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First Ascent Kayakers Ride Class 5 Falls at Barranca de Piaxtla, Mexico
Posted on July 15, 2010

Words by Jesse Coombs; photographs by Darin McQuoid

Ben Stookesberry, Darin McQuoid and I heard about an exploratory descent on a steep river in Mexico known as the Barranca de Piaxtla. The driver of 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 write a comprehensive kayaking and rafting guidebook on Mexico. James Harper, a strong kayaker who has become a great friend and partner with Rocky on his Mexico endeavor, also joined us.

To start, we all agreed that we should drive to above the upper section of Piaxtla and hike around to get a sense for it.  We were 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 steep and sheer walls. This was a special river, canyon and place that begged for exploration.

Rocky had done a truly excellent job of providing detailed topographic maps that gave us an 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.

After some exploring, I was eager to get started and 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 rolled his eyes and laughed. From the map we knew that near the end of this steep upper section was another section that dropped precipitous, approximately 280 meters in a half mile. This was close to a 1,000 foot descent in a very short distance!

After some debate, we agreed to drop in at the upper section after all. We shoved off the bank and started floating down the calm water to the unknown below.

What we found was exactly what we had hoped. It started calmly enough with Class 3 and Class 4 waters, but then transitioned to Class 5 with lots of portages and some runnable whitewater. Most important, we could consistently run the river and portage the rapids at river level.

The next day started off as a continuation of the previous day’s adventures. But as we descended multiple rapids the views became even more scenic. The canyon walls were steeper and closer to the river. The rapids were bigger and so too were the portages.

A very important part of running an exploratory river with so many portages is teamwork. One of the portages required a belay around a 70-foot waterfall. Luckily we were prepared for this as both Ben and James were carrying 60-meter climbing ropes, harnesses and belay devices. I 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 during the trip with concern for having enough to be safe!

Exhausted, 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 so far, but the trip wasn’t over yet.

Author: - Thursday, July 15th, 2010
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  1. Janet Weyhmiller

    These are AMAZING photos!!!! It was great meeting you guys at the Teva games!!! It has been fun to come back to stores and talk about you guys that show up on our FA screen in stores everyday.


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