Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Virtual Reality in Punchbowl Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on January 16, 2017
David holds the two GoPro Virtual Reality rig while planning out a shot in Punchbowl Canyon.

David holds the two GoPro Virtual Reality rig while planning out a shot in Punchbowl Canyon.



Punchbowl Canyon, 3BIV
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness Area


“This fuc*ing camera!,” I mutter to myself as  I’m fumbling with two modified GoPro cameras on a rig so their backs are butted against each other and the lenses face 180 degrees apart. Once I get the shot I want laid out and get both cameras recording, I begin floundering with my two sets of lavalier microphones connected to an audio recorder via a wireless receiver. I am deep in a cold, wet slot canyon in the Superstition Mountains of central Arizona. I clap my hands several times loudly to sync the two GoPro cameras and audio recordings. I then yell “Action!” at the top of my lungs. Moments later Eric comes down a 120- foot rappel into a narrow hallway above me, as down canyon, Mike, Laura and Susan make their way across a frigid slimy pool of water. I stand somewhere in the middle watching all the action. The cameras record it all between narrow walls. This my first foray into 360 degree Virtual Reality video. A few months earlier several USA Today video producers asked if I could shoot a Virtual Reality video for them on canyoneering. Always eager to play and learn new technology and even more so, to get paid to go canyoneering, I jumped on the opportunity. After assembling a crew and picking a date we are out on the trailhead on a cold December morning. It was a canyon that our group of six had all done and were familiar with. In the past a descent of this canyon had taken as little as six hours. I knew today would take much longer.

A frame grab from the 360 degree Virtual Reality video in Punchbowl Canyon.

A frame grab from the 360 degree Virtual Reality video in Punchbowl Canyon.

As the day progresses and shots are produced it becomes clear that battery life becomes my most precious commodity. As I push blinking battery bar indicators to their fullest I do my best to dot every “i” and cross every “t” while trying to record compelling 360 degree footage of this stunning, rugged and challenging desert slot. The hardest part of shooting VR is 360 degrees means everything around, above and below you is part of the footage. Making choices of what to include and what not to include becomes much more challenging than with traditional videography and photography. Combine this with the aforementioned clunky operation of the equipment in this hostile environment and let’s just say it wasn’t that typical day of canyoneering. Four hours past when we would have been to our vehicles on a normal descent  and night is not far around the corner, but the last rappel is still at least an hour away. In the end we make that final rappel and much needed closing shot just before dusk. My crew was extremely patient despite the seemingly excessive production and time in these raw conditions. Kudos and much thanks to them. So without further chronicling let me present to you the finished video piece below. Since virtual reality video is a relatively new medium I have included a list of tips to help you better enjoy the experience.


  • The canyoneering segment starts at the 1 minute 38 second mark.
  • It doesn’t work on the Safari web browser on either desktop or mobile. I suggest Chrome on desktop or the YouTube app on your phone.
  • You need good bandwidth or the resolution will not be good and will make for a nauseating viewing experience.
  • The best way to view is with your phone and a Virtual Reality headset but since most people don’t have headsets I still think with your phone is better than desktop so you can move the phone around and see full 360 degrees. On desktop use your mouse to navigate around 360 degrees.
  • You really have to navigate around to see everything that is going on. You may have to watch the video more than once to do that. Try using a swivel office chair.
  • I didn’t have anything to do with the title which I think is a little misleading and happens to be the same as Todd Martin’s book on canyoneering in the Grand Canyon.

Check out USA Today’s VR Youtube channel VRtually There.

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