Canyoning in the Sierra de Guara. Equipment and Advice.

If you have never visited the Sierra de Guara, we hope this article gives you a glimpse of what it has to offer. Well-known as the paradise of canyoning (and much more), it is guaranteed to amaze you. Here are some things to consider, so that you can fully enjoy one of the best canyoning areas in the world.

Saltador d'as Lañas (Mascún)

The Guara Mountains and Canyons Nature Reserve is geographically located to the south of the Pyrenees, forming part of the foothills (sierras).

Geologically formed by limestone and conglomerates, the Sierra de Guara is crossed by five major watercourses which originate to the north of the mountain range and form part of the Cinca river basin and, in turn, of the Ebro river. The five watercourses have a permanent flow and are called the Flumen, Guatizalema, Alcanadre, Balcez (or Balcés, known as Isuala downstream from the sierra) and Vero. We should also add the river Formiga which, starts south of the sierra, but has a guaranteed water flow, thanks to the springs draining through the subsoil of the Tozal de Guara. All have a number of tributaries, forming a wide network of rivers and streams that together, create over 100 high quality sporting descents.

Canyoning is an activity that can be enjoyed all year round in the Sierra de Guara, depending on the water flow, the temperature, the regulations for each descent and the number of other canyoners that can affect important factors such as descent times or the turbidity of the water. Of course, you also need to think about your level of fitness, technique and experience and your equipment, when facing a descent. Descents should always be carried out in a group, tailored to the weakest member and you should never assume you will always be in a position to lend a hand to a those who need it.

Different equipment is needed, depending on the type of descent. Canyoning descents range from easy, with minimum difficulty and with no need of a harness, descender or rope (although it is always useful to carry these your pack) to very technical canyons which require much more equipment and technical know-how. In the same way, long vertical canyons can be descended without a wetsuit, as they are usually dry, while other canyons require constant swimming in very cold water.

Álex Puyo
Some canyoning descents in the Sierra de Guara do not require a harness or rope.

You can read about the general equipment required for canyoning, in the following article, which gives simple guidelines on the type of descent and equipment needed, so that you get the most enjoyable canyoning experience. Essential gear for canyoning looks at each piece of equipment required for the activity.

When is the Best Time of Year for Canyoning in Guara?

As we have already mentioned, canyoning in the Sierra de Guara is possible at any time of year, if the conditions are suitable and the regulations allow it. Rarely is the weather so bad, that it is impossible to find a suitable canyoning descent in this area, providing you have the right equipment.

the most enjoyable time for canyoning in Guara, however, is Spring. The conditions don’t vary much from one year to the next - there are no big snow thaws or untimely flooding – and they are therefore quite predictable. The temperatures are also pleasant, so that you can tackle both wet and dry canyons. The water level begins to show its less frightening side at this time of year, although it is essential to always check and pay attention to the water level. On the other hand, and no less important, the approach and return routes, which are tough in the sweltering Summer heat and cold Winter, are very pleasant in Spring and Autumn.

Álex Puyo
The Alcanadre with high water flow in Spring

Summer is the time for the long river descents (Flumen, Formiga, Alcanadre, Balcez and Vero. The Guatizalema does not have an extraordinary descent) and guarantees water flow and relief from the suffocating heat.

September, October and November are more unpredictable and at this time of year either the springs dry up or the bridges are washed away. Nevertheless, it is a suitable time of year for abseiling on vertical drop descents, which are usually dry. The heat is less extreme and it is no longer the bird nesting season, which bans descents of certain canyons, such as Palomeras del Flumen, Piedra Foratata, Escomentué, Lazas and Otín.

In winter, don't miss the chance to descend dry ravines such as the Basender, Portiacha, Chimiachas or Otín or visit incredible conglomerate ravines: some of the tributaries of the Balcez Straits such as Fondo, Cautiecho and Cueva Cabrito or of the Vero, such as Lumos are truly marvellous and will not disappoint.

Tools for Checking the Water Volume

If you are an experienced mountaineer, you probably open the weather forecast more than you open the fridge door, so we can't show you anything new. But you should know how the different watercourses respond to rainfall and if you don't (we will talk about the factors involved in an increase in water volume below) ask an expert. Sometimes a little rain makes a descent inaccessible or dangerous and sometimes a big storm results in excellent conditions, but it is impossible to give a formula for foreseeing a situation.

It is also a good idea to make use of tools that give information on the water flow you can expect to encounter, such as the SAIH (Automatic Hydrological Information System) by the Ebro Hydrographic Confederation. The gauging stations connected to the SAIH provide instant information on the water flow at any given time and assess whether or not it is advisable to undertake the descent. All you need is to visit the SAIH website or App, click on Real-time data and then gauging stations and choose the river you need information about. The gauging stations connected to the SAIH that are of interest are:

  • A320. Flumen at the tail end of the Montearagón reservoir: Palomeras del Flumen.
  • A192. Guatizalema en Siétamo: in the area around Vadiello. This is perhaps the least interesting due to the flow regulation of the Vadiello reservoir, which gives distorted information.
  • A091. Alcanadre en Lascellas: Gorgas Negras, Barrasil, Mascún, Peonera Superior, Peonera Inferior, Balcez and tributaries.
  • A033. Alcanadre in Peralta de Alcofea: Those already mentioned for the Alcanadre in Lascellas plus the Formiga and Gorgonchón.
  • A095. Vero in Barbastro: Vero and Fornocal and its tributaries.
Álex Puyo
Spring flow in the Estrechos de Balcez canyon. With a water flow of 4'57 m3/s for the Alcanadre at Peralta de Alcofea.

As you can see, the SAIH is a very useful tool, as long as you have a previous reference, but it does not give you an exact idea of the volume of water you will encounter on your descent, as the data it offers is the sum of all the water upstream of the gauging station. Despite being measured by the same gauging station, the response of the watercourse will vary, depending on its location, the intensity of rainfall, the width and verticality of the basin, the type of rock, the amount of vegetation, the previous state of humidity and many other factors. It is not surprising that after heavy rainfall the Peralta gauging station shows a rise in the Formiga while the Mascún remains dry, so be careful with this.

Vero and Formiga also have a webcam that shows the exact status, but this service is not always available due to a lack of updates, technical failures or even theft of the cameras, so it is not always a reliable tool.

Regulations on Canyoning Descents in the Sierra de Guara

As a protected and regulated area, you need to be aware of, and comply with the regulations of the Guara Mountains and Canyons Nature Reserve. Even if you have experience in Guara, it is advisable to review the regulations from time to time to avoid surprises due to regulation modifications, such as the regulation for the Chimiachas ravine, where descents are now prohibited from 1 January to 15 July, at least until 2025.

Some prohibitions such as parking in places not designated for this purpose were not sanctioned until a few years ago, but lately it is not uncommon to find a fine waiting for you when you return from a descent. The waiting time between groups entering a particular descent and the size of the group, is also regulated; remember, 10 minutes between groups and a maximum group size of 8 people in most of the descents involving obligatory abseils (four abseils in the Gorgonchón).

In all canyons with abseils it is compulsory to wear a harness, descender and carabiner, as well as carry at least one rope of the required length. Although it is not specified in the regulations, the rope must be semi-static and we also strongly advise against entering any canyon without a helmet.

The use of a full wetsuit (one or two piece) is compulsory in the descents of the Palomeras del Flumen; Formiga, Yara and Gorgonchón; in all the Alcanadre canyons; Gorgas Negras, Barrasil and the two Peoneras, as well as the Mascún Superior; all the Balcez (Superior, Oscuros and Estrechos) and Vero and Fornocal. This does not mean that you will not need a wetsuit for the rest, but you should first check the water level and the temperature. Sometimes, just the splashing caused by a descender in a canyon with low flow, makes it worth wearing a wetsuit.

Gobierno de Aragón
Regulation, group size and compulsory material in some canyons of Guara. Government of Aragon

Vadiello ravines such as Isarre, Escomentué, San Chinés and Piedra Foratata are prohibited from December to June, both months included, as are Yara and Formiga upstream of their confluence. The Otín ravine is prohibited from March to June, both months included. In addition to these prohibitions, it is also forbidden to enter the pools of the Canal del Palomo or the first 100 metres of San Martín de la Val d'Onsera, downstream from the chapel. For the descent of the canyon of La Choca, express authorisation from the Park is required. Chimiachas has recently been banned from January to mid-July and all year round in the canyons of the San Cosme crag where it is necessary to cross the Vadiello reservoir: La Canaleta and Las Cuevas de la Reina.

Which Guara Descents are the Most Recommended?

At this point you may be wondering what you can't miss in Guara. The answer is complicated, but we are going to offer some suggestions, assuming that with so many factors to take into account (sporting, recreational, scenic, aesthetic, technical difficulty, physical effort, accessibility...) it is difficult to find something for everyone. Of course, in addition to canyoning, we could recommend a multitude of sporting and cultural activities, but it would be impossible to cover these characteristics in one article, so let's focus on canyoning.

Water descents such as the Formiga, Peonera Inferior or the Oscuros de Balcez are a guaranteed success in summer as they have enough water flow even at the height of Summer, but be very careful in Spring because the water level can grow to dangerous levels. The same with Palomeras del Flumen, a large river with very narrow sections; although it can be descended without permission. From July onwards, it is usual to wait until the end of summer to avoid excessive water flow. Gorgas Negras and Vero are also two jewels of the landscape and geology with water year-round, although they are long routes that require a full day and you may find the Vero lacks adventure. The Gorgonchón is technical and as short as a breath, so perfect for completing an unforgettable day of canyoning.

Álex Puyo
A jump in Os ganchos de Gorgas Negras

The upper Mascun is a must, if you are a canyoning enthusiast. But choosing the right day can be quite complicated. It has to be in spring to ensure the right flow and a pleasant temperature, but public holidays should be avoided, due to overcrowding. Another must for spring is the Fornocal as well as the Estrechos de Balcez, which is fun and curious when there is enough water to enhance the sporty character.

Álex Puyo
Mascún Superior – Peña Guara waterfalls

If the weather is very cold or if all the canyons in the area are inaccessible, due to the high volume of water, there are several canyons that are usually dry or semi-dry that won’t disappoint and stand out for their intrinsic beauty. San Martín de la Val d'Onsera is an excursion in itself with exceptional scenery, the great vertical walls of Piedra Foratata, Escomentué or Lazas in Vadiello, the impressive abseils of Otín, the beautiful Barranco Fondo or Cueva Cabrito in the Balcez or the mineral beauty of Basender, Portiacha or Chimiachas in the Vero, as well as the unreal narrow Lumos. All are well worth a visit. As always, pay attention to the regulations and the water level of the rivers and tributaries.

Vicente Burgos
Final 150 metre abseil on Piedra Foratata. Photo Vicente Burgos

Technically easy canyons, such as the Petit Mascún (the lower section of the Mascún, after Rodellar), the Estrechos de la Carruaca, Barrasil or Peonera Superior are good options for a quiet day, although the remote location or approach and activity of some of these descents, make them long and laborious.

Material for Canyoning in the Sierra de Guara

There is no substantial difference in what you need for canyoning in the Sierra de Guara compared to what you need for this activity in other places, but it is true that sometimes the long approach to the start of the canyon, together with the length and the special features of certain descents mean that some recommendations need to be taken into account; the essential materials for canyoning are:

As with all canyoning descents, the choice of wetsuit will depend on the type of canyon, your personal tastes and your tolerance to the cold, but in the Sierra de Guara you also have to comply with the existing regulations mentioned above. It is mandatory to wear a full wetsuit in all the canyons listed above, as well as in others. Consider all the different factors and be aware of the huge difference in temperature outside and inside a canyon, as well as the freezing water and the time you may have to spend waiting if, for example, there are numerous groups on the descent.

Except in canyons with huge vertical walls, like in Vadiello, or those with many abseils like the Lenases canyon or very short abseils, such as the Portiacha canyon, in Guara, you will usually have to do quite a lot of walking. For this reason, it is essential that your harness is comfortable both when suspended and while walking, so that you don’t have to constantly adjust it. This problem exists with most canyoning harnesses and, surprisingly, has not yet been addressed by manufacturers, so spend some time looking for a harness that is as comfortable for walking as possible and that is easily adjusted if it comes loose after walking and climbing.

Lanyards are another basic for canyoning in Guara. Not only for anchoring yourself while preparing to abseil, but also in case you come across a handrail on the descent. The cable on the Formiga approach or the mythical and laborious Gorgonchón handrails are some of the best known examples, but there are many more in a multitude of canyons.

There are no secrets with semi-static ropes, but although the equipment for the canyons of Guara does not vary a great deal, it is important to choose the right length of rope, or you may find it is too short for the canyon you had in mind. Two 40 metre ropes allow you to descend most of the canyons in the Sierra de Guara and two 50 metre ropes cover them all, except for the extreme canyoning Piedra Foratata descent. We also recommend you take a shorter 20 or 25 metre rope, which will be the length used most, given the abundance of short rappels in most canyons.

The canyons of Guara are not particularly slippery, but don't be overconfident and wear good footwear. Of all the protective elements of a canyoning boot, the sole is the most decisive. The deposits on the sandstone surfaces of canyons (Gorgas Negras, Mascún, Balcez Superior, Vero...) are extremely slippery and after rainfall it is easy to fall in backwater areas, especially with the inevitable turbidity of the water.

Some canyons, such as Gorgas Negras or Mascún, can take more than 3 hours to approach from Rodellar and in many others it is not possible to get there in under 2 hours of walking. The time and exertion, together with the heat on the approach or return walk can be made easier by wearing normal walking socks, leaving your neoprene socks in your pack until you reach the start of the canyon.

We never tire of insisting of the importance of wearing a helmet, and canyoning in Guara is no exception, not only to protect yourself in the event of a fall. The Sierra de Guara is home to a number of bighorn goats and they are known to be curious. If you are in a ravine, they may walk to the edge, to see who is down there, which can result in knocking some stones down, in the process. So always wear a helmet and enjoy the adventure.

The backpack is an essential piece of canyoning gear, but we recommend choosing one that is comfortable to carry and has the right capacity. A backpack that is fairly soft on your back is something you will be grateful for on the approach and the occasional wet return. The greater the capacity, the more organised your equipment, but be careful not to over-pack unnecessary items, which add weight and consider carefully which items are needed.

We hope you have found this article on tips and equipment for canyoning in Guara interesting. At Barrabes, we look forward to helping you on any queries you may have about how to equip for your next canyoning adventure.

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