Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rio Colca: IV

November 16, 2008 (ish)

After an epic hike to the bottom of one of the world's most dramatic canyons, we set up camp on the beach in the small village of Canco, Peru. The famous Colca River was a calm trickle of algae as we got excited to run another world classic. We were all humbled and awed by sitting at the bottom of a canyon over twice as deep as any in North America.
The thought of venturing downstream should have had all rather nervous as well, but we knew the Colca gets run commercially, had some beta on portages, and heard the whitewater was rather easy, at least compared to the Mapacho and Apurimac we had run back in October. We were just in for a good time in a mind-blowing, remote canyon. Hiking out here is not an option.

In the morning we made it about 12 minutes downstream before finding vistas that warranted a photo stop. Another ten minutes downstream, we had to stop once again. This would be the pace for the next three days. The canyon had our mouths hanging wide open, but the water flow had us rather nervous. We almost had to get out of our boats twice in the first half hour to get through shallow sections.
To our relief, a tributary joined us on the right, more than doubling our flow. The water coming in was crystal clear, and almost glowed bright blue. Even coming from the Northwest, this was the most breathtakingly beautiful water I've ever seen. For the rest of our trip the river would be clear and cold, making us Oregonians feel right at home.

Shortly after lunch, the action started. A small creek joined us from the right, a massive wall rose over a thousand feet high above the left bank, and the river dropped out of sight. We scouted and found a very manageable class IV rapid.
We all came through with out trouble and I brought up the rear. But in the pool below, whistles were blaring. Everyone was waving me over to the river-right eddy, away from the wall.

Behind me, and right where I'd been, small rocks were tumbling off the cliff 1000 feet overhead into the river. After Zak completed the rapid, a chunk the size of a softball landed right next to his boat. Luckily, the big one missed him. But a smaller rock, perhaps golf-ball sized, struck him square in the shoulder. We were trapped in the bottom of a massive gorge with no way out but downstream. So we pulled over and geared down.
Zak was about as fine as one could be after being hit by a rock at terminal velocity. No broken bones, no blood, no damaged gear. So we took the opportunity to sit on a beach for a while. The whole time, small rocks kept plunging into the river at the base of the cliff across from us. Now and then one would even reach the shore we sat on.

Eventually we were ready to continue downstream. The steady rockslide still hadn't ceased, so it was a rush for each of us to get to the water, hop in our boats, and get the hell out of there before getting hit my more falling debris. We made it out safely, but rockfalls were first on all of our minds.
We were just entering what we knew to be the first gorge of class IV rapids and unknown length. When we think of rock dodging in kayaks, the rocks usually aren't moving. So a whole new element was added. Furthermore, it was getting late. We started looking for campsites within the gorge.

We found one nice looking bench with lots of flat spots. It was also on the opposite side of the river from the rockfalls. Oddly, the "flat" space was ground I've never seen before or since. There was a thick layer of fine dust resembling snow. When we tried to walk through it, we sank up to our knees. There was just enough consolidated dirt for us to sleep on and we didn't see any rockfall debris, so we discussed camping there for the night.
Just then we heard a rumble on the canyon wall above us. We watched in amazement as a boulder the size of beachball came trundling downhill, right across our proposed campsite and vanished into the dust field. Gone. Along with god only knows how much other fallout. We kept going.

After a few more great class IV rapids, we happened upon a great spot. It was tight, but protected on both sides from wind and and overhanging wall kept us safe from falling rocks. We finally calmed down a little and settled into where we were. For the rest of the trip, we didn't have any problems.

The next morning we quickly paddled out of the first gorge through a few more rapids. The whitewater was more challenging that I had been led to believe. We all welcomed the challenge and bounced down through countless great rapids with many fun moves.

As the morning wore on, we began scouting more and more, in anticipation for the upcoming portages. Yet every scout revealed more clean drops. This run was shaping up to be a true classic.

As though the canyon wasn't breathtaking all the way down, we rounded one corner and were truly blown away. On river left, a small creek was cresting the horizon more than a thousand feet above our heads.
The water fell in a series of cascades down into the river. The wind near the lip of the waterfall was whipping the ribbon of water back and forth so some drops wouldn't even reach the bottom. High above, three andean condors soared on 11-foot wingspans. We decided it was an appropriate time for lunch and ate in a huge protected cavern across from the cascade.

Downstream, we all took turns scouting each horizon line for the portages and each time the scout would give clear beta to the rest on yet another great drop. The whitewater was continually exceeding our expectations.

As the canyon opened up a bit, we saw a rusty old cable crossing and something we really didn't expect: people. The two Peruvians maybe expected us even less, but were still friendly. They were at the bottom of the canyon for a couple days fishing for camarones: crayfish. In another day a mule team would come down to haul their catch up to the market to sell. But in the mean time, the gentlemen were more than happy to sell us whatever we wanted. And with that, we had fresh meat for the night.

Eventually we entered another narrow canyon and got out to scout a chunky boulder pile. This was clearly the first portage. And a cool portage it was. With teamwork, we passed all the boats up over enormous boulders towards the bottom of the rapid. Adjacent to the last drop, we lowered our boats into a cavernous space with a pool at the bottom. There, we got back in our boats underneath all the rocks and paddled out through a tiny porthole. Portage complete.

Shortly thereafter, we found camp for the night and got to cooking another delicious meal over the fire.

The next morning we only ran one rapid before arriving at the next portage. This one was a bit more technical, requiring us to walk the first part on the left before getting cliffed out. We then ferried across in a decent pool before walking the second drop on the right. The second part was runnable, but more water would have made it much more attractive.

The second portage marked the heart of Polish Canyon, the last gorge of the Colca named after the original explorers. We paddled out and in true Peruvian expedition fashion, had no shuttle set. We continued downriver to where the road parallels the river and carried our boats up. Just down the street, a small store had beer for sale.
So we drank on the side of the road waiting for a ride. An hour and a half later, a local collectivo came by. We tied our boats up on the roof, piled into the small van with the other 13 people inside, and moved on to our next river.