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First Ascent Kayakers Conclude Grueling Portage at Barranca de Piaxtla, Mexico
Posted on July 28, 2010

In the previous entries of this expedition, First Ascent kayakers Jesse Coombs, Ben Stookesberry, Darin McQuoid and friends struggled to portage around a 1,000-foot descent of falls at Barranca de Piaxtla in Mexico.

Words by Jesse Coombs; photographs by Darin McQuoid

We had already been hiking for more than a half day, temperatures were in the 90s, we had run out of water and there was no way back down to the river, which was more than 700 feet below.

After scouting about for options, we stumbled across something we couldn’t have been happier to see: A swampy-looking pool of water about 9 feet in diameter and 1 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 took out iodine to sanitize the water, and instead of adding the recommended 2.5 tablespoons per 1.5 liters of water, we added 4 tablespoons 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 great! And we could immediately feel it replenishing our bodies and bringing life back to us.

By then we knew we needed to find a way back down to the river. Rocky hiked around to the left of the cliff and said he found a good ledge for us. We would have to take a chance knowing we would still be 500 feet from the river, but not knowing what was in between. We started lowering boats with Darin working the belay. One of the boats got hung up. As it popped free at an odd angle, Darin grabbed the rope and burned his hand badly. We lowered the rest of the boats, and then Darin and I headed for the 40-meter belay the others had already descended. We landed on a relatively wide and decent ledge.

Unfortunately, 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. The problem with the next belay was that we had no way of knowing how long it was and how much rope we needed. We agreed that we would tie both ropes together and tie one end to the tree. This would allow Ben, who offered to go first, the best chance of reaching the bottom before the end of the rope. He would have to belay past the knot on the rope, which was no small feat.

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.

Dark was coming on fast, and I was becoming more certain that we would not be off the wall before dark. The moon was three quarters full and I had natural light to rappel to. I love climbing and rappelling, and for all our problems and struggles 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, which made the guys laugh.

We had been doing this portage for thirteen hours. 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. I found a tree where we could set an anchor and insisted that we do a full rappel. We had come this far without injury and taking unnecessary risks now would be dangerous and ill advised.

It turned out that this cliff was thirty feet tall, and it was a very good thing we rappelled 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 10 p.m. that night. We all ran over the rocks toward the river, stripped off our clothing and bathed ourselves from the nasty, sweaty sticker bush, plants, branches, and 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!

Side Note: 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 partly cloudy and the sun was breaking through! And this was the case throughout the entire trip. The watch ended being our own personal weatherman, except that it was right where the TV weatherman is so often wrong.

Author: - Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
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