Comrades on the Colca: Q&A with author Eugene Buchanan

Longtime C&K contributor on his journey into Peru's Colca Canyon, the deepest gorge on the planet

Following the release of his timeless river read Brothers on the Bashkaus, longtime C&K contributing editor Eugene Buchanan came out with a sequel last week titled Comrades on the Colca. This time instead of navigating Class V with a team of Latvians in Siberia, Buchanan joins a team of Polish explorers in a race to the bottom of the earth on a first descent of Peru’s upper Cruz del Condor section of Colca Canyon, the deepest gorge on the planet. We caught up with him for his take on the journey and his proclivity for suffering on waterways with Eastern Europeans…

C&K: So what is it with you and adventuring with teams from Eastern Europe whose members barely speak English? In 2007, you published Brothers on the Bashkaus about a first descent in Siberia with a team of Latvians on homemade rafts. In Comrades on the Colca, you hook up with a team of Polish adventurers in Peru. Is it the Eastern European cuisine that you just can't resist?

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Buchanan: I'm not sure how I keep getting hooked up with these Eastern Euros on these wacky expeditions. Maybe I just like boiled cabbage or something. All I know is that they’re pretty comfortable suffering; they seem to thrive on it. I owe the Colca experience to a Polish explorer named Yurek Majcherczyk, whom I first met on an expedition down Ecuador’s Quijos River 25 years ago. He sort of took me under his wing, and I’ve been on several trips around the world with him since. He also sponsored me to become a member of New York’s Explorer’s Club.

C&K: The trip down the Colca was more a canyoneering adventure; you were the only kayaker, a couple of others had packrafts. Explain your role.

Buchanan: When Yurek first asked me to join him down there, he sent a few photos that showed the canyon with water in it. I thought, “I’d much rather have my kayak down there than be groveling in the river,” so we shipped one down. I recommended bringing the packrafts to help haul people and gear, which worked well, except that I often ended up as a human mule towing people and gear back and forth across the river. But the packrafts only weigh four pounds each, so we could portage them easily.

C&K: So you kayaked when you could, but you also had to portage?

Buchanan: A lot of times I’d help the team portage the group gear around some obstacle, and then I’d have to go back up and retrieve my kayak, which caused me to double back often. And it was kind of a pain to carry over the jumbled-up terrain. But in the long run, it was good to have.

C&K: Comrades and Bashkaus both seem to get right to the core of why some people seek adventure in far-away places. Early on you write: "The whole atmosphere changes when the canyon bottom slips into shade…it makes the canyon walls tighter and the breeze more biting….it makes you think about how out there you really are…how the number one goal is simply survival." Isn't this at the core of what many of your adventures are about — going beyond the warm cocoon of civilization to feel more alive by taking risks as part of a closely knit team?

Buchanan: I don’t think I was really risking my life on either of these trips. If we didn’t feel comfortable running something we wouldn’t. But it often came down to a question of which alternative was more calorically efficient? Were you better off spending the energy walking and portaging gear around something, often an arduous task, or running it? If you ran it safely, that’s more efficient. But if you messed up and flipped or swam, you’d burn a lot of energy. So you’re always weighing the two. I don’t think you feel more alive by taking unnecessary risks, but you do by simply being out there.

C&K: You describe your sense of insignificance on the trip. Even people on more minor adventures often return home and express that same profound feeling — similar to what we get when stargazing. Is feeling like a bug in a much grander scheme part of the appeal?

Buchanan: I think so, and a place like Colca Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world, with walls rising 14,000 feet on one side and 11,000 feet on the other (compared to the Grand Canyon’s depth of 5,000 feet), really brings that out. It makes you realize and appreciate how insignificant we really are. It hit home one evening when I tried to send a SPOT GPS notice out and it could never get a satellite signal because the canyon was so narrow.

C&K: It's ironic, isn't it, that 21st-century adventurers now often take high-tech gadgets like that with them to reassure their loved ones? Your team had a satellite phone, but only rare chances to use it in the narrow canyon, as well as a SPOT locator. How does that technology transform adventuring?

Buchanan: It certainly makes it easier and safer compared to the days of Shackleton, but the adventuring itself is the same as always. You still have to venture in there and deal with everything. Technology also might give you better gear, but you’re still out there pushing the envelope.

C&K: You describe being cliffed-out 50 feet above the river and getting lowered in your kayak to the bottom of the canyon. How hairy was that and how did it work out?

Buchanan: It actually wasn’t that bad…and it was kind of nice getting away from the Poles bickering on the ledge. But it was a bit eery once I landed in the pool and was all alone in the bottom of the world’s deepest canyon. I thought, ‘If those guys don’t figure out a way to get down here with our gear, I’m kind of hosed.’ But I was able to then paddle to the far end and look back and scout a way for them to get down, so it all worked out.

C&K: Tell us about the book itself. What was different about writing Comrades?

Buchanan: It was tougher to write. Bashkaus was about a 26-day river trip with super colorful characters and anecdotes, so it came together pretty easily. The Colca was only a seven-day trip, so I had to expand it with other stories that relate to it. But I was also able to weave in some history, from the Spaniards' conquest of the Incas to a legend of hidden Incan treasure being scuttled away to a castle in Poland I visited. As a paddler, the Bashkaus was way more difficult to run; it was big water Class V, on homemade catarafts. The Colca was more of a canyoneeering expedition with a lot of hiking, swimming, climbing and rappelling, and, for me, kayaking. And the water volume was a lot lower, maybe 300 cfs compared to 10,000 cfs on the Bashkaus.

C&K: What was the hardest part and most rewarding in getting this book done? 

Buchanan: The hardest part was piecing together a storyline that flowed. I used our trip as a setting to weave in history and a few of my other adventures I've done in South America. But it's always hard deciding what to keep in and what to leave out. In Comrades I also wanted to get the input from the rival team as well, and their team members only speak Polish. On the reward side, it's always nice to see the first copy come out; it was a three-year project or so, so it's gratifying to see it all come together.

copy-of-peruphotosmaster-159C&K: How did you come up with the idea to write it and where can people find it? 

Buchanan: Stupid as it sounds, the main reason I wrote it is because I came up with the name, Comrades on the Colca. It had a nice ring to it as a follow up to Brothers on the Bashkaus. Although Yurek wanted me to get rid of the word “Comrades” because it hints of communism, which they fought hard to escape. But it was a fun project. People can find it on Amazon and www.eugenebuchanan.com (with four books now, the publisher said it's time for me to have my own website). And they can get more information on it here.