By Jesse Coombs
  Paddlers: Ben Stookesberry, Darin McQuoid, James Harper, Jesse Coombs, Rocky Contos
  Location: Mexico
  Class: V ( VI , P )
  Gradient: Up to 2,000 fpm
  Character: Pool-drop, Remote Desert Canyon, Gorges, Waterfalls

Copyright © 2010, Jesse Coombs, Darin McQuoid, Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster. All photos Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Ben Stookesberry, Darin McQuoid and I heard about an exploratory descent on a very steep river in Mexico known as the Barranca de Piaxtla. The driver behind this particular adventure was Rocky Contos, a Post Doctorate Neurological researcher who is in love with kayaking. Rocky is currently taking an extended absence from his neurological research to research and write a comprehensive kayaking and rafting guidebook on Mexico. We were also joined on this trip by James Harper, a strong kayaker who has become a great friend and partner with Rocky on his Mexico endeavor.

We approached our expedition sponsors Jackson Kayak and Eddie Bauer - First Ascent and told them about our plan. They were very supportive. Things really started rolling after that and soon the trip was arranged and we were headed south!

I had a 5:20 a.m. flight from Portland to Mazatlan with a layover in Phoenix. The flights were completely smooth and on time which was great! That certainly has not always been the case. When I arrived in Mazatlan at 1:17 pm Rocky, James and Ben were there already.

After getting my gear together Rocky and I took his aging Toyota pickup to drop off some extra gear, buy food for 7-8 days on the river and pick up Rafa. Rafa is Rocky’s local friend and driver. Rocky pays Rafa to drop off and pick up Rocky from rivers in the area he is exploring, often alone.

Loading up Rocky's truck at the airport.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

As we talked about our river options on the day of arrival and the next day a clear dilemma was presenting itself. The Piaxtla Rio was sixty kilmoteters between easy road accesses. The first seventeen kilometers was amazingly steep and narrow and contained a section that dropped approximately 900 feet in less than half a mile.

Rocky was convinced that this section would be a ridiculous and un-enjoyable portage fest. His suggestion was that we should hike into a tributary that joins the Piaxtla after this section and run the tributary to the Piaxtla. James borrowed Rocky’s truck a few days earlier to look for a good method for this hike and was unable to find one. We all agreed that we should drive to above the upper section and hike around it as much as possible to get a sense for it.

We arrived at the upper section around noon. We looked around the river and road access put in before driving to where we could hike around the upper section. We piled out of the car and wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops began hiking the canyon walls. We descended where ever possible for better views. We were absolutely amazed by what we saw. This canyon was full of standing and fallen spires and columns. None of us had seen anything like it before. And the canyon was amazingly deep with very steep and sheer walls. This was a special river, canyon and place that begged for exploration.

The author, scoping out the amazing Barranca de Piaxtla canyon. Scouting from the top was difficult because the canyon is so deep with so many turns that we could only see small portions of the river.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Rocky had done a truly excellent job of finding and having detailed topographic maps that gave us a very important understanding of what sections were especially steep and required extra care and planning. Rocky was definitely the expert here as he has been running rivers in this area for several years in research for the guidebook he is writing.

When I saw this runnable section and nature of the river I was extremely pleased and optimistic. I teased Rocky that he had an instant classic on his hands and he would be making money taking people down this river. I also suggested to Darin and Rocky that we should just put on the upper section and figure it out. Darin was game for this, but Rocky just rolled his eyes and laughed. From the map we knew that near the end of this steep upper section there was section that dropped precipitously. The map showed that the river dropped approximately two hundred and eighty meters in a half a mile. This was close to a thousand feet of drop in a very short distance!

On the way back to the hotel the debate about where we should put on went back and forth. Rocky wanted to put in on a tributuary that joined the river below the ~2,000 fpm section, while Ben and I wanted to put on above it. After some discussion Rocky decided to try and contact some local canyoneering/climbing friends to see if they knew anything about the river canyon.

Our Hotel, "The Pines". Note the snow on the trees in the sign..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The next morning when Rocky called his climbing friend and had good news. The friend said that there were three waterfalls in the steep sections, a hundred foot waterfall, a two-hundred foot waterfall and a six-hundred foot waterfall. The climber friend said that they had belayed down the big ones and that he thought we would be able to hike around the falls with our boats. With this bit of good news in hand we piled in and drove to the put in for the upper section.

We finally were wearing our gear and had all our stuff packed in our boats. We shoved off the bank and started floating down the calm water to the unknown below.

Just below the put in for the Barranca de Piaxtla.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

What we came to below was exactly what we had hoped. It started calmly enough with class three and class four for a little while. Then it transitioned to class five with lots of portages and some runnable white water. What was most important was that we could consistently either run the river or portage the rapids at river level.

There were some nice rapids mixed in with some portages. The warm up rapids provided a nice opportunity to in the flow before things got very serious and committed.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Ben digs in for a boof on a fun drop..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

We encountered some great rapids, amazing scenery and a gorgeous un-runnable falls.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The author gets ready to drop in..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The author, all smiles on the Barranca de Piaxtla! The spires in this canyon, like the one in the backround of this photo, were ubiquitous, amazing and we have never seen anything like it.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

This waterfall was unrunnable but very nice to look at!
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The author scouting a drop guarding the entrance to a gorge on the Barranca de Piaxtla.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

We only had half day of paddling due to the morning’s phone calls, discussions and getting ready, so we made good progress until 6pm when we pulled over for camping. We found a great spot for camping and we were all in good spirits for the beginning of our adventure. Kayak exploration like this often involves critters, and Darin got a great photo of a very cool caterpillar on Ben’s tarp.

A very unusual caterpillar on Ben's Tarp.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

In a very unhappy note for James and me, Montezuma’s revenge struck us both that first night in the form of dysentery. It hit me hard around midnight and I was miserable. My stomach was totally upset and painful. My mouth was watering like I was going to throw up. My head was spinning. I ended having to get up four times that night. And, I wasn’t alone. I saw James up during the evening and assumed it could only be for the same reason. I barely slept at all.

I think I know the cause for these problems. The first night we arrived James and I shared his dinner. I ordered a burrito which turned out to be a little smaller. He ordered a quesadilla which turned out to quite large. He could only eat three quarters of it and offered the last piece to me. So he and I were the only ones to eat that food, and he ate quite a bit more than me. So it makes sense that we both were the only ones to get sick, and that he go more sick than me.

The next day James and I were both feeling a little better. The day started off as a continuation and increase of the previous day’s adventures. The views were even more scenic. The canyon walls were even more steep and close to the river. The portages were bigger and so too were the rapids. We ran many rapids and did a number of portages. A very important part of running an exploratory river with so many portages is teamwork.

When we got to the big portages we worked together in order to be more efficient. We would hand each other the boats in a bucket brigade fashion whereever the terrain required pushing and pulling the boats over or down obstacles. Then we would get out a rope for one person to do all the lowering or raising where that was necessary. The other people would either get the boats ready for passing or be the ones who collect them at the end of the obstacle. The deeper we got into the Barranca de Piaxtla the steeper the walls, the tighter the river, the steeper the river and the more difficult the portages. As the trip progressed, strong teamwork was essential to keep our downriver progress steady.

One of the portages required a belay around an un-runnable seventy foot waterfall. Luckily we were prepared for this as both Ben and James were carrying 60 meter climbing ropes, harnesses and belay devices. I really enjoy rock climbing and rope work, so I was very excited to start this aspect of the trip. I had no idea that we would end up using the ropes another twenty times during the trip with concern for having enough to be safe! But I will tell that portion of the story soon enough.

The author rappelling around an unrunnable seventy-footer.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Next we came to a very cool and very runnable forty-foot waterfall! Darin went first so that he could take photos from the far side. He ran it just left of center, had a great line and waved his arm in happiness at the bottom. James went next with a line very similar to Darin. Rocky went next going a bit further to the left.

I went next and wanted to go a bit more to the right off the shelf and flake that presented a cleaner line. I went right off the flake where I had hoped and landed a little flatter than I hoped. It worked out fine as I landed in the foamy white water, held a brace and paddled away smiling and raising my arms. Ben went last going far left on purpose. He had a great line and paddled away smiling.

The author drops the clean forty-footer.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Good Times!
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Ben drops the Forty-er.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Next we came to a section of waterfalls that were tall and not very friendly looking. We all portaged the top one and were in the process of portaging the lower one. But Ben took a long look at the second one and decided he wanted to seal launch in at the lip. I stood at the top with the video and Darin took a photo as Ben launched himself into the falls having a great line! The rest of us were more than happy to take the high and dry route.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Again we found a great area for camping around 6 p.m,, made a fire and enjoyed our evening by the river. Fortunately the dysentery was waning a bit, but I was still not eating much. All of the hard work of the day combined with no food intake meant my body was thinning out noticeably.

We found a campsite just downstream of the falls section and settled in for the night. Camping in the deepest canyon amongst this amazing scenery and fauna was one of the best parts of the trip.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid