Warren Verboom is a little boy in the body of a 32-year-old man. The young boy beams out of Verboom’s eyes when he talks about dropping into white water and somersaulting over the edge of waterfalls. Verboom the Elder and Verboom the Younger have made a deal. The little boy provides the crazy ideas and the cockiness needed to give things a go; the man brings experience and ability, and gains a sense of achievement with every new trick he pulls off.
“You wouldn’t dare,” says the boy, when he dreams up some new daredevil stunt. Every time, his grown-up self answers, “Wanna bet?” This was how Warren Verboom first learnt to ski-jump, then BASE-jump and then fly in a wingsuit. “But at some point,” he says, “I stopped being scared as I was about to take the leap.
That was when things got boring.” To keep things interesting, the Swiss invented a sport with plenty of you-wouldn’t-dare: freestyle canyoning. The first rule of freestyle canyoning is forget everything you know about canyoning.
Canyoning is about traversing a canyon from top to bottom in the direction of the water. “It’s a wonderful way to enjoy nature,” says Verboom. But there’s very little that the little boy can get out of enjoying nature. So Verboom, who is 1.8m tall and has 80kg of muscle, combines canyoning with elements of other sports.
He leaps from rock to rock in the middle of a waterfall like a freerunner and jumps into the water like a high-diver. He can read a wall like a climber and gauge the flow of the water like a kayaker. “Freestyle canyoning has huge potential,” he says, “because it allows sportsmen and women from all sports to reinvent themselves.” There are unspoiled locations just waiting to be discovered and new tricks to be invented or adapted.
On another level, playing with thundering natural forces makes you confront fears head on. “When I’m standing up over the edge of a waterfall and I’m thinking about the trajectory I might work my way down or leap down,” he says, and then pauses. His eyes, with their subtle laughter lines around them, are again the eyes of a little boy looking in a toyshop window:
“Then, that tingling sensation is back.” He first felt it aged three, when he looked down from the edge of his bunk bed to the floor.
“You wouldn’t dare,” thought the three-year-old. And his slight little body answered, “Wanna bet?” It was the first time Verboom went to nursery in a cast and he wore it with pride. “The thrill I felt and the triumph at having conquered my fears are the feelings I’m still chasing,” he says.
The cost to date of making it to this land of no fear is 10 broken bones, dozens of strained muscles and bruises and a fractured skull. “But nothing serious has ever happened to me when I’ve been freestyle canyoning,” he says, dismissing a torn ligament and four perforated eardrums.
THE WATER IS MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU
Verboom, the son of a Swiss mother and Dutch father, moved across Switzerland to Ticino two years ago. It is a particularly welcoming place for canyonauts; the canyon he is training in today – the Val d’Iragna, which canyonauts love for its tricky abseiling – is just one of many. Verboom has a canyoning guide with him, with thorough descriptions of the key places in the canyon. “No canyoning while the snow is melting,” it says, in bold, and the awe-inspiring pictures make it clear why. Violent torrents of water unleashed over the waterfall in spring are more powerful than any canyonaut, however well trained.
Yet on this Monday at the end of May, the pictures in the guide seem a little placid compared with the thunderous reality. Verboom presses himself up against a flat piece of rock in his suit to escape the torrents of cascading water. “The secret,” he bellows through the spray of fine droplets, “is to work with the force of the water, not against it. ”With three or four quick moves, he climbs the wall by the waterfall and balances on a round rock that is so narrow he can’t get both feet on it. He swats away the noise, the wet, the cold, until all that’s left is concentration. To his right, water cascades down into the valley.
His landing area is only about 2m2 and the water isn’t the same depth everywhere. “I can’t dive into the middle of the water,” he says, “because it’s too shallow there. I’ve got to go as close as I can to the rocks on the left, the ones you can’t see from here.”
Verboom bends down and hurtles towards the blind spot. The wall beneath him isn’t a vertical drop. It is a steep slope, so, to be safe, he needs to make sure he can get 2m out. Then he performs a backflip before landing in the water feet first.
“In water as shallow as this, your legs are your shock absorbers,” he says later. But the moment that determines whether a trick will work or not comes much earlier in the process, when he launches off. “You have to be very steady on both feet and very calm inside, regardless of how big the drop is. And you can only jump when you have absolutely no doubt in your mind that the jump is going to go exactly as you imagined.”
Verboom has learned how to proceed by doing 2,000 parachute jumps, but what of fear? When does it kick in? And your tingling sensation? “Much, much earlier,” he admits. “Fear strikes when I come up with a new idea which sounds totally crazy. And when I realise that I’ve got to go through with it because I won’t be able to put it out of my mind until I do.”
FIRST DIVE, THEN JUMP
Not everyone thinks that what Verboom does is 100 per cent sensible. “They think I’m mad because all they see is a guy doing backflips off a waterfall,” he says, “but they don’t see what I’ve done beforehand. That I’ve abseiled down there however many times. That I know every rock and every eddy. That before every jump I do a dive of where I’m going to land to be on the safe side, even if I’ve landed there safely a number of times already.”
Verboom also applies his cool-headed strategic planning and methodical implementation of vision beyond his immediate sporting goals and to his wish of establishing freestyle canyoning as a new extreme sport. Three years ago, he surrounded himself with a crew of cliff divers, freerunners and artistic gymnasts, naming them the ‘deap’ team. In 2012, he attracted sponsors and shot The Beginning with the deap crew, posting dizzying trailers on YouTube.
Now he is releasing his second film, Continue. Next he wants to design and manufacture a range of professional equipment for canyonauts.
“I mean, look at us,” he says, stretching out his arms. “We look like clowns. Neoprene diving suits, skateboarders’ helmets, climbers’ harnesses and none of it is really ideal for our purposes.”
“Freestyle canyoning is most fun,” Verboom says, “when you combine a number of elements in a single run.” On this particular occasion, he is 18m above a pool of water and is looking at the waterfall crashing down into the valley to his right from the vantage point of a horizontal ledge. He pushes off and leaps feet first 3m into a smooth gully, which drops almost vertically like a old waterslide that wouldn’t get past health and safety today.
To disperse the energy of impact, his shoulders, back and legs have to hit the gully at the same time while he keeps his head raised. “Like a judoka doing a shoulder throw,” he says. Verboom lands in just the right spot. A little bit higher and the water is too shallow. A little bit lower and it’s too steep. A little bit to the left there’s a sharp edge. And a little bit to the right, he’d be hurled out of the gully.
He fine-tunes his tricks in swimming pools and on the trampoline. Once he’s at a waterfall, there’s no margin for error. The cascading water pushes him a few metres further down and sends him flying. If he hasn’t got enough speed, he’ll go smashing into a rock. But Verboom leaps into the air, does the trick known as a Gainer grab flip and dives into the pool of water, into which the waterfall disgorges.
When he clambers out of the water, he can’t stop looking up. “Up there. That other promontory,” he says. If he leapt off there backwards, he could squeeze in a cork before landing. “You wouldn’t dare,” says the little boy in him.