“How can I describe it?... I can call it 'Airy',” Stefan says of the feeling he experiences when plunging down waterfalls, a diversion known among extreme sports fans as “canyoning”. The last time I heard him use the word “airy” was when he was describing rock climbing in Lakatnik. Then, when I found myself hanging on a piece of rope some 400 yards from the ground, I began to realise what he meant. It was rather scary, I must admit. So this time I am a bit more sceptical.
Other expressions Stefan uses to describe these waterfall descents are “wet”, “slippery”, “exhausting” and “great fun”. “Fun” is in fact a word present in the descriptions of all the extreme activities he's tried his hand at.
He first went canyoning in the Kresna Gorge. The route there was 2.5 km, or 1.5 miles, long and there were five waterfalls to descend. His friends had told him it was fun and he had enough rock climbing and rafting experience, so he decided that canyoning was a natural follow-on to those activities, one more experience to add to his long list of adventures.
“It is quite scary at first. It looks like abseiling, with a difference: there's water running everywhere, getting into your face and clothes, stones are constantly giving way under your feet, your hands freeze within minutes, you are completely taut, and, on top of that, you can hardly hear what you're being told because of the noise. If you glance down, you feel giddy,” Stefan explains.
He found the first step the most difficult. When you look at the waterfall from below, the route doesn't seem so exacting. But once you're standing on top of it, everything suddenly appears higher, larger, steeper and more dangerous. “You have to carefully calculate all your movements, any holds or foot supports on the rock and your next step. All this, in ice-cold water where you can hardly breathe.” But the discomfort is made up for by two factors: the excitement and the fact that canyoning is very different from anything you have tried before.
You need special mountain equipment to tackle waterfalls, cracks, river gorges and gullies, while for the easier sections, the more experienced claim, all you need is increased caution. Canyoning is hardly a sport in the classical meaning of the term; rather, it is one of a variety of extreme activities, the greatest advantage of which is that it is practised in the wild. The first attempts to descend waterfalls date back to the early 1990s, in the United States. Then the fashion spread to Canada and Europe. Canyoning normally appeals to thrill seekers, who have always been a small and relatively closed community.
Stefan admits that the first time he started on a route it turned out to be more difficult than he'd expected. While hanging in mid-air, with tonnes of water – as it seemed to him – cascading over him, he solemnly promised himself: “Never again! Once I get to the ground, I'll never ever come close to a waterfall again as long as I live!”
He made it down. Then he went up for another descent. And he has been doing it for two years now. Gradually, a group of enthusiasts formed. They use both tried and tested routes as well as taking on waterfalls nobody has descended before.
The most amazing thing, Stefan thinks, is that this extreme adventure lies only a two or three-hour drive from the offices, traffic jams and pollution of Sofia. “All you need for this completely new world to open up for you is to be willing, have a desire to experiment and to be in good physical shape.”
What is it that makes him return to the waterfalls over and over again? “The fact that you see and feel things you haven't even dreamt of. You come to regard the rock, the water and your own abilities in a totally different light. Every time you complete a route or go down a dangerous waterfall, you feel that you're a winner. Maybe we get addicted to adrenaline or to the unexpected.”
But the unexpected carries dangers and risks. One of Stefan's friends ended up with two pins in his knee after an unsuccessful canyoning attempt. This is why anyone who has abseiled down waterfalls agrees that it is not a safe endeavour and that nobody should even consider attempting it on their own – or without an instructor, especially the first few times. The clubs that offer these extreme experiences provide qualified guides and several routes have been studied and secured in the Kresna Gorge in recent years to make them suitable for beginners.
One of the most important things to ensure your personal safety is the correct judgement of your physical status and strength. According to Stefan, those who don't feel confident enough should not attempt anything too difficult. After all, the main aim of canyoning is to have fun, not to torture yourself.
Canyoning equipment is similar to that used in rock climbing, the main difference between the two being the direction – not up, but down. The basics that you need to “conquer” a waterfall are: ropes, mountain gear, a helmet, a lifejacket, a special alpine canyoning harness, kneepads, a neoprene or other wet-suit, water shoes with good grip soles, suitable gloves and emergency gear. Most extreme sports companies supply all the equipment. You should also bring a dry change of clothes and another pair of shoes to change into, a towel, sunglasses, sun cream and mosquito repellent.
The beginners' routes are usually well prepared, but you should still beware of dangers lurking in the canyon, such as falling stones, slippery rocks, and the risk of injury, bruises or freezing. So, the first rule of safe canyoning is to listen to the instructors' commands. The optimum size of a group is between three and five people.
“When you're inside the canyon and the water is streaming and whirling all around you, you feel not just charged, but overcharged with positive energy. This is probably why we do it,” Stefan says. Soon, he and his friends are planning to take on a particularly difficult new waterfall and they are carefully planning every stage of the descent. But they won't divulge its whereabouts for the time being. Then, if everything goes to plan, he says he'll call me to boast about it.
Where, When and How
Canyoning has been practised in Bulgaria for several years. At present, the most popular sites are the Kresna Gorge and the Vlahinska River in Pirin. Others include the Kosovska River; the Esenska River, the area around Devil's Throat and Haramiyska Cave in the Rhodope Mountains; the Byala, or White, River in Yuzhniya Dzhendem; the Iskar Gorge in the area of Lakatnik; some sites along the Yantra and the Polska Skakavitsa River in the Zemen Gorge in the Balkan Mountains. The canyoning season is from April or May until October. Most adventure holiday companies in Bulgaria offer canyoning trips with all the necessary equipment and instructors.