Upper Buey River

By Jesse Coombs

Location: Colombia
Length: 30 miles
Class: V+ to VI
Gradient: Unknown ( Extreme )

photo by Mauricio Arredondo  

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

This is my account of the second attempt to kayak the crux middle canyon of the Buey River in the mountains of Colombia with 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 Charlie here ).


The seriousness and complexity of any attempt to run the middle canyon of the Rio Buey ( pronounced 'bwey' ) is significant. This is an extraordinarily difficult exploratory run with potentially hostile Guerillas controlling the river right side of the canyon and the hopefully friendly Colombian Paramilitary units on river left. Our hope is that no one will know we are down at the bottom of the canyon..

The gun-toting guerillas are nothing compared to the river, though.

We plan to paddle approximately thirty miles over three days, most of which through unknown territory. From Ben's previous attempt we know that we will be facing a portage around a 115-foot waterfall at the put in followed by a 65-foot must-run waterfall, then numerous class V to V+ rapids leading into the unknown.

Looking down into the crux middle canyon of the Rio Buey. The hostile guerillas control the river right side of the canyon, and the hopefully friendly Colombian paramilitary units control the river-left side..


The moderate lower and upper reaches of the Buey were first run by Mauricio Arredondo, the man who pioneered whitewater kayaking in Colombia. Maurico had been exploring, scouting, and paddling the Buey since the ninties, but he had never ventured into the forbidding middle canyon. Ben had visited Mauricio a few years ago and made the first known attempt to kayak the thirty mile crux middle canyon of the Upper Buey, but had aborted after one of the group broke his paddle below the 65er.

JOURNAL ENTRY - TUESDAY JANUARY 03, 2006:   Getting to Colombia, preparing for the Rio Buey

My first few days after my arrival in Colombia have been chaotic to say the least.

One of the most important travel lessons, especially traveling on international kayaking trips, is to keep a calm head, no matter how crazy it gets.

When I left Portland Oregon Continental Airlines refused to let me load my kayak on the plane (even though I offered to pay extra!), so I arrived with no boat, and no way to get a boat as there are no kayak dealers in Colombia. ( I will NEVER fly Continental again !! ). Ben and I finally got hooked up last night after he arrived. We are working on getting me a boat and on getting some outfitting for Ben's boat which has no back band and no thigh braces. All of this aside, I am psyched about the prospect of kayaking in the near future.

Luckily, our Colombian driver Ramirez and one of our Colombian friends, Giovanni, helped me get a big ol' fire-engine red Dagger Gradient from one of the six kayakers in all of Colombia. The Gradient is probably my least favorite boat, but I will make the best of it!

Giovanni ( left ) and Ramirez ( middle) working out the logistics of running the Rio Buey with Ben Stookesberry

This evening I felt I was as happy as I could be. I was getting my boat ready, listening to the drum music being played in the hostel and poring over the maps and contact information and game plan with Ben.

Columbia has been great. I truly enjoy the hostel atmosphere over the hotel atmosphere any day. In the hotels everyone keeps to themselves and they overcharge for everything. In the hostel there is a sense of community, with shared music, a pool table, two guitars available for use, the honor system for tracking time on the internet, honor system for beer and soda, and a general sense of friendship and humility. This is truly a much richer experience than seclusion in some hotel and then doing only tourist activities. I cannot explain how much more rewarding trips are when you get to hang with locals.

I am primed with excitement about then next three days, the next six weeks, and the trips that are in store for the future. The third leg of our trip ( to Chiapas, Mexico ) may be sponsored by Red Bull and may be on OLN and another cable channel at some point. These things are always hit and miss, so it is smart to just be thankful for things as they come together and to not expect too much.

JOURNAL ENTRY - TUESDAY JANUARY 04, 2006:   First day on the Buey

We left this morning around 6 a.m. and arrived at the rim of the canyon wall around 8 a.m. We had to rope our boats through much of a huge landslide down about a thousand feet, arriving at the water about 10:30 a.m. We had an immediate portage that included a crazy ferry across the base of a 115-foot waterfall in 60-mile per hour winds from the blast of water above a huge unrunnable pile of boulders.. You'd better come prepared, because the Buey comes out swinging from the moment your boat hits the water, no doubt about it!

The author braces against hurricane-force winds at the base of the 115-foot falls at the put-in.

After doing the crazy hurricane ferry at the base of the falls we carried down the river-left side around the huge pile of unrunnable boulders. This delayed us significantly and we didn't end up actually putting on until 11 a.m.

Ben Stookesberry makes the final descent to the Rio Buey after the put-in portages.

Downstream of the put in we ran several class five drops, a couple five-plus drops, portaged a couple drops and then came to the mandatory sixty-five foot waterfall. We scouted this for a while, and decided that Ben would go first.

Ben scouts the mandatory sixty-five footer.

Ben dropped in and slightly over rotated, beginning right at the lip. As he was falling Ben felt what was happening and immediately hurled his paddle out into space prior to impact to save himself from a broken paddle. This heads-up move saved us a lot of grief so early in the trip!

Upon impact Benīs boat actually hit the rocks at the bottom of the drop and he took a pretty good chest shot from the water. Of course, I didn't know any of this watching from above, I only saw him roll up and tap his head, indicating he was ok.

Ben recovered his paddle in the pool below and now it was my turn to try my hand at this freefall extravaganza. I watched the video of Ben over and over to try and learn what worked well and what did not and then set off for my own attempt.

The lead-in to the main falls is a ten-foot waterfall that dumps into a small, boiling pool.. Ben had caught this eddy and got out of his boat to scout the 65'er more closely, but I opted to just run it straight up as I had been looking at the falls for a solid forty minutes already.

Once I have committed to running a very large waterfall ( I consider any drop with over 60 feet of freefall to be in the 'very large' category ) I go through the process of envisioning the moves and strokes and line and speed and body position desired and any other number of considerations.

After that, there is the actual act of putting yourself in the care of your mental preparations, physical and mental capability as we test our skills against the almighty river.

If you do everything correctly the result is seamless blending of the power of the river and the skills of the paddler which is a beautiful thing. Done incorrectly the results can range from a bruised ego to physical trauma and an extended duration in a low oxygen environment.. Not good.

With all of this in the back of my mind I set off to clear my head, have fun and confidence in myself and the river.

I had a clean line, and when I joined Ben in the pool he indicated that he had coughed up some blood so we made mental note of the frequency of these coughs. We also removed his PFD and palpated his entire upper body to check for swelling and pain. Ben had neither and the bloody coughs were getting less frequent, so we were confident that he was good to go.

Ben lines up on the must-run 65 foot waterfall

We headed down the river with great expectations. We came to some more difficult class five rapids and some rapids with no good lines and stopped to camp about 5 p.m.. We worked for about an hour trying to make a fire, but it was difficult because all the wood was soaked. We finally got some of the wood to catch after an hour and a half of poking and blowing at the leaves and twigs and then tended the fire very closely to keep it going. Before too long we had a nice fire going and were quite warm. We ate our dinner which consisted of tuna, crackers, salami, stinky cheese, peanuts and a little chocolate. This was the selection of food for all our meals.

Ben and I made a new friend in camp that night.. A really cool green walking stick!

It rained on us that night a fair amount and both Ben and I woke up soaked in our sleeping bags. Neither of our bivy bags were waterproof anymore and we shared a bitter laugh at our sleeping circumstances. Ben even had to stoke up the fire during the night and dry himself off to go back to sleep, and we have gotten in the pattern of making sure he sleeps near the fire when we camp. I have a new sleeping bag for this trip, and it has done an excellent job of keeping me warm even when wet. My next purchase will have to be a new bivy bag.

JOURNAL ENTRY - TUESDAY JANUARY 05, 2006:   Second day on the Buey

The next day the river was equally difficult and full of class V and V+ plus rapids. I ran one section that led straight into a 20-foot falls and had a nice line. We continued to push on cautiously, keeping our options and ability to portage open if necessary; we didn't want get stuck running a rapid that might not be survivable.

Don't lean against a tree unless you check it first! The author checks out some of the aggro local plants during a scout.

I remember one class V+ rapid ( which I found out later had never been run before ) that had a small eddy above it on the right. I was leading at that point and when I went to catch the eddy it had a rock blocking the entrance that ejected me back out. I tried to back paddle for a while but the current was too strong. Finally I just lined up and dropped over the smoking horizon line without knowing exactly what was there.

In a moment my entire kayaking career was crystallized: Every move I had ever made, every class I had ever taught, every roll I had ever done.. it all came down to this: Run this ultra-nasty rapid blindly and survive it! I remember a chaotic churn of boulders and stomping holes, taking some big hits and dealing some out. It was a slug-fest; the river and I just swinging at each other with everything we had, but in the end I emerged at the bottom, a little the worse for wear but upright and smiling! ( I found out later that Ben and Shannon had portaged this rapid on the first attempt of the river. )

Ben runs a typical rapid on the Buey

We came to more difficult rapids, some we ran, some we didn't. At about 2 p.m. we arrived at a footbridge over the Buey. We met some locals here and spoke with them for a few minutes ( Ben has taught himself Spanish and is nearly fluent, so we had no trouble communicating with the people we met throughout our trip ).

Looking downstream from the footbridge over the Buey.
Below this point the river becomes much more difficult.

We continued downstream below the footbridge, with Ben leading. Just below the bridge the river started to go into a gorge, so Ben climbed downstream to scout while I waited upstream with a rope in case he committed to a move he couldn't reverse during the scout.

Ben gets ready to head downstream on a difficult scouting mission below the footbridge.

When Ben finally returned he said: "There is a large three-part rapid down there between vertical walls. I'm not sure there is an eddy below it, the river turns right and drops out of sight."

At this point we started to discuss our options. Our biggest concern was getting trapped above an unrunnable drop, a very real possibility given the number of portages so far. Ben said I should scout the drop for myself, so I climbed down and took a look.

Once I could see downstream I saw the large three-part rapid Ben had described, leading to a blind right corner, totally gorged out. I saw a line I liked through the rapid, and I felt that there would be an eddy to catch below it, around the corner.

I climbed back up to Ben and told him I was going to run it and that I felt positive that there would be an eddy around the corner.

With that I got in my boat and ran the drop, and sure enough there was a small eddy just around the corner, above a huge horizon line. Ben joined me in the eddy, and we got out to scout. At this point the level of commitment had reached levels that were almost untenable given our small team and lack of climbing gear.

I think both of us were starting to have doubts that we would be able to complete the river.

The next rapid was crazy, like nothing we had encountered yet.

The river churned down over three full-on class V+ boulder gardens in a row, leading directly to an extremely difficult and dangerous 55 foot waterfall. The falls was very tough because the water powered into a rock wall on the right, forming a large pillow which then dropped off to the left, falling 45 feet onto rock. Once you committed to the boulder gardens upstream, you had to run the falls.

To run the falls, you would have to punch through the pillow and climb up on top of it as you went over the falls, which would put you to the right of the rocks when you landed. We both pondered this thinnest of lines required to avoid landing in the rocks for awhile.

We concluded that this was at the extreme end of runnability. Each move in the three big lead-in rapids was very tough, with some of them demanding paper-thin precision between a boulder and a piton rock into a fold or hole, and the falls was about has hard and dangerous as waterfalls get.

There was also no practical way to portage. Once you were in, you were in.

As we pondered this towering pile of churning water and rock I said to Ben: "I say we get in there and run it. In three minutes we'll be in the pool smiling."

Ben just grinned and replied: "Your optimism is overwhelming.."

Part of the relatively easy lead-in to the extremely difficult 55 foot falls.

The horizon line downstream is the extremely difficult 45 footer. The curling hole at the top is visible. You have to punch that hole and climb over it and boof right. If you get carried left with the main flow which slopes off to the left, it all falls onto rock..

It had grown late while we scouted the rapids and the falls, so we decided to camp there for the night. As we got our fire going ( still difficult, but not quite as difficult as the previous night ) we were visited by a local coffee grower. We spoke for a while and he brought us some condensed sugar cane bricks and a pot. He added water to the pot and put half of the brick in the water and we heated it on the fire as we ate dinner. It was very sweet and tasted delicious after our sparse fare of the last few days. We drank about one and a half quarts each.

We spent the evening drying off our wet sleeping gear and went to sleep about 10 p.m. Ben scored a great spot under a rock overhang the local showed him, and I slept at the camp. It rained all night, and once again I woke up in a pool of water inside my bivy. Not ideal!

JOURNAL ENTRY - TUESDAY JANUARY 06, 2006:   Third day on the Buey

It was still raining in the morning, so I got out of bed and immediately put on my kayak gear which was also wet. Schweet! We ate breakfast and talked for awhile under the rock overhang where Ben had slept the night before.

At this point we decided that we didn't have enough climbing gear to continue; two throw-ropes just weren't going to get it done. We were close enough to the end of the steep stuff to feel good about what we had accomplished, but both of us were concerned that we still might get trapped by a large unrunnable falls that might require such gear. We discussed our options and decided to call it good and hike out of the canyon.

We spoke with the farmer and his friend for quite a while and they gave us some corn bread and sweet tea again. As we spoke another coffee grower came along, accompanied by and his son and a very annoying ankle biter dog.

The coffee growers son.

The second coffee grower invited us to his house saying he was a guitar player, so we went along with him and his wife was kind enough to offer us a drink and some mangos. We were serenaded by a Colombian version of the blues and really enjoyed ourselves as Ben took video of the grower playing the guitar and singing.

He was an excellent guitar player having taught himself by ear and with no lessons. The songs must have been Colombian classics with chorus' such as: 'I have no mother, I have no father, I have no money' and 'My girlfriend finds favor with another man'.

Ben and I couldn't stop laughing as he played. I guess it doesn't matter which country and which culture, we all face the same basic problems.


After bidding farewell to the coffee grower and his family, we proceeded to do the fifty minute steep and VERY DIFFICULT hike out with our 65-pound boats on our shoulders. It was pretty tough going for us, we had to stop many times to rest because the air was thin ( The Buey is 6,000 feet above sea level). We eventually made it to the top of the trail where the locals were waiting for the bus. I gave some chocolate to the kids at the bus stop, and the locals wouldn't stop talking about how we were able to carry the boats up the trail..

Our timing could not have been better as the Chiva ( A Chiva is the colorful Colombian bus locals use to travel, quite often with their crops for sale ) came within ten minutes of our arrival, and it turned out it was the only bus of the day. We hoisted the boats on top of the bus and rode on it for a couple hours back to town.

The ride back to town was VERY interesting as we had to duck under branches and hold on as the bus negotiated the four-wheel drive and muddy roads. We made it back to La Ceja and called our local driver. He would arrive in an hour, so we had a nice Paisa dinner and a couple cervesas while we waited. Paisa is the local nickname for the mid country farmers, and their meals are quite hearty. It was great to change into dry clothes and the drive back to town was uneventful.

Looking back down into the Buey canyon during the long ride back to town.