us: a jump off a cliff, 4 metres down into a pool. Richard point out to me where I should jump so that I don’t get hurt. Now I really wish I hadn’t skipped long jump lessons at school. I am terrified.  Mentally I want to jump, but physically I just can’t bring myself to do it! Behind us is a group of nine men, looking very comical in their bright green suits. The picture of them settles my butterflies a bit, thank goodness, and we let them go first.

Richard reckons that a combination of peer pressure and testosterone will stop any of them from backing out. And so they jump, one after the other, hurling themselves off the cliff like lemmings. They all bob up again unscathed and so I gather all my courage… and jump. With relief and a bit of pride at myself, I survive, and my new green friends give me a round of applause. Richard asks if I want to do it again, but I politely decline. I don’t want to overdo it on my first time.

Diving in and out

After that test of courage, I start to enjoy myself more and more. We hurry on to the next water slide, where I throw myself in, but after two turns the current pulls me under the water. I am brought up to the surface by the wetsuit’s buoyancy, and even though I feel like I’ve just had 10 litres of water forced up my nose, this time I do want to have another go. Holding my nose, I feel like a kid in a swimming pool, and Richard has to tear my away. It’s just too much fun!

We hike out of the gorge and back to the car park, where we put on dry clothes and sit down on a bench, giving ourselves time for the impressions to settle a bit. I am almost sad to have to leave the magical world of the gorge behind. It was a great experience and I’m grateful to Richard for having guided me so patiently through it. And now, after all the fresh air, exercise and adrenalin, I’m hungry. We go off to get something to eat.

Over a beer we agree on the next adventure: rock climbing. This time I’m not scared. What could possibly go wrong, now I’ve kind-of jumped off a 4-storey house? Exactly. My superhero socks and I are raring to go.

For anyone who would like to try out canyoning for themselves, I can warmly recommend Richard as a guide:
More information about canyoning in Tirol can be found on our website:

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