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The Thrill of Canyoneering

Barranca del Cobre
Copper Canyon - Mexico

Written By Shane Burrows
December 17, 2002

 

          This story was originally written for a contest sponsored by the American Canyoneering Association.  It's now obvious that this narrative was beyond the cultural taste of the Chef Boyardee crowd.  How do I know this you ask?  Cause it didn't win a damn thing, so I published it here to be read by a more refined and elegant audience.

          As with any good campfire story some of the facts and details may have been exaggerated. This is the way it happened, more or less, and I say that because I have a tendency to lie a lot and get facts and places wrong. But what the hell, every good campfire story has a little of the reality distorted.


Chapter 1: Tequila and a Senorita

          Nothing like tequila and a spicy senorita to make a good day phenomenal. However, that was not the reason for my travels to Mexico. A long time friend and genuine, flag saluting, U.S. Marine by the name of Rebel Jackson had invited me down to explore what he considers his private canyoneering preserve. And before you ask, “yes”, Rebel is his god given name.

          Rebel gained his canyoneering expertise growing up in Southern Utah before running off to join the Marines. I had not been out to play with Rebel for over a year, not since he had become an instructor at the Marine’s Scout/Sniper School. As Rebel is so fond of saying “Nothing like visiting exotic countries, meeting fascinating people and killing them.”

          Oh but I digress, I was finally getting my chance to explore Copper Canyon, known as “Barranca del Cobre” in Spanish. Copper Canyon is actually a series of large, interconnected canyons at the southernmost end of the Rocky Mountains. These canyons were carved by a series of rivers from volcanic rock and cover a vast area almost four times larger and 280 feet deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon. Often promoted as the largest canyon system in North America offering unlimited canyoneering potential, this trip had the promise of becoming an extraordinary experience.

          Rebel and I teamed up in Tucson, Arizona before boarding our flight to Los Mochis, Mexico. Nothing beats flying Mexicali Air. After strapping the chicken crates to the roof, lifting our feet as the pig runs down the aisle and winding the rubber bands we are airborne.

This is how I remember the "Bar Car"......Spinning
          We planned to begin our twelve-day escapade by riding the notorious Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad through the Northern Sierra Madres. The train track is an engineering sensation that navigates a breath-taking route through high desert, along towering canyon walls, next to sheer drop-offs, and over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels offering extraordinary vistas. Best of all, the trip can be enjoyed from the comfort of the “Bar Car”...Yeehaw... We knew it was going to be a unique train ride, when less than 30 minutes out of Los Mochis, the trio of beauties from Texas started flashing their boobs at the local farmers along the train track. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila...floor.

          I was exhilarated when the train finally screeched to a stop at our destination; the festivity in the Bar Car was reaching a fevered pitch and trouble was going to erupt if several patrons didn’t receive some fresh air.


Chapter 2: No Bolts, Guess we have to use Skill

          The next day, as we sweated the tequila out of our systems on the approach hike to our intended canyon, the discussion turned to the Tarahumara Indians who have made Copper Canyon their home. In spite of encroaching civilization, these simple people have managed to preserve their ancient traditional life-style, living in caves and simple shelters while practicing subsistence farming.

          The first canyon we planned to descend was an intriguing and little known side slot that Rebel spotted four years earlier. Our trip down this slot could possibly be a first descent. Any mention of a first descent always reminds me of the age old question "How do you distinguish between being off-route and putting in a first descent?"

          We figure the canyon will require four or five days if we cruise. With a little luck it will take us one day to approach, two days in the canyon and one day to walk out. Light and fast, yeah baby, no tents, sleeping bags or stove. Most canyoneers drag far too much gear through a canyon with them. If light is right, than lighter is righter.

          As we begin to descend into the slot I can’t help but think there is nothing like canyoneering in an exotic place where you must be totally reliant upon your partner and your skills. Not much in the way of Search and Rescue in Mexico. Kind of a scary thought if you stop to think about it.

          What would you like to know about the canyon? In addition to a gorgeous slot, leafy green hanging gardens, crystal clear flowing water, glorious company, remarkable weather, 14 rappels, numerous swims and a hell of a lot of fun, there is not much else to tell.

          One particular section in the canyon was more difficult than the rest. Rebel made the comment “no bolts, guess we have to use skill.” For some strange reason this comment had us both rolling on the ground with laughter for the next ten minutes.

          The Mexican canyons are very different from what we had become accustomed to descending back home. The Mexican canyons are a lot like making love to a fat girl. They have lots of room to maneuver, are slow paced, pretty face, relatively easy and a bunch of fun. The Southern Utah canyons around Robbers Roost and Escalante where we learned our craft are more like a heroin addicted New York fashion model, extremely skinny, hauntingly beautiful, difficult, temperamental and most of all, very dangerous and unpredictable.


Chapter 3: ??? Snake ???

          We had completed the technical section of the canyon and continued strolling downstream, admiring the phenomenal scenery, and the gentle weather. Suddenly, Rebel hollers “FREEZE!” The first thought to cross my mind was “SNAKE”. Damn I hate snakes and this buzz-tail had still not started to rattle. I begin to consider what other types of exotic and venomous snakes inhabit this part of the world and how many hundreds of miles it is to the nearest anti-venom.

          Rebel whispers “don’t even breath” as he gingerly slips out of his pack and begins to creep forward while pulling out a knife. All this time I am thinking “This dumb ass Marine is going to try killing a venomous snake with his knife!” As Rebel approached I could see it was not a snake that held his interest but a thin fishing line stretched six inches above the faint path that captured his total attention. The same fishing line which was currently stretched across my shoe.

          Five minutes later, with me still pretending to be a statue, Rebel walks out of the bushes holding what he calls a “Bouncing Betty.” Next he spews out some technical military jargon about it being an M16 Bounding Fragmentation Landmine. It seems this nasty item is pressure or tripwire activated. When activated, the igniter sets off a propelling charge, lifting the mine about 3 feet into the air. The mine then ignites a main charge, causing massive injury to a person's head and chest.

          I am really shaken...”What the fuck is it doing here, this ain’t no fuckin' war zone.” Next question, “how in the hell did you see it?” Rebel tells me the Marine Scout/Snipers practice this shit all the time and the tripwire looked like something from 101 Scout/Sniper School. Rebel chalks it up to instinct; I chalk it up to all my days in Sunday School finally paying dividends.

          Rebel volunteers to lead out and I let him, I certainly have no clue what to look for. We move very slow and methodically down the canyon. Rounding a corner we enter a cornfield. Looking closer we notice that each stock of corn is supporting a small marijuana plant. Welcome to Mexico is my only thought.

          Rebel turns and whispers “now we know what the booby trap was set to protect.” He also suspects that the field might be guarded and will almost certainly contain more booby traps. We entered from a direction where visitors were not expected to arrive from, which means the route most lightly defended. The bottom end of the canyon will almost certainly contain a nightmare of cruel surprises.

          Did I mention how important it is to select your partners wisely? Almost any other partner and I would now have a few extra assholes. I am scared shitless, but my partner has flipped into Marine mode and is discussing booby traps and the possibility of armed guards, he is one cool customer. As for me, I just pretend I am a bobble head doll and nod whenever I am asked a question. Hell, I’m in so far over my head already that it’s ridiculous.

          Rebel rearranges some of our gear so nothing bright is showing, nothing is protruding from our packs and nothing to clatter and make a noise. Thank god we are both wearing earth tone clothing. Rebel decides to move off the trail and circle the perimeter of the marijuana field through the thick brush. He believes the thick brush will be the safest path. We already know our only escape is down canyon, there is no chance of going back the way we came.

          Damn….the travel is slow, hot and miserable, but there is no way in hell I am going to complain. I am on an unimaginable adrenaline high causing my senses to become hypersensitive. I am confident that if a mouse farts at 100 paces, I’ll both hear and smell it. Our plan is to be invisible to anyone watching over the field and not get our asses blown off. Rebel refers to this type of travel as “ghosting” and I have every intention of being the best damn ghost ever. Rebel is the professional and this is now his show.

          Prowling the next mile down canyon I am amazed at the size of the marijuana field. Once mature, this field is going to be worth some major coin on the streets back home. Damn……I hate drugs almost as much as I hate snakes, and these drugs appear as if they might have a direct effect on my health.


Chapter 4: Cigarettes and Body Odor

Cash Crop          Cautiously crawling down canyon through the tick brush is taking forever. Finally the canyon narrows to about 10 feet wide for a short section and we can see a small hut on the downstream side of the constriction. Even worse is that we can see two men standing beside the hut smoking cigarettes with rifles slung over their shoulders.

          The gentleman nearest us is armed with a Ruger Mini 14 with an extended magazine. The Mini 14 is a wicked semi-automatic weapon, which fires the same .223 cartridge as the U.S. Militaries M16 assault rifle. His associate is furthest from us and is carrying a Heckler & Koch (H&K) MP5. The MP5 is a vicious sub-machine gun that fires the popular 9mm cartridge. This very reliable weapon is the choice of counter-terrorist organizations throughout the world.

          Rebel drags me into the thickest brush around and whispers that we should hole up until night to get through the constriction and past the hut. I ask about stumbling into booby traps at night but Rebel shows little concern. He doesn’t believe that the guards would be so foolish as to set landmines on their own doorstep. We will probably encounter more booby traps but they will be on the far side of the hut.

          We consider gaining the attention of the guards and just explaining our situation but figure we will be shot on sight. Or worse, we could be mistaken for DEA agents, tortured and than shot. We decide that trying to explain in English, the sport of canyoneering, to the local Spanish speaking drug cartel would probably be bad for our health.

          Rebel tells me to get some sleep because it will be a long night. Than he rolls over and closes his eyes. I ask about posting a sentry but he sees little use since the guards will not be patrolling their own backyard. Rebel never does tell me just how in the hell I am supposed to fall asleep.

          I feel someone shaking me awake as I roll my eyes open, it’s Rebel and he is ready to move. I still can’t believe I actually fell asleep. It’s just past midnight and Rebel has been awake for several hours watching the hut. There is a light on inside with conversation and laughter drifting through the cool night air. Rebel believes the marijuana field is only guarded by the two that we glimpsed earlier and that they are both inside the hut.

          We move out to the trail and crawl with Rebel on point and blindly feeling for tripwires. We move relatively fast down the trail for 200 yards and sneak past the hut. The night air near the hut is thick with the smell of cigarette smoke and stale human body odor. 100 feet beyond the hut Rebel drops into some really thick bushes while I am still kneeling in the middle of the trail. At that moment the door to the hut swings open and a guard steps outside, rifle slung over the shoulder, and begins to walk in our direction. My back is to the guard and I solidify in my kneeling position. I know the guard will be momentarily night blind after stepping from the lighted hut. I quickly ponder my options as I dread the thought of bullets biting into my back. Just as I plan to leap into the thick brush and run like hell the guard stops, turns, and begins to urinate on a bush before returning to the hut. Damn, that was a heart stopper.


Chapter 5: Old Boss Hog

          I slide into the thick brush next to Rebel. He whispers in my ear that we should hole up for an hour until the moon rises. He believes the added light will help him detect tripwires. It will also make us somewhat more visible if anyone happens to be watching.

          We now have the choice of following the trail and doubtlessly encountering more booby traps or circling around through the thick brush. I vote for the thick brush. Somehow I just feel safer with the dense brush surrounding my tender skin.

          We spend the remainder of the night skulking through the brush trying to make our way down to the main river. We do not confront anymore booby traps or guards. After reaching the main river we feel somewhat secure since this canyon is sporadically visited by adventure travelers and a good trail follows the river. It also appears the trail is commonly used by the local Tarahumara Indians. From here on down we really move fast.

          God I can’t wait to get back to civilization. It takes us two more days of hiking down river to reach the nearest Mexican town. We report the incident to the local authority but get little response. My best guess is that old Boss Hog is fully aware of the local cash crop. We decide it is best not to push the incident much further in this isolated town. This doesn’t look like the type of place that would miss a couple of gringo’s interested in destroying the towns leading economic export.

          Adios....Next train and we are out of here....


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Copyright 2002, Shane Burrows