The first challenge awaits us before the real adventure has even started. It is 9am and we are on a parking ground a few kilometres outside Megève in the French Alps, performing some kind of curious dance: I am pulling at my colleague Martha’s wetsuit as hard as I can while trying to somehow keep my balance. Her pants’ right leg just won’t come over her ankle. Meanwhile, our photographer Florian wonders, “Why is there only one opening? Where am I supposed to put the other leg?”
Franck Olivier – short auburn hair, stubbly beard, wiry body – is watching in amusement. The Canadian native, who is also a mountain and ski guide, has been taking clients on canyoning tours for 13 years. He knows the mountains and gorges around here like the back of his hand. He has been on top of Mont Blanc, towering into the sky a few kilometres from here, five times – this summer alone. Today, he is here to lead our group of six through the “canyon of the beauty of the forest”. This canyon is not particularly long, he says, but quite demanding, with a few great jumps and, as you can tell from the name, a lot of beauty.
So far so good. After successfully squeezing into on our wetsuits, putting on our climbing harnesses and helmets, we set off. A ten minute walk through a deeply green forest brings us to a little creek by the name of Planay. Its crystal-clear water sparkles in the last summery rays of sunshine falling through the treetops. If it wasn’t so beautiful we would call it corny.
“Now, let’s get used to the water,” says Franck, leading the way by lying down in a waist-deep pool of water. Since we didn’t really excel at putting on our wetsuits, Martha, Florian and me, in a courageous demonstration of our commitment, follow suit. Within seconds, the ice-cold water enters the wetsuit, starting at the feet, then reaching the chest. Icy! No surprise really, since the creek’s water springs from summits and peaks of more than 2,000 metres, and even on hot summer days like this one, the water does not get much warmer than 10° Celsius, Franck explains.
He then briefs us on safety procedures. When sliding or jumping, we are supposed to keep our hands in front of our bodies. When abseiling, we must not forget to attach both carabiners to the rope. And that’s it. Ahead we go, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, finding our way through the rocky creek bed, sliding from one pool to the next, climbing over water-polished tree trunks wedged in the increasingly narrow canyon.
After about five minutes, we get to the first jump. It’s only three meters, perfect for warming up. Since there hadn’t been much rain in the previous days and there is not much water in the creek, Franck goes first. He re-emerges from the water, snorting and giving us his thumbs-up. “Just jump into the white swirl underneath the waterfall, that’s where the water is the deepest.” As we all arrive there, one after the other, he realises that his go-pro camera has fallen from his helmet into the pool. Luckily, after a short dive, our photographer Florian brings it back. Big brownie point for team Best of the Alps.
A short distance downstream we reach the next jump. About seven metres this time – looking much higher to me. Maybe it is time to mention that I am not a big heights kind of guy. I am the one who always gave the ten metre diveboard a wide berth. Compromising myself in front of my colleagues, however, isn’t really an option either. So, what the heck. Seven metres isn’t that much, is it? Very slowly I put one foot on the small ledge, then the other. Suddenly, the grey rocks framing the dark blue pool below me seem so close. My heart rate goes up. “Just jump straight down!” Florian calls out to me. I guess it is supposed to encourage me. Which it does only to a certain point. I set out to jump, once, twice, and then I really jump. The next second feels like an eternity, but then I land in the ice-cold pool, happy and relieved.
Not that there is much time to rest. We have now reached the most prominent, eponymous part of the canyon: the waterfall de la Belle au Bois. Here, the water falls almost 20 metres deep, too high for jumping. This calls for abseiling. With my back facing the canyon, I press my feet against the rock, pushing my body away with my legs again and again as Franck skilfully lets me descend on the rope. The water pelts my helmet. It’s deafening, and I can hardly hear Franck shouting advice from above. What? Place my feet wider? Tense my body? I can’t understand him but it doesn’t really matter. Somehow everything works out by itself and after a few tense moments I end up at the end of the waterfall.
It is noon as we head back to our car. I feel relief and that special kind of contentment that comes from having mastered a challenge. “Fear is a natural instinct, it makes us aware of danger. Those who have no fear at all are much more prone to injuries,” Franck explains as we let the midday sun warm our cold bodies back on the parking ground. Today, there’s only one more challenge ahead of us: Getting out of our wetsuits.
Jan. 27, 2020