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

8/25 Tuesday

The next morning the sunshine motivated us to get going early and we immediately got into some great rapids. We came to a section that was not runnable and each did a little different seal launch to get around it. Next we came to a very cool twenty foot waterfall with a slide entrance. Ben went first and immediately was off like a shot to the next section.

The author runs the really fun twenty footer just downstream of our campsite.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The rest of us ran it and wondered why Ben took off so fast. We got our answer as we looked below. The river fell into a crazy jumbled mess that just kept falling between house sized boulders in an extremely steep section of the river. This basically was a hundred-foot waterfall that started with the river passing between two very steep and narrow walls with a huge house sized rock stuck above the river.

Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Below that was the lip of a waterfall like I have never seen before. After hiking down and past the hundred foot waterfall and along the left bank Darin and I came to a section where we swam in the calm water for twenty feet. We then climbed back onto the left bank and saw Ben and Rocky standing at this lip. It was a two hundred foot waterfall where the river was as narrow as a one lane road and the walls were smooth granite, dropping away on both sides.

We now knew that we were at the section that fell over a thousand feet with the three falls, and it was imminently clear that there would be no hope of get through this section at river level.

No way around at river level..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Ben ponders the massive thousand-foot cascade.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

We hiked back up to the twenty foot falls and unloaded our camping gear. It was three oíclock and we agreed the best plan was to camp there for the evening and get an early start tomorrow on what we expected to be a big portage. Ben and Rocky got motivated and headed up into the bush to see if they could pre-scout our portage. James laid down as he was still fighting a bad case of dysentery. Darin laid down in his hammock, and I spent the time gathering firewood.

Ben and Rocky returned a few hours later. We got the fire going and made some food and talked about what they found. They said there would be approximately five stages to the hike/portage and they expected that it would take between four and six hours. They said it would start with a 500-600 meter hike up. The second stage would be a traverse across a steep side scree slope with a very long drop down to the left. The third stage would be to drop down a gully to a ridge that will lead to another gully. The fourth stage would be to drop down from that ridge into the next gully which should be the major descent toward the river. The fifth and last stage would be the lower flatter section of the gully to finally reach the river. Darin, James and I inquired about different aspects of the hike, thanked them for their scouting and anticipated what tomorrow would bring.

Little did we know what the next day would bring.. If we had none of us would have slept well that night.

8/26 Wednesday

We woke up around seven and were all ready to hit the trail by eight. Each boat weighed between eight and ninety pounds. James and Ben were carrying sixty meter climbing ropes, so their boats weighed on the upper end of this range. Darin had two liter water carrier with nozzle and Rocky had about two liters of water between two bottles.

We shouldered our boats on our shoulders and started the uphill hike. Luckily there were some wildlife trails that led up the same direction we wanted to hike. This helped tremendously! On the not helpful side though was the fact that this was a pristine jungle/wilderness so the branches, foliage and vines were constantly in our way. The trail was quite steep and often had difficult footing. I was sweating and working hard pretty much the whole way.

We spent two hours hiking, climbing, pulling, pushing and fighting up the six hundred meter hill. When we got to where it flattened out a bit there was a grassy area that offered a respite. For some reason it turned out that the same day we needed to do our portage was hottest day of the month. We hunkered down behind a small tree that offered some shade and propped our annoyingly heavy boats on the tree as well.

The author taking a well-deserved break after phase one of our mega-portage.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

After fifteen minutes or so of resting and getting a little water, we shouldered our boats and continued the portage. This next phase was the side hill stretch across a steep slope of loose rock and dirt. There was a real risk of falling so we were all very careful.

This section took about another hour and it was now around eleven in the morning. Next we started dropping diagonally through a small valley toward a ridge that should overlook the valley we needed to get to the river. This went on for about an hour and the group finally convened at the end of this section near a house sized boulder. We rested here for about ten minutes and then pressed on to the third phase.

Topping out.. sort of.
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

This third phase was even more difficult. Even though we were going generally downhill, there was absolutely no clear way through and the foliage, branches and vines were thicker than ever. We all ended up pulling our boats behind us or holding them back from trying to skid down the valley away from us. It was very hard work.

Hopefully we can find our way down to the river from here..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Soon the vegetation got even thicker and we spent majority of the time pulling and pushing our kayaks under the walls of vegetation while trying to keep the stickers and branches out of our faces. Once in awhile I was able to get my boat back on my shoulder, but those sections were few and far between. This struggle continued for over an hour, and then we were confronted with a puzzle.

Tanglefoot as far as the eye could see.. which wasn't very far!
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

It was now around 12:30, and we were all very low on water.

To make matters worse, we still had not started descending in earnest toward the river. The ridge we had just reached offered no visibility or insight into how we might make a reasonable progress towards the river somewhere below. And to describe the terrain below as cryptic and intimidating is an understatement. The topography was choked with trees and brush, never-ending cliff bands, and hundreds upon hundreds of feet of vertical drop. Considering that we were already over four hours into this portage, completely out of water with ninety-degree temperatures and no closer to the river, we could not afford a single misstep.

Rocky and I left our boats behind and hiked along the ridge toward the river. We knew this would not be the way to go, but we hoped it would provide a vantage point. Unfortunately it offered very little. We hiked back to the group and our boats, and we all sat down for a few minutes to catch our breath. We each drank the last swallows of the water in our bottles and pressed on. We dropped into the valley below us which was steep and dense with vegetation. The topography of the valley naturally funneled us into a gulley that clearly was a water path in the rainy season.

This actually helped us, because even though the ground was more uneven and rocky, the vegetation was less dense. Because the valley and gulley were so steep, part of the group had to lower the boats approximately a hundred and thirty feet feet with the throw bags while the others pushed on ahead to scout the next obstacle. Luckily I had my faithful Salamander Big Mouth, it was seventy feet long and is made of super-tough spectra rope. I have had this bag for over six years now, and it is as good now as when I bought it.

We continued on this effort of pulling the boats and lowering them as necessary with countless obstacles and problems to solve. It wasnít long before we got to a cliff band that required a rappel. There ultimately were so many of these that I cannot remember the number. It got to the point that we would not even put the climbing ropes away, but would just coil them up and stuff them in a boat for the next time. And the height of the rappel determined how we would recover our gear. We carried two sixty meter climbing ropes. Therefore when the belay was thirty meters or less we would hang half the rope on each side of the tree and belay with the two sides of the rope through the belay device. Then when we were all off the rope we would pull on one side of the rope to recover it. When the belay was between thirty and sixty meters we would tie the two climbing ropes together with paralleled figure eight knots. If we had extra webbing and a nut we would run the ropes through that and leave he webbing and nut behind. If we didnít have extra webbing and a nut we would hang the two ropes off the tree. We would then belay running both ropes through the belay device. When we were off the ropes we would recover them by pulling on the side that had the knot. And if the belay was over sixty meters tall we would have to tie one rope to the tree with the other tied to the end of the first rope. We would then have to belay over the knot and leave the ropes behind. We REALLY hoped we would never have to do this, as we would then not have a climbing rope available later if there was another belay. We wanted to do anything possible to avoid this!

We had done a couple rappels under 30 meters and one or two under 60 meters. We had been hiking and bush whacking and pulling our boats past innumerable obstacles and getting more and more dehydrated and exhausted. We came to an opening that had a glimmer of hope until we saw what it presented. It was a sloping granite face that opened up a daunting discovery. We looked to be over 700 feet from river level with so many cliff bands and topographic obstacles it was disheartening. And the face of the wall on which we were standing was so sloped and tall it was impossible to have any idea of height and options. The sun was brutally blazing hot on us, we had been working our asses off all day, and now it was 4 pm. We had been out of water since 12pm and I could tell our ability to make decisions wisely was significantly adversely affected.

After scouting about for options we stumbled across something we couldn't have been happier to see: A swampy-looking pool of water about eight feet in diameter and a foot deep. It was full of moss and lichen and particles and was disgustingly green having clearly been stagnant for months. But it was still water! We took out our water bottles and filled them up as fast as we could. We then took out the iodine and instead of add the recommended 2.5 tables per 1.5 liters of water we added 4 for added security. We had to wait 30 minutes for the iodine to be fully effective, and then we were drinking the water as fast as we could. It was still green and contained lots of nasty particles. But it tasted like gold! And we could immediately feel it replenishing our bodies and brining life back to us. We drank as fast as we could. And Darin was smart enough to bring drink mix, so he had very good orange tasting water. He also was nice enough to share a drink with James and myself.

Rocky motivated and hiked around to the left of the cliff and said he found a good ledge for us. We would be able to belay to this ledge on one rope. Ben also went to check, and he agreed it would work as a next step. We started lowering boats, with Darin working the belay. One of the boats got hung up then popped free at an odd angle and Darin grabbed the rope and burned his hand pretty badly.

He scampered down to the scum pond and cooled his hand a bit in the green water. The rest of the day and the rest of the trip he always held a t-shirt in his left hand when he handled the ropes. We lowered the rest of the boats, and then he and I headed for the 40 meter belay the others had already descended. It landed on a relatively wide and descent ledge, but the next step was completely uncertain.

This next step was the pivotal point in our getting back to the river. We were committed to this current ledge, as we had already lowered our boats and ourselves to it and pulled down our belay rope. But there was no end in sight to the wall below us. We climbed up a small area to where there was a tree for belaying and discussed our options. Rocky wanted to go first for some reason, but after some discussion we agreed Ben would go first.

No end in sight..
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

The problem with this next belay is that we had no way of knowing how long it was and how much rope we needed. We agreed that we would tie both roped together and tie one end to the tree. This would allow Ben the best chance of reaching the bottom before the end of the rope. Do to this though he would have to belay past the knot on the rope which is no small feat. Ben got part way and said he see a half decent ledge. So we switched the ropes so that they hung off the tree with the knot on one side. Ben went first and then we lowered a boat toward him off another tree.

I brought a 2 way radio but unfortunately no one else did. So our only way of hoping to communicate was with loud voices. But with the very tall walls, wind and angles, we just could not hear each other. Therefore we didnít know if we were lowering the boat right to Ben, past him, not far enough, or away from him.

Because of our limited options this phase of the lowering went very slowly. Darin went next on the belay, and he was good enough to stay on the belay where he could handle the communication until all the boats were down. This helped a ton and we were able to finish lowering the boats. It was starting to get dark and we all started feeling a strong sense of urgency.

After James and I finished lowering the boats and belayed ourselves down we were all on this ledge on the very tall wall no more than 3 feet wide. The boats were stacked on top of each other, and Ben and Rocky had scrambled down to find another belay tree that we hoped would get us to the bottom of the wall. The fact that this three foot wide ledge was here was truly a gift. If that ledge had not had been there we truly would have been screwed and in a very dangerous position.

A very well-placed ledge!
Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Photo Copyright © Darin McQuoid

Dark was coming on fast, and I was becoming more certain that we would not be off the wall before dark. We all got out our headlamps and kept them handy. Ben and Darin and I started joking more and having fun with everything, and I knew this was a good sign. It meant that even though we were dehydrated and underfed, and tired and exhausted and it was getting dark without the end in sight, we were in good spirits. I cannot express how important this is, and how easy it is to lose your cool and calm and problem solving demeanor. I was very glad to see we were keeping our heads.

Rocky and Darin belayed down what we hoped would be this last major belay while Ben and I finished lowering the boats. It was almost dark for the last boat, and we had to manage it based on feel and communication with the others. Ben and I recovered the throw bags and were setting ourselves up for the belay. I told Ben that if I had to be stuck on a three foot ledge in the middle of a huge granite wall, he was the guy I would choose. He said he was just thinking the same thing.

Ben rappelled first. I felt the rope for the tug to indicate he was off it, and then I went next. By the time I got down to the bottom it was completely dark. Luckily the moon was three quarters full and I had very excellent light by that. I chose to turn off my headlamp and do the rappel by moonlight. It was AMAZING! I love climbing and rappelling, and for all our problems and struggle that day, I was ecstatic to descend this sixty meter rock wall face belay by moonlight. It was spectacular and exhilarating and I gave out a huge holler of enjoyment. The other guys laughed at my excitement.

When I got to the bottom we gathered up our gear. I think James was feeling a bit spent, because he suggested that he might go ahead. He said he scouted up a bit and the river wasnít too far. We said we should stay together as a group and finish this off together safely. He said there was a small cliff that we could accomplish with just hanging a rope and doing hand over hand lowering, but this concerned me. We had been doing this portage for thirteen hours, and we were all tired. Our hands were spent from handling the boats and ropes all day. We were dehydrated and hungry and very tired, and it was more important now than ever to make safe decisions. We pulled our way to the ledge James had found, and I could not see the bottom. I found a tree where we could set an anchor and insisted that we do a full rappel. I said we had come this far without injury and taking unnecessary risks now would be dangerous and ill advised.

We set up the belay and Ben still had on his harness, so he went first. Darin and I were sitting above when we hard a rock fall and then heard Ben yell out in pain. It turned out the rope had dislodged a bowling ball size rock above Ben. Ben said that rock bounced and grazed off both his hands, glanced his helmet and went below him. We saw later that Ben had scrape marks on the top of both hands. We were lucky that Ben was not seriously injured.

It turned out that this cliff was thirty feet tall, and it was a very good thing we rapped off. If we had tried to hand over hand it someone would most likely have gotten injured. After getting ourselves and boats past this cliff we packed up the gear and started dragging our boats toward the river we could clearly hear now.

Amazingly and happily we reached the river at ten pm that night. We all ran toward over the rocks toward the river, stripped off our clothing and bathed ourselves from the nasty, sweaty, sticker bush, plants, branches, dry muck we had been living in all day. The water was cold but truly felt great! Rocky immediately started filtering water, and we drank our fill!!

One of the things that was critically important on our trip was the ability to figure out where we were on the river and in the topography. I brought my Timex WS4 with me, and it was a brilliant companion. This watch has a compass, an altimeter, a barometer and several other functions as well. Rocky, Ben and I were constantly checking the altimeter as a gauge for our progress and the compass to help us orient ourselves on the map. And we were amazed at how accurate the weather gauge was. One time the sky was cloudy but the watch called partly cloudy. What do you know.. thirty minutes later the sky was party cloudy and the sun was breaking through! And this was the case throughout the entire trip. The WS4 ended being our own personal weatherman, except that it was right where the TV weatherman is so often wrong.

In a sleepy and starving state we all ate some food, found a reasonable place to sleep and passed out.

Chapter Three, coming soon..