First Descent of the Barranca de Piaxtla
Dispatches from North America’s Deepest Canyon
By Jesse Coombs
Expedition members: Rocky Contos, James Harper, Darin McQuoid, Ben Stookesberry, and Jesse Coombs.
Lowdown: One week last August, the five paddler/canyoneers completed a first descent of this remote canyon section in northwest, mainland Mexico, which, if only described as challenging, would be a serious understatement.
The run started calmly enough with some Class III and Class IV rapids. Then it transitioned to Class V with some runnable whitewater, but lots of portages. We encountered some great rapids, amazing scenery and a gorgeous un-runnable falls. We only had a half-day of paddling due to the morning’s preparations, but found a great spot for camping at 6 p.m. and we were all in good spirits for the beginning of our adventure.
In a very unhappy note: Montezuma’s revenge struck that night in the form of explosive diarrhea. Around midnight I received about 30 seconds of warning to get out of the tent before I vacated myself. I only got four steps before I completely erupted. I ended up having to get up like this four more times, using leaves to wipe each time. It was miserable. And I wasn’t alone. I saw James up and assumed it could only be for the same reason. I barely slept at all.
After such a night, food sounded terrible and I ate very little all day. Day Two certainly was a continuation and increase of the previous day’s adventures. The views were even more scenic; the canyon walls, even more steep and close to the river; the portages and rapids, bigger.
One of the portages required a belay around an un-runnable 70-footer. Luckily, we were prepared, 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 20 times.
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 when Ben decided he wanted to seal launch in at the lip. I stood at the top with the video and Darin took photos as Ben launched himself into the falls. He had a great line.
Next was a rock that choked the river into two slots. The slot on the left fell toward a wall, and the slot on the right fell on a flat rock just under the surface. James decided he liked the left line and ran it, just glancing the wall. Ben went next and paddled harder at the rapid, causing him to hit the wall harder and denting the bow of his boat. Rocky and I portaged this rapid down the middle. Darin decided to run the right line and landed on the rock, but not too hard.
Again we found a great area for camping around 6 p.m., made a fire and enjoyed our evening by the river. Fortunately, Montezuma’s revenge was waning.
We woke with the sun and a very cool 20-foot waterfall with a slide entrance. Ben went first and immediately was off like a shot to the next section. The rest of us ran it and wondered why he took off so fast—then we got our answer below. The river fell into a crazy jumbled mess that just kept falling between house-sized boulders in an extremely steep river section, basically a 100-foot waterfall that started with the river passing between two very steep, narrow walls with a massive rock stuck above the river.
Below that was the lip of a waterfall like none I’ve ever seen. After hiking down and past the 100-foot waterfall and along the left bank, we found a calm section where we swam for 20 feet. That is, until we climbed onto the left bank and saw Ben and Rocky standing at this lip: massive, with sheer granite walls on either side. This section easily fell over a thousand feet with the three falls, making it imminently clear that there would be no hope of getting through at this river level. It was 3 o’clock and we agreed to camp there.
We woke up around 7 a.m., all ready to hit the trail by 8 a.m. Turned out this same day we needed to do our big portage was the hottest day of the month. Each boat weighed between 80-95 pounds with the ropes adding significant weight. We carried our paddles in our ‘free’ hand; the other hand and arm in our kayaks holding it on our shoulders.
We spent two hours hiking, climbing, pulling, pushing and fighting up the first 600-meter hill. Then we started dropping diagonally through a small valley toward a ridge that overlooked the valley we needed to get to in order to get back to the river. This second section of the portage was a loose-footing, high-consequence, tough-boat-balance affair. This went on for about an hour.
The third phase was even more difficult. Even though we were going more downhill, there was absolutely no paths and the branches and vines were more congested and meddling than ever.
It was now around 12:30 p.m., and we were out of water. We still had not started descending toward the river. And the ridge we had just reached offered no visibility or insight into how we might make a reasonable attack of the valley below. The topography was just air-choking trees and brush, never-ending cliff bands, and hundreds upon hundreds of feet of vertical drop.
The drastic valley naturally funneled us into a gulley that was a water drainage in the rainy season. This actually helped us; even though the ground was more uneven and rocky, the vegetation was less dense. One part of the gulley was so steep, we had to lower the boats 130 feet with our throwbags.
Still no water.
It wasn’t long before we got to a cliff band that required a full climbing belay. 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.
We found a scum pond about 8 feet in diameter and 12 inches deep. It couldn’t have made us happier. It was full of moss and lichen and particles, and was disgustingly green, having clearly been stagnant for months. But it was still water. Instead of adding the recommended two and a half tablets of iodine per 1.5 liters of water, we added four.
We were committed to a ledge, as we’d 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. After James and I finished lowering the boats and belayed ourselves down, we were all on this ledge on the very tall wall. It was 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 next belay from the 3-foot ledge took every bit of 60 meter rope we had, plus four throwbags.
We reached the river at 10 p.m. We all ate some food, finally drank water, found a reasonable place to sleep and passed out.
We continued downriver and were rewarded with great rapids, AMAZING views of the canyon and comparatively reasonable portages that took an hour instead of a day.
That night we stopped around 6 p.m., James and I set up our tents on the beach by the water. This is not always a good idea because the water can come up from rain, but we had no other option. Darin hung his hammock, as usual. Ben found a crack between two walls for sleeping. Rocky found a cave, brought in sand for a soft floor, and then used his tent as a door. I slept in my tent.
In the morning we encountered several house-sized boulder sections that often required portaging and sometimes allowed us to actually paddle under and between them. The rest of the day was mostly Class III and IV with some Class V.
That night we found a great campsite with a huge beach and plenty of room to spread out. Not long after getting set up, a huge rain with very strong winds blew in. We all had to rush to grab our stuff before it literally blew away before getting soaked. We all ended up soaked.
Started innocently enough with a lot of Class IV until we got to a cool section: the box canyon of the Barranca de Piaxtla, which dropped over 200 feet in a quarter-mile and was full of apartment-sized boulders. We decided to portage.
There was no guarantee of this portage though, because of the box canyon. The granite walls were so steep, and the boulders in the river so big, that once you committed to portaging, it was near impossible to go back upstream.
It was a big puzzle requiring rope work, weird drops, strong ferries and serious teamwork. After that we encountered more amazing views and lots of Class III and IV for the rest of the day—a much appreciated change. We completed the last 30 kilometers of this 60-kilometer first descent and got to the takeout town around 6 p.m.