Canyoneering vs. Rock Climbing – What’s the Difference and Which Should You Try in Zion?
The first step is always the hardest
When presented with a list of the outdoor activities in the St. George/ Zion area, your eyes may get a little glossy as virtually every active pursuit you could possibly want can be found in the area. Some you may never have even heard of.
If you know you want to try something beyond hiking, but you’re not sure what or you’re overwhelmed by all the choices, Zion Adventure Company has got you covered. Offering a number of adventure packages that combine a few of the region’s most popular activities, you can get a taste for multiple sports in one action-packed day. Opting for the Rock + Canyon combo, I was excited to try two sports that were completely new to me. As green as can be, I didn’t even know the difference between rock climbing and canyoneering. In fact, I’d probably been using the terms interchangeably. They both had to do with mountains so they both intrigued me. What I quickly learned was that’s about all they have in common.
Almost complete opposites, they’re two sides of the same coin. One goes up, one goes down. One is more mental, one is more physical. One is safer and more controlled; one is less predictable and reliant on the elements.
I met with my guide in the morning to make a game plan for the day as each trip is tailored to your preferences and abilities. He outlined a few locations we could explore, identifying the different challenges at each spot. Some had shorter hikes to drop-in, some had more elevation gain. We decided upon Frog Hallow, which offered both Canyoneering and Rock Climbing in the same location (a rarity) in order to maximize our playtime without needing to drive to multiple sites.
As the Day Went On, I Learned a Few More Key Differences:
Canyoneering has permanent bolts and anchors built into the canyons (but make sure to test them before you descend). In rock climbing, you set your own anchors and top ropes in each location.
In rock climbing, you always have one rope for the climber and one for the belayer. In canyoneering, you can either use one or two lines based on the amount of friction and efficiency you want to achieve. The ropes are made of different materials to withstand different elements, as canyoneering’s must be static with no pull. For rock climbing, you want the rope to be dynamic so if you fall, it has some give.
Both require a harness and helmet, but the major difference is footwear. Rock climbing has special shoes that you wear sockless for grip (Zion Adventure Company will loan these to you), whereas in canyoneering, you just wear your normal gym/hiking shoes.
Canyoneering, while less physically challenging, is the more dangerous sport as you have to commit and trust the environment. Once you’re down in a canyon, there’s often no way out if there’s a flash flood, landslide or another natural disaster. In climbing, you choose your own path. If one area looks unsafe or hard to traverse, simply pick another route.
Both canyoneering and rock climbing have difficulty ratings. Climbs are rated on a 1-5 scale with a possible letter attached for a specific technical skill required. Canyons are rated 1-4 by how easily you can get through them, walking, with a rope, or by rappelling, with a letter attached for average water level. The challenge with canyoneering is to stay as dry possible, which is hard to do without looking awkward sliding down a cliff. Good rock climbers look extra graceful scampering up the rockface (and make it look easy – it’s definitely not). Climbing is much more physical and requires a lot of core muscle and good balance. Pretty much anyone can descend a rope, getting up is not nearly as easy.
Rock climbing you can do virtually anywhere in the world, whereas the Southwest is the only place you can really go canyoneering in the U.S. You can repel down gorges in other area, but canyons are more technical and unique to the region.
After trying both, I found canyoneering to be much more enjoyable, approachable, and a unique way to explore Utah’s incredible landscape. Zion Adventure Company has taken guests as young as three or as old as eighty, some even disabled who were able to adapt. Rock climbing was a frustrating mind game, trying to determine the best route and outsmart nature, with clearly required much more technique and had a much higher learning curve. If you’re looking for one activity that defines Utah – give canyoneering a shot.
If you find you really enjoy it like I did, the Extreme Adventure Day is one to consider for future trips. Only available through Zion Adventure Company, you’ll visit a canyon they own, the Eye of the Needle, the only canyon in the area with beautiful waterfalls and continuously running water year-round. The High Adventure Day is another more advanced excursion with bigger cliffs (around 140 feet, which is about 3x the 40 footers I tried), more watery pools to traverse and double the amount of rappels.
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