canyon exploring with Michele Angileri

Which canyoning?

The word "canyoning" assume different meanings depending on who engages in this sport. So, to avoid misunderstandings, it seems useful to explain what this word means to me, what kind of canyoning I do.

I do the "explorative canyoning", which takes place in totally unknown canyons, or in some case in almost unknown ones. Only rarely I happen to go through well-known canyons. Why do I do this? why do I insist in seeking and exploring new canyoning trails rather than go into already known beautiful and satisfying canyons? why do I not organize my holidays in Ticino, Spain or the Reunion island to repeat what are considered the most interesting, challenging and adrenalinic canyons in the world?

The answer to this question lies in the why and the time I came across canyoning. In the mid 80s the word "canyoning" was unknown in Italy. I personally had only fragmented and superficial information about things like caving or climbing. But I felt the charm of rugged, wild, majestic natural places, I was attracted by them. Near home there were such places, and no one used to go there. One day I wanted to go and see them up close. I found myself in an environment so absurd and beautiful, very harsh but at the same time inviting. To move in that place I had to do something I had never done before, climbing , and something that I had always done, swimming. It was the primeval garden that could bring out the kid in me and at the same time it was a solemn cathedral in which venerate the powerful forces that create our reality. It was a one-way street but also a place where you had to invent a path and a way to pass to be able to see what was hidden by next bend.
It was the canyon of Raganello, at that time still unknown and solitary.

Without taking courses (which simply did not exist at that time) I had to figure out what equipment would be needed to go through such a demanding environment: industrial rope, a k-way to protect myself from the cold, a helmet to protect me from the stones I had seen falling dangerously close to me, those particular sneakers that seemed more resistant to water and rock, a grappling hook made by cutting, shaping and welding a steel rod, a hammer to dig artificial steps, a raft so as not to wet the stuff.
When a couple of years later I was able to go through both Raganello canyons I began to wonder if there were other places like that. Or rather, it was obvious that there were, but where? So I started to go through southern Apennines with my motorcycle, and I found my first canyons. But they had difficulties of other nature than the Raganello. There were rock jumps, falls, which were veritable vertical walls 10 meters high or more, that I could not climb up or down. I realized that I needed mountaineering techniques and equipment, and so I took courses in caving and climbing, which finally gave me the know-how that I needed to go through those canyons.
The game of discovery and exploration of the canyons took me completely by now. At the same time it was published the first guide to Italian canyons, the book "Profonde Gole" by Sivelli and Vianelli. I went to some of those canyons, the closest (central-southern Italy), but they were few, and so I continued to look for new ones realizing that the Apennine mountains were unknown (regarding the canyons) not only to me but to anyone. So looking at a mountain, a hill and wondering what was in that particular valley became one thing to me.

It must be said also that I am basically a curious person: the unknown attracts me like a magnet. The explorative canyoning gives me the opportunity to vent the desire of the unknown that the simple repetition of a already explored route would leave unsatisfied.

It is now clear why I practice explorative canyoning? because for me canyoning has always been that one, from the beginning, and because I am a curious person. I did not start canyoning with a course or under the guidance of someone who is already an expert who would tell me what was canyoning and where and how to do it, so my way of canyoning came out by itself. When I do canyoning I do not celebrate a rite of which I had been a spectator before, but I give free rein to my personality and curiosity facing what I encounter, easy or difficult it is.

It was not the search for "adrenaline" to push me towards canyoning, it was not the taste of danger, the desire to deal with the instinctive fear of the void or water... It was the beauty of canyons, the pleasure of immersing myself, being in harmony, confronting myself with such a harsh but fascinating environment, the beautiful and sublime. In this lies the true passion of those who do those activities in contact with nature that are seen as "extreme" by those who don't do them. Are they really "extreme"? sure they are, but on a very large scale that ranges from things even less hazardous than certain daily living activities (such as travelling on a car) to veritable Russian Roulette. Each canyoneer, mountaineer, "extreme" sportsman chooses the level of extremization of its activity according to subjective parameters that depend on the inner motivations but also on experience and athletic skills. I try to keep down the level of risk of what I do, and this means that I hold in the desire to go into environments that attract me but which I feel as very dangerous, and before I go I try to study them very well from every point of view, and I go there when the danger level is the minimum possible. Because my goal is not to face danger but enjoy the environment. For me to face the void and the danger is simply the price to pay to gain access to the places where I am pushed by curiosity. For me, the technique is something you need to get at that place, it doesn't give me any emotion in itself: it is the means, while the aim is the canyon, is the beautiful and the sublime, is the aesthetic-athletic enjoyment.
I do not do canyoning because then I could boast of having done something difficult or dangerous that most people do not. I do not do canyoning because of self-esteem issues, because I have to prove myself to be able to deal with an environment that seems more difficult and dangerous than what I have already faced, because I have to feel a "great" or because others must know that I am.

This is the canyoning for me, very different from what it is for the majority of enthusiasts. Many of them are looking for adrenaline, word behind which hides a fun like an amusement park's thrill ride, a series of harmless scares, a danger more apparent than real, but with the difference that in the end canyoning has really dangers. Something like a via ferrata, where you walk on the precipice attacked to sturdy steel cables: fear + security = amusement park. The danger really is there, but it is not in the fact of being hung in the void but, for example, in the risk of being hit by a stone that falls from above.

Among the "adrenalinics" you find also the "sport canyoning" enthusiasts. For them, canyon is a place for athletic performance (difficult, not for everyone): in short, they go down through canyons at speed, running instead of enjoying the view, plunging everywhere they can, even from heights of over 10 m. I'm running already too much in my life, which in turn runs madly: to find mental rest I need to go slow, even to stop every now and then. I do canyoning also for resting my mind. Moreover "sport canyoning" brings more danger for the enthusiasts: falls, luxations, fractures, rupture of the eardrums in water impact, ... Of course, everyone has the fun he likes! but to me the "sport canyoning," recalls the consumeristic logic of using and leaving behind. In this type of canyoning the canyon has no importance in itself: it's only a stage for a narcissistic athletic performance.

And there are also those who live canyoning as an extreme sport, and therefore practice it deliberately in situations that involve significant risks, related to particularly hostile conditions or to a particularly harsh environment. (I emphasize the word "deliberately" because there are people who face, yes, big risks without realizing it. I would not rate them as "adrenalinics": they are simply unconscious, sometimes idiots, and it is not worth dealing with them.)
As I said above, the risks do not attract me. Where there are significant risks canyoning is no longer a game, it becomes a way of life, or even death. Knowingly deal with significant risks for the sake IMHO index a significant emotional imbalance. Facing them unconsciously, instead, shows low intelligence (moreover the unawareness severely limits the "adrenaline", that is the feeling you have facing a risk: if you are not aware of it you cannot be scared!)

The other major category of canyonineers is formed by those who prefer the social aspect of canyoning. For the great part of canyoneers the social aspect dominates over canyoning activity in itself to the point that a day of canyoning only makes sense in the group, that particular group or that kind of group, without which you do not go in canyons. Canyoning for these people is a way to live the group, and canyon is the place where to celebrate a social ritual of belonging, assimilation, leadership. Faced with the social ritual the canyon can lose importance to those people until it becomes irrelevant. About the canyon, basically, these people do not give a damn.
The group defines roles that generate dynamics: there is inevitably one leader and some followers which does not take responsibility but rely on group leader. The leader gets satisfaction in feeling skilled and important to followers' eyes, injecting himself a dose of self-esteem that will fade soon, however, necessitating a new dose, while the ones in tow enjoy doing the non-paying clients of a kind of mountain guide. Where there are individuals of both sexes may begin games of seduction, the search for a companion of heart.
There is also the "canyoning community", a sort of enlarged group in which you can search for an award, a social role as "expert", "teacher", ... For someone the search and (in some cases) the maintenance of this kind of roles is the main reason (if not the only) to go canyoning, a mover without which they would have ceased to go canyoning since a long time.

Others do canyoning for money. I do not see anything wrong with that, in itself: if I would not have a job I would probably work as a canyoning guide. It would be an honest way to earn a salary, and it would allow me to go in canyons very often. But I've got a job, and in the little free time I have I want to play freely the little explorer, without any conditioning. So when someone asks me to be accompanied (paying for it) in this or that canyon my answer is "no".
But I must also note that for the vast majority of commercial canyoning operators the beginning of working activity coincides with the end of true canyoning activity. When you start to go through canyons for money you end up doing just that, and think only of profit opportunities, in front of which the passion for canyons environment becomes increasingly less significant until it disappears in a process of overall brutishness.
And this happens not only because the greed of money or the need to find livelihood: is that leisure can only be a different activity from work. Recreation means "pull off the plug", directing the thoughts and attention to a different direction, take a break. Therefore, those who work with canyoning must recreate with something else, and so the start of canyoning work coincides with the end of canyoning in itself, the authentic canyoning activity.
Only very few commercial operators manage to escape this perverse mechanism and continue to carve out for themselves the time and opportunity to have canyoning fun without any ulterior motives.

The last kind of canyoneers are those who go canyoning occasionally or sporadically, those for which canyoning is a diversion from their main outdoor activity: they are the vast majority of people that go canyoning.

But let's return back to me: I like to explore because I am a curious person. Some might ask: in the world there are huge mountain ranges unknown and wild, where you could find out majestic and difficult canyons: why don't you go there? why do you content yourself with the canyons of central and southern Italy, which sometimes prove to be simple, maybe without water, sometimes different from the typical iconography of canyoning made of roaring waterfalls and pools suitable for plunge?
The reasons are three:

  1. a good team is needed to explore abroad, and I do not have it. I have great difficulty in finding people interested in a good canyon exploring activity. The most are only interested in adrenaline or social canyoning: exploration is another story. I could not leave for an adventure in a far away place without people with whom I have developed a great team spirit here before.
  2. there are objective logistical problems. Must have a lot of free time and few family constraints. A bit of money is also needed, but not too much
  3. the experience of the past 25 years showed me that exploration results come out when you do a diligent work in the area, when you go several times in the same place. It is highly unlikely that a major discovery jumps out at the first shot. I am therefore motivated to search for canyons in the areas that I already know and of whom I started to have the "understanding key" that allows me to understand where are the hidden canyons and what kind of trails I can find there. And once I have the understanding key what should I do: close it in a drawer and start looking for the understanding key of a far place where I could not go often? don't you think that the most logical thing to do is use it to find new canyons?

A final, important observation: behind a canyon exploration, as well as behind every activity to which Man devote energy and commitment, there is always the taste for challenge. For me the main challenge is the search for what is new, that does not exist yet. Canyon exploring is an intellectual challenge even more than physical: you must first imagine the trail to make it exist. I get a great pleasure in discovering a canyon where no one thought that there was, because that tells me that reality is different depending on the eyes that look at it, and I'm glad that my eyes have been able to see in depth, beyond the superficial appearance, I'm glad to know the area better than before, perhaps better than anyone else.

Finding an unknown canyon is like taking a trip to a place so far away that no one has ever gone, a new planet that was hidden behind the house, never seen or (perhaps) imagined. But what really matters in the end is not even the exploration: it's the canyon. I search for new canyons because I love canyons, known or unknown they are. They are extraordinary places that still, after 30 years in business, surprise and bewitch me.

The canyning I do is much different from what the vast majority of enthusiasts calls "canyoning". Now I hope you understood, and you can better understand the meaning of what you see in the pages of this website. If you feel in tune with my way of canyoning, if you feel that between my view and yours there are similarities do not hesitate to contact me by clicking on my name in the pages of this site. Don't think that you should claim a lot of hard canyoning experiences to chat with me: experience is something that you can do. The problem is the head, the intelligence: you have it or do not have and there is no way to have it. The head is the most rare and precious thing for canyon exploring, the one that's really hard to find.

Copyright © 2002- Michele Angileri. All rights reserved.

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