in 2006 I've
done at least one international trip every fall as my budget allowed.
In 2007 I did a cold weather Newfoundland
mission, swore I'd
another cold weather mission and followed it up with a cold weather
trip to Pakistan
. The trip to Pakistan
was my most expensive to date, with the lowest payback because big
water images are hard to sell. As late summer 2009 rolled around, my
budget was slim and when I got a call about a pretty cheap
Mexico trip it didn't take too long to make up my mind, as there was
a chance it would be my one trip for the year. We had a potential
sponsor but nothing set in stone, and I wanted to get at least one trip
in before my bank account was too low.
The plan was both simple and audacious. Fly into Mazatlan, drive to the
top of one of the the deepest gorges in North America and put on to a
unexplored canyon. Spend a few days on the river, then fly home. Only
ten days in country, a pretty cheap flight, and the allure of the
unknown - I couldn't resist.
flew early the next morning, and
after a few hours on the plane I was
in colorful Mexico meeting the rest of our crew.
It was off season for tourism, so things were nice and
quiet while we
loaded up. Ben Stookesberry, Jesse Coombs and I had flown down to meet
Rocky Contos and James Dusenberry. For some reason we decided to load
up Rocky's truck, and once loaded it was apparent we wouldn't be making
the many hour drive to the river five deep in his Toyota pickup.
people, five boats and assorted
gear, no extended cab...hmmmm.
We explored our options, and it boiled down to renting a car, and the
only thing with racks was a big suburban.
style in Mazatlan, we all had
to laugh because it's nicer than
anything we own.
flying out I'd also managed to
talk Werner into pre-purchasing
my images from the trip for the cost of my ticket. Thanks to Jim at Werner
Jesse Coombs ready for good times.
We were on Mexico time and by the time the rental car was finalized it
was anything but an alpine start, we left the airport in the dark and
got dinner in Mazatlan, enjoying the culture with some blaring loud
live mariachi music about five feet away from the street restaurant we
chose. I'd never been to this part of Mexico before, and as we drove
state of Durango I was surprised at how much it looked like Northern
California, windy mountain roads and coniferous forest.
we stopped at one in the
morning, 8,000' elevation and
shacked up in El Salto at "The Pines".
look at the river.
A little more driving from El Salto and we were at the
river. A small
dirt road led straight into the water, where it could be easily forded
at lower flows. We didn't have lower flows. Our maps showed that the
river would have mellow gradient for about a mile before dropping into
a steep confined gorge, and locals confirmed this beta.
Contos checking out the water
Locals, probably discussing how foolish our plan is.
Group dynamics can be complicated on a trip of this
when it's a group of people who have never spent time on the water
together. Rocky has been doing trips in the Sierra Madre Occidental for
years, and has a reputation for doing things his own way. Ben has been
doing first descents around the world for many years, and also has a
reputation for doing things his own way. Rocky wasn't convinced about
water levels, or our ability to navigate the downstream section, which
was steeper than anything he had previously attempted in this mountain
range. He mentioned that generally when rivers were this steep here,
they were sieve piles that generally took a long time to portage. Our
planned section was forty miles long, so our quantity of food was in
question for such a vast undertaking, if it was full of sieves we'd run
out of food long before reaching our destination.
In the name of prudence we drove downstream to a small
village that had
access to the gorge rim, where we could get a better idea of what we
were getting into.
looks up towards put-in.
information from a friendly
local who shows us the gorge.
the river is down there somewhere.
Very locked into a deep, unique
canyon full of spires. Jesse takes it all in.
The Piaxtla wraps around the base of this several hundred foot high
largest problem wasn't just the gorge we had scouted.
looked marginally manageable. The problem was that downstream the river
plunged over a thousand feet in a half mile, right in the heart of the
gorge. With this on our mind we piled in the car and got some dinner in
the next town over.
on the Durango plateau it's not the cliche Mexico scenery, it's
more like Colorado.
Dinner didn't settle anything but our appetites. We had
two options for
the following day: Put every bit of food we had in the boats and put
on, or drive downstream to "the confluence" below the steep section,
find a way to the river and paddle fifteen kilometers of first descent
through mellow gradient. Uncommitted to either plan we found a nice
hotel with in room heat, and eventually tentatively planned to put-in
up top in the morning.
On these trips I always try to be game for whatever is
best for the
group. Putting in up top sounded good to me, full of adventure and in
reality, what we came there to do: get into something very challenging.
On the other hand, putting in below the confluence
sounded much easier and safer, and we'd still paddle through the
deepest canyon section of the Piaxtla. I was glad we'd picked the
adventure course, and warmed by fire we packed eight days of food into
our drybags knowing we'd be getting deep into it tomorrow.