Santa Domingo Canyon

Exploratory descent of Santa Domingo Canyon, 2/18/2006
Paddlers: Ben Stookesberry and Jesse Coombs
Location: Mexico
Class: V+ - VI
Gradient: Two thousand feet per mile
Character: Pool-drop

Copyright © 2006, Oregon Kayaking, Jesse Coombs, and Ben Stookesberry. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster, Jesse Coombs, and Ben Stookesberry.

This and all of our other South American kayaking adventures will be featured in the upcoming film: Hotel Charley: No Big Names 4, which debuts in the U.S. in April 2006 ( you can view the trailer for Hotel Charley here ).

Santa Domingo canyon is the Holy Grail of big-drop steep creeking. This run features stunning blue water, otherworldly limestone travertine geology, and a fearsome array of gigantic, runnable drops.

As of this writing, the canyon has been run several times by strong international teams of kayakers. All of the big waterfalls have been run in the upper canyon, but no one has ever run them all back-to-back.

Ben Stookesberry and Eric Seymour had previously attempted to kayak Santa Domingo canyon in 2004. Unfortunately for them, they were turned back at the entrance to the canyon because the river was too high. We really had no idea what was waiting for us in there, but we had high hopes!

Looking downstream into Santa Domingo canyon.

Ben and I reached the put-in for the Santa Domingo after a long bus ride. It was nearly four p.m. and we didn't have much light left, but we decided to put on and paddle as far as we could before it got dark.

I had just borrowed a WaveSport Diesel 65 from Kayak 360, which was very nice of them. I had never sat in a Diesel before, so I spent some time outfitting the boat and getting it loaded with camping gear. Because of this, we didn't end up putting on until approximately five p.m.

Once I got the Diesel loaded, I discovered ( much to my dismay ) that the boat was too small for me and my camping gear, which was bursting out of the stern storage area. I knew the fact that the boat was off-balance would have a detrimental effect on my paddling and require some quick learning on my part, but I had to make the best of it.

We put on the river and headed downstream with great anticipation. We came to the first solid class five rapid, which Ben said was a mess at high water. At the current flow it was a tough slot rapid with several holes and folds in the left line.

The rapid looked good and difficult to me, so I figured this would be a good early test to figure out how the Diesel handled. You can opt to enter the slot farther down on the right and skip some of the holes and folds, but I chose to enter right at the top and run it down the gut ( I figured I should give myself every opportunity to get used to the boat ). I entered with a good line and was able to pull through the features successfully, which was a nice confidence boost as I got used to the new boat.

We ran the next rapid just downstream and then paddled into completely uncharted waters. The canyon walls towered overhead, and the jungle formed a seemingly impenetrable wall at water level. We had hoped to bring a machete on this trip to help us deal with the jungle, but the one I bought in Brazil didn't make the flight to Mexico.

We soon came to a big horizon line and got out to scout. What we saw was both breathtaking and horrifying. It started with a fifteen-foot slide directly into an undercut boulder, which was only marginally runnable. The river then shot out of the undercut and through a ten-foot wide channel between travertine borders.

The channel was twenty-five feet long and ended with a horizon line that looked like it had no bottom. Now, I've seen some big drops and wondered where they ended, but this one had no end in sight.

Looking downstream at the massive entrance falls on the Santa Domingo.

We portaged the undercut slide, and then headed downstream to scout the second drop from the right side. From the top of the falls we could see down into a canyon that appeared to be bottomless. We tried looking from several different angles, but all we could see was that the water sloped off into the abyss between two huge rooster tails. These massive jets of water blocked any view of the falls and the canyon below.

When Ben got a good look at the top of the entrance falls he named it "Angel Wings Falls" which I thought was very appropriate. I did some very sketchy climbing next to the horizon line, but I still couldn't see any part of the waterfall itself. From my limited vantage point, the falls seemed to have no beginning or middle, it was just one huge cascade.

Looking down into Angel Wings Falls, which waits at the entrance of Santa Domingo Canyon.

I thought this falls might be runnable, so I decided to try and get a look at the middle of the drop. To do this I needed to perform a very dicey maneuver. I waited next to the right side of the falls and watched the water surge over a rock that I had to step on to get to the scouting ledge: The water went high, then low, lower, then high, low, low, low, high.. You get the picture.

I knew if I jumped onto the middle rock when the river surged high, I would be swept over the falls and into the unknown.

I waited and watched the surges for a minute so I could confirm that they followed a pattern. I then watched for a big surge, and when it receded I jumped on the rock which had just been submerged in four feet of water and was now only one foot deep. I quickly jumped onto the next rock, and then I was out of the path of the water before the next big four foot surge piled over my stepping-stone.

Whew! Ok, now I could scramble out on the ledge and get a look at the falls and see the pool below.


The entrance falls was massive, I estimated it was between seventy and eighty feet tall, but I couldn't be sure. As if that wasn't enough, there was another falls at least at tall RIGHT below it with NO recovery pool.. As I stared in awe, the mountain-sized boil from the first falls barely had a chance to become current before it poured over the next gigantic horizon line. I could not believe my eyes.

I turned my attention back to the first drop to study what I could see of it, which wasn't much because I could only see the entrance and the pool below. The rooster tails obscured the falls completely. I estimated that the best line would be to take the green tongue between the rooster tails and just gut it ( dropping through the wings of the angel ).

It was all or nothing on this one; a leap into the abyss.

Even as I write this I look at the entrance, the falls, and the pool in amazement. This waterfall was so intriguing to me because it was like nothing else out there: It has incredible location, beauty, technical difficulty, and height. There was also the fact that it had never been run, and that it was stacked above another falls at least as high.. It was a little overwhelming trying to absorb all of these factors at once.

As I watched the water hurtle past and felt the rock trembling beneath my feet, I experienced a moment of absolute clarity and focus.

I am going to run this waterfall.

This was the one I had been waiting for.. It has a beauty and purity that cannot be described until you stand on the edge and consider running it.

There is no sneak line.   It is all or nothing, right down the middle of the wings into the unknown, total commitment.

There is no margin for error.   A blown skirt, broken paddle, or a swim means you will be swept over an equally massive falls just downstream.

There is no way to take video or photos.   The massive rooster tails obscure the line, so the moment would be mine alone.

I remember tapping my head and giving Ben the 'runnable' signal while he just stared at me in disbelief. When I got back over to where he was standing, I described the drop to him he said: "I don't know.. I've never considered a seventy-foot falls above an eighty-foot falls."

Ben has been running huge drops for years, and has a ton of relevant experience in these situations. He has run waterfalls up to ninety feet tall, so I value his opinion. I suggested Ben might head out to my perch for a better view, but he was not excited about timing the surges, so he decided to take my word for it. We knew that if we did not run this first one we'd better be able to portage on the right, because there was no way to portage this falls on the left.

We camped that night with excitement and anticipation about what lay in store.

The next morning we got up and started figuring out how to set a rappel to get Ben around Angel Wings Falls. He had decided not to run it, while I still felt good about what I had seen the night before. We worked our way through the jungle until we identified a tree he could use as an anchor point, then lowered ourselves onto the steep scree slope and down to the base of the tree.

The view of the falls from the rappel anchor point was a bit better than we had before, but none of the freefall was visible due to the angel wings. It took us a long time to coordinate getting Ben in position with his gear and the ropes, but with good teamwork we were eventually able to get ourselves situated.

I gave Ben the thumbs up and headed up to my boat for what would be my lone endeavor.

I spent a few more minutes at the lip, carefully studying the falls and my chosen line. I mentally practiced my strokes and how I would deal with the lead-in, the freefall, the impact, and the monstrous boils feeding into the next falls. This last part was critical, because I had to avoid being swept over the massive falls just downstream at all cost.

Ben had suggested I leave my camera filming on a rock upstream, so I set it up before I got in my boat. This would be the only record of my descent until I emerged from the base of the falls, which seemed fitting.

With all these preparations in place I got in my kayak, splashed some water on my face, and slid out into the current. I made the short ferry into the middle of the river, used a draw stroke to position myself directly in the middle of the tongue between the angel wings, and dropped in between them.

Jesse Coombs makes the first known descent of the massive entrance waterfall named 'Angel Wings Falls'.
This waterfall is so difficult and dangerous it will probably never be repeated.
( Extracted from the video 'Hotel Charley - No Big Names IV' by Ben Stookesberry )

The huge jets of water from the wings immediately enveloped me and I couldn't see anything. I could feel myself accelerating but I had no outside visual cues as I plunged towards the pool. I had planned for this, so I counted:

One-one-thousand.. two-one-thousand.. ..and then I tucked tight to the boat with my paddle, so it wouldn't break on impact.

The plunge never seemed to end. I fell so long that I thought to myself: "This is taking forever.." ..and then came the tremendous impact I had been waiting for.

There was an explosion of chaos and pain, and I struggled to maintain my body position as I was partially blown out of my boat.

As soon as I felt the surface I went for a roll, but because I was half out of the boat and a bit disoriented by the impact I couldn't get up. I knew I had to pull myself back into my boat, so I tucked my paddle under one arm, put my hands on the bottom of the boat, and pulled myself back into the cockpit.

Once I was back in my boat I again I grabbed my paddle and went for a roll, but as soon as I did I felt myself get tossed up onto some rocks and scrape back down in the water. At this point I was starting to get concerned; I knew I had mere seconds before I went over the eighty-foot falls, and I needed to get upright in a hurry!

Again I felt the boat get tossed onto the wall and my shoulder got hammered on the rocks, which again stymied my roll attempts. I figured my best option now was to use the rocks to my advantage and when I got tossed onto them again I used the rocks to pull myself upright.

I now had my paddle bracing on the rocks and the water was surging again and again. I got myself oriented and could see that giant boils had pushed me against the far wall. I worked my way toward the horizon line downstream and out of the storm at the base of the falls. Finally, I reached a small, surging eddy on river-left at the lip of the eighty-footer.

I got out of my boat and felt elation flood through my body as I got my first good look at the line I had taken over Angel Wings Falls. Even from across the pool the blast of spray was pushing at my chest and making it hard to see, but I could see enough. I was overcome with feelings of awe and respect for this incredible river and waterfall. It was truly a spiritual moment for me and I felt closer to this river than any I have experienced before or since.

But it wasn't over yet. I was on the wrong side of the river to scout the next falls, so I had to ferry across the huge boils and eddylines to reach the scouting ledge. The boils were even bigger from river level than they had seemed from above, and they were literally spilling over the next falls.

Ben roped himself into the far side to catch my boat when I got close and I peeled out onto the boils. The combined roar of the falls above and below was deafening, making it difficult to focus. I had to work very hard to get across, fighting against the huge boils and eddylines the whole way. I made several attempts, because I was starting to feel the effects of the tremendous impact below Angel Wings. Finally I dug deep and was able to get across without assistance. That said, I was happy to have Ben there to hold my boat securely in the current while I climbed onto the rock ledge.

Jesse Coombs makes the first of several attempts to ferry across the pool between the first and second falls
( Extracted from the video 'Hotel Charley - No Big Names IV' by Ben Stookesberry )

Ben checked with me to make sure I was okay, and then he told me that was one of the most amazing things he had ever seen. We shared congratulations and were both were taken by the moment.

Looking back up at the entrance falls, which Ben named 'Angel Wings Falls'.
We estimate this waterfall is about seventy feet tall.

We then turned our attention to the next falls, which looked to be about eighty feet tall. Ben decided he was not going to run it. I had already made the decision to run it because the line looked very clean ( and I could actually see the line on this one! ) but I was still pretty rocked by the hit from Angel Wings. After looking at Dome falls for several minutes, I decided that I was really happy to have run Angel Wings and that I would leave the Dome falls for next year.

Looking downstream from the lip of the second 'Dome' falls.

Getting around the second falls was a little tricky, but not too bad because there was a large emerald pool below it. Basically we both climbed down the nearly vertical rock face on the right until there were no more holds, then jumped the final thirty feet into the bottomless pool below.

Ben makes the big jump below the second falls

The second falls, which is a twenty-footer into a sixty-foot dome-shaped falls.
I passed on this one because I was still recovering from the big hit I took at the bottom of Angel Wings falls.

The next falls drops about sixty feet over a series of cascades. This one is quite technical and tough to scout. There is a left line that falls the entire distance ( with several pitches into a smallish pool ) and a right side line over a stair-stepping drop.

Ben liked the left side cascade, but we needed to scout it from the bottom to get a complete view of it. We set up our climbing rope and used the harness with belay device to get to the bottom so we could scout.

I decided to try the right line, which was a twenty-footer into a forty-footer. The twenty-foot falls above it was runnable, but with only the two of us, there was not a good way to run that part and be prepared for the forty-footer below. Ben went first on the tough and technical left side line and did a great job!

Ben Stookesberry probes the third falls ( I dubbed this drop 'Bens Falls' ), which drops a total of sixty feet.

Once Ben was clear, I headed upstream to run the final forty-foot tier on the right side. There were a couple things about this falls that made it tough. First of all the lip was quite wide and uniform, so to enter at the place I wanted would be difficult to judge while in my boat.

There were no good landmarks to line up on, so I searched and found the biggest rock I could carry and placed it above the falls to give me a reference point.

The next challenge was that the falls had a kicker hump halfway down that I wanted to use to get a clean line. The pool below was quite narrow, so Ben and I agreed I would have to angle my nose to the right and flatten out my boat before hitting the water below. This would keep me from penciling in a relatively shallow pool and from landing with the front half of my boat on the rocks.

After getting my rock in place for orientation and practicing my line mentally, I got in my boat and headed for the lip. As I dropped over the edge the rocky lip had the unwanted effect of turning my boat to the left, not the right, and I started to get a little worried. I quickly corrected this, got my boat to the right as I sailed over the kicker hump, lifted my bow and left edge and dropped towards the pool below. I looked down to my left and got concerned that I had too much speed and too much separation from the falls and was going to land on the rocks. I knew there was no changing things now, so I just laid over my deck and leaned slightly to the right.

Amazingly, I landed right next to the rocks on bordering the left side of the pool. It was a pretty strong impact as I landed completely flat and sent a huge wall of water spraying out from the side of my boat. I jammed my left knee hard on the boat hull, but in terms of a line I could not have asked for it to work out better. I paddled out of the slot at the bottom of the falls and down through the fun slide rapid below.

Jesse Coombs drops into the narrow slot on the right side of Ben's Falls
( Extracted from the video 'Hotel Charley - No Big Names IV' by Ben Stookesberry )

The next falls was a fun twenty-foot low angle slide, no worries. Just below this was another horizon line that marked the last of the tall falls, a near-vertical fifty-foot plunge into a deep pool. There were multiple lines over this drop, but the line that intrigued us the most ( I call this 'the irresistible line' ) was a fascinating plunge between two horns of limestone, one of which arched overhead, almost forming a tunnel. Ben decided to go first and I was a bit concerned that he would hit the walls with his body or head, but he had a perfectly clean line and made it look it easy!

Looking down into Vortex Falls, the right-side line of the final falls on the Upper Canyon. Ben probed this drop, tucking and dropping fifty feet down between the horns..

With this falls complete we had finished all the big falls in the upper canyon. We both looked back and could not believe what we had accomplished. It was truly an incredible view looking back upstream..

Ben Stookesberry looks back upstream and enjoys the view of the first series of drops on the Santa Domingo

We decided to set up camp at this point, then I saw a fun looking class five rapid from a major tributary of the Santa Domingo and wanted to hike up and run it. Ben thought this one looked sketchy, but I thought it would be good to go. I hiked my boat up and found the rapid to be tough and fun and I had a good line. This was a great way to end the day.

It had definitely been a big day and we were happy to relax for the evening and get a good start tomorrow on the rest of the river.

There are interesting travertine ( limestone ) formations everywhere on the Santa Domingo. This one was near our campsite.
Wood also gets covered by the limestone and petrified as well, as seen in this photo.

Ben checks out the local version of the 'Aggro' tree we first encountered in Colombia.

The next morning Ben and I headed off down the river. We enjoyed some great class four-plus rapids before we entered calm water surrounded by high canyon walls. We were a little cautious in this section because we had heard rumors from the locals of a giant unrunnable, unportagable falls somewhere in the canyon.

The walls towered overhead has we started downstream on day three.

Finally we arrived at a horizon line and I got out to scout. When I returned to Ben I was anxious to tell him about the drops, but first I took a moment to thank him. He had invited me to one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. The color of the river, the depth and steepness of the canyon, the travertine features, the deep Chiapas jungle all around us, the birds singing, it was truly a special place and I was moved.

I then went on to describe to him what I had seen and how we now knew that we could navigate the entire section, and we both knew without a lot of words how thankful each of us were for our experience and to have a motivated paddling buddy.

The drops waiting below us were the 'Fearsome Twosome', a pair of huge drops that were probably runnable, but were very questionable.

We portaged the first drop on the left, and when we got to the second drop it looked fairly sketchy. Runnable, but sketchy.

Ben did a seal launch around the second one into the pool below. I decided I wanted to run the second half, so I set up my seal launch to drop me in halfway down the rapid. I seal-launched and ran down through the meat of the big hole at the bottom and blasted through the emerald depths of the pool, emerging upright and smiling.

When I got to Ben he was completely exasperated. He exclaimed that I just dropped into the worst part of the rapid, and I mind as well have run the whole thing so we could get it on video. I know he was serious and kidding at the same time. I shrugged my shoulders and apologized with a smile for this oversight ( I think by this point Ben was used to me jumping in the meat of rapids and was laughing at me for launching the last part of this one, because I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a little extra fun! )

The second marginally runnable drop in the lower canyon.
I seal-launched into the middle of this drop and ran the bottom half, which was super fun.

Below the Fearsome Twosome the river started opening up and we arrived at a very long and tough class five section that went on for about an eighth of a mile. I got one look at this thing from above and immediately told Ben I was going to bomb it. He had paddled with me for eight weeks at this point and knew exactly what I meant.

He got out his camera and I got in my boat. I charged the whole thing without scouting and got out at the bottom. I got out and got out my camera to film Ben. Ben ran it also, and had an audience as and some locals were watching from the bank.

The amazing emerald water of the Santa Domingo

Below here the canyon walls peeled back and we paddled our way past the town and to the border of Mexico and Guatemala. Our trip had come to a close, and we could barely believe what we had endured and accomplished. We'd had some amazing experiences, visited some breathtaking places, and run some of the toughest whitewater in the world. Neither of us could fully comprehend how fruitful this trip had become and how lucky we both felt to have experienced such great rivers with such a good crew of friends.

Good friends make for great river trips. Jesse Coombs and Ben Stookesberry after the Santa Domingo.

Jesse flew back to Oregon after we ran the Santa Domingo but I stayed on to film a tourism show for Chiapas. A week later I convinced the producer that we needed to include the Santa Domingo, and he agreed. This sent into motion the most spectacular day of kayaking that I have ever experienced.

This time I was joined by some more of my fellow Oregonians, including Tao Berman, Josh Bechtol, Heather Herbeck and Nate Herbeck, as well as two really cool Mexican yackers, Auturo Opereza and Waldemor Franco.

Only Josh and Tao even bothered to walk to the edge of Angel Wings Falls. They were both astounded that Jesse had fired it off; I believe Josh's actual words were: "I want to party with that guy Jesse Coombs!"

Nobody repeated Jesse's run over Angel Wings, but I knew that Josh and Tao would be interested in the still un-run massive second falls.

Josh was the second person down off the rappel around Angel Wings and couldn't take his eyes off the second falls, which drops about eighty feet with two possible lines. There is a vertical slide into an exploding recirculating room on the left, or there is a center magic line down and over a massive dome of travertine the size of a small mountain.

The 'magic line' down the center consists of a glassy green tongue lead-in twenty feet straight down before it transitions onto the hump and then drops another sixty feet. This is a spectacular drop that I couldn't wait to portage and film from the bottom.

Well, I guess the rest is history. Josh and Tao both aced the dome line on the second falls, tossing their paddles when they were thirty feet off the deck to keep from breaking them on impact.

Tao Berman drops the second falls on the second known descent of the Santa Domingo
( he threw his paddle into the pool to keep from breaking it on impact ).
( Extracted from the video 'Hotel Charley - No Big Names IV' by Ben Stookesberry )

With the exception of a small slide at the base of the second falls, the rest of the group portaged the third falls while Tao, Josh, and I all took different lines. Josh and I ran my original line down the left side, and Tao took Jesse's line down the right side of the falls.

Josh Bechtol drops the third falls on the second known descent of the Santa Domingo.
( Extracted from the video 'Hotel Charley - No Big Names IV' by Ben Stookesberry )

We arrived at the final big falls ( the fifty-footer ) that Jesse and I had run 'between the horns' on the right side on the previous week. Nate probed this one down the middle on this trip, I went through the horns again, and then everybody started dropping over it every which way. We emerged at the bottom of the first section with only one broken paddle, and now all of the falls had been run.

We continued down the lower canyon, and arrived at the Fearsome Twosome. Everybody portaged these two dangerous drops, and then we just had the final eighth of a mile mile of class five ledges to run to the take out. It was truly a great day of paddling with a good crew, and I was glad to have been able to run this amazing river two weeks in a row!