Stemming: An Essential Canyoneering Technique

A canyoneer stems over a wide slot

A One-Day Basic student deftly executes some wide stemming moves in Water Canyon

If you ever played on a jungle gym or climbed up the door jambs of your home as a kid, you know how fun it is to play with the simple, opposing bodily forces. Climbing around a natural or structural environment is both intuitive and irresistible to most children, one of the original ways to have good, clean fun. So why, as we grow older, do we stop our monkeying around? I think one of the reasons canyoneering makes us feel so much like kids is the literal return to our childhood travel methods. In the canyons, we crawl, climb, swim, and hang, just like we did when we were kids. My favorite canyoneering technique is STEMMING, the multi-faceted act of using our hands and feet to travel through rock corridors without touching the ground.

Two canyoneers stem their way through a narrow slot

Deborah Davis and Kara Robbins stem through a narrow slot

While there are a number of variations on stemming, such as chimneying, bridging, and galumphing (to name a few), all stemming techniques share a common element: Don’t touch the ground. Practically, there are lots of reasons to get off the ground. We may want to avoid a pool of over-our-heads water, or a deep, dry pothole that would be tough to escape. We may be in a very narrow slot, where stemming is easier than squeezing through the bottom passage. Or travel on the ground may simply be impossible because the canyons is SO narrow on the bottom. Most commonly, stemming is just a safer, more stable way to negotiate a downclimb, slowing your descent through the use of opposition-induced friction. Whenever we find ourselves between two close walls in a canyon, stemming can be a great option for going up, down, or sideways.

Like most outdoor skills, stemming features a wide spectrum of difficulty and variation. For most people, stemming is easiest when the canyon walls are between 28″ – 40″. At this width, our arms and legs function at their strongest, about half-way to 3/4-extended, exerting strong oppositional pressure between two walls. In this feel-good zone, it’s easy to move around OR not move at all and stay put in a comfortable resting position. Additionally, when you stem at a comfortable width, it’s easy to remain confident about not falling, which is a really nice feeling to have.

As walls squeeze down below 28″, movement becomes progressively more difficult, especially for those of us who, like me, are on the taller side. Sometimes, having less room can be a good thing, like when you are downward progress and are nicely stuck in a tight slot, able to slowly slip your way down. When you want to move up or sideways, however, a tight slot can be really difficult, as limited movement of legs and arms limits our leverage and ability to make the large 1′ – 2′ gains us humans are so used to. When the walls become REALLY tight, like below 18″, stemming can become extremely arduous, slowing you down 2 – 10 times your normal pace, or stopping your ability to move completely.

A canyoneer stems over a gaping crack

Wolf Schuster finds a rest position, 20 feet off the deck

While stemming tight slots can be arduous and difficult, many would argue it is WAY better than stemming really wide slots. As walls grow wider than 40″, the reaches become increasingly difficult, forcing a dedicated stemmer to step up both the creativity and boldness. Tight slots may be difficult, but at least they are forgiving of mistakes; when stemming a wide slot, however, one small mistake can mean a serious fall and subsequent injury, often in a remote, inaccessible location.

So why would anyone stem their way into a wide, exposed situation? Sometimes, a wide stem high off the ground is the only way around a particular problem. Other times, a really tall or wide person might have an easier time stemming 20 feet up in a slot than trying to squeeze their way through the bottom, where a 12-year-old might slide through easily. Or maybe the entire canyon is dry, save one big, brimming pothole, and you think you can stem your way over it…

Actually, pothole-avoidance scenarios are often a novice’s first experiences with wide stemming. Water always seems to be a strong motivator, as its avoidance often causes canyoneers to stretch their comfort zones and do things they might not otherwise. Sometimes this can be dangerous (plenty of people and canyons have suffered due to water aversion), but often, it is a good opportunity to practice some new moves over a fairly forgiving surface (water). If you earn your stemming chops in low-consequence, low-altitude scenarios, its likely you’ll be more comfortable when you find a more imposing stemming situation in the future.

ZAC Guide Sarah Stratton stems a sweet slot

ZAC Guide Sarah Stratton shows us how its done in North Wash

If you are psyched to learn more about stemming, an easy place to find great stemming action is on any of our canyoneering trips or courses. Our guides are champion stemmers, and love to help everyone – from novices to old hats – find the right challenges for them. When learning stemming technique, it helps tremendously to have a partner, friend, or guide nearby to offer advice, point out a useful ledge, or simply keep you company. If you plan to book a guided event with us and stemming is on your goals list, just let your guide know up-front, and they’ll make sure to get you into some effective and eye-popping learning situations.

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About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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