PORTAGES: 1 mandatory
WATERFALLS: One 20 ft
MAPS: Sucumbios province, Rio Cofanes
HAZARDS: Very very remote, box canyons.
SEASON: December-February only on a dryer season, (DRY)
TIME: 2/3 days +/-
CHARACTER: Totally expedition run the must amazing run ever, untouched jungle all the way, very committing canyons, good boat scout skill required and big cojones.
|Cofanes put in at la Sofia.|
Classic expedition run from the get go, just finding the river will be an adventure it self but you want to find the river looking low at the put in since its volume increases pretty quickly as the side creeks feed into the beast all the way down. It is very stunning how many waterfalls drop from the walls, the first of 3 gorges will be scoutable and short, the second one will be really hard to scout specially the first drop named the wardrobe, the next 2 rapids will be big and scary but the canyon will open up one last time before it swallows you in deep between really high walls as you enter the 3rd gorge for the next 15 km until you get to the confluence with EL DORADO. Hang tide as you meet this river and get ready for some of the most exciting big water. Is such a big contrast after being here after being in between walls for such long time feeling like you just want out and all the sudden everything turns so big and clear.
This section is named big water fear for the first 5 miles after the confluence and the next 5 miles below will turn in big water fun once you get use to the feel of this river, the action will easy up a notch and the scenario of this beautiful untouched big canyon full of blue macaws and thousands of parrots and other exotic species will impress you.
Brian Snyder wrote the story of the first descent of this run with Abe Herrera and Brandon Gonsky.
Morning, Day One. Somewhere along the border.
More guys with guns. Mauricio shifts in the front seat. Abe brings the car to a stop and goes through the motions – sunglasses, papers, questions. Where are you going, what are you doing, where are you from, they ask. I gaze out the window and try to look confident. Minutes pass. The guy with the big gun hands the papers back to Abe, and we pull away slowly.
Barely ten miles to the north lies rebel-controlled Colombia. While there are no official border crossings nearby, security here is high. Police and military are on constant alert for drugs and arms traffickers, and many in Ecuador believe that there is sympathy here for the guerillas.
Among travelers, there is no lack of kidnapping stories coming out of the frontier. Most of them are rumors at best, third-hand accounts of oil workers and businessmen snatched for ransom by professional criminals. Some of them are true however, like the story an engineer told us just before we left. The guerillas had attacked his drill rig one night, he said. He and a few others fled into jungle. There on their bellies in the mud, they listened as the rebels moved from shack to shack calling out their names.
“If they come for you,” Mauricio says to his son Abe, “you know nothing about the United States, you don´t live there, you´ve never even been close to it…you´re a college kid on vacation, okay?”
Abe nods, trying not to look concerned.
“What about me?” I ask.
“Tell them you´re from a really poor family,” says Mauricio
“Okay, okay…let´s quit the abduction talk papá,” says Abe, “we´re still in Ecuador yeah? And where we´re going is even farther from the border. There´s no rebel activity down there.”
“You don´t know that,” says his father.
He’s right. In fact, no one does. For over 20 years of kayak exploration in Ecuador, the Rio Cofanes has remained a mystery. Upon leaving the village of La Sofia, the Cofanes carves a 6000-foot deep trench through one of the most remote mountain ranges in South America. For 30 km it flows south to where it joins its sister, the Rio El Dorado. From the Dorado, another 30 km remain to the Rio Aguarico and the first road access.
Abe and I both agree that the heat will probably come early. The map is showing maximum gradients of 150-180 feet a mile, well within reason. Like many Andean runs, the river becomes less and less steep on its way to the Amazon. At least that’s what the map says. There are two problems, however.
The first is the abundance of crowded contour lines – not on the river itself, but along its banks. The rivers in northern Ecuador are infamous for walling up. We had all heard the horror stories from the Chingual – the next drainage east - of people paddling off into the void, of partners never seen again, epic bailouts, and terrifying rains. The road along the Chingual is never more than 5 km away. If the Cofanes sank into some unrunnable gorge deep in the jungle, would we be able to get around it? And if not, would retreat even be possible?
The other question mark is the flow. We have no idea how big the river will be at put-in, because the put-in is not on our map. It´s on the next quadrant north, along the border with Colombia. And nobody without military clearance is allowed to see it.
4:00 pm. Day One. The road to La Sofia.
Brandon and I wonder if we can jump from the truck fast enough to avoid being crushed as it goes over the edge. He thinks that we can. I’m not so sure. We have only known each other an hour, but I like his optimism. I’m not convinced he’s totally sane, though. Volunteering for an expedition of unknown length and difficulty, with two guys he’s never even met – the boy must have a screw loose somewhere. Then again, he probably thinks we’re the crazy ones.
Evening. Day 1. La Sofia Camp.
The river is big here, twice as large as we envisioned. It is classic Andean whitewater – continuous, pushy class IV-V peppered with polished, white granite boulders. It is steeper than the map suggests, but then again, we haven’t made it to the map yet.
On the approach to the river we ran into a pair of locals that claimed to have hiked all the way to the El Dorado. In what would dominate our thoughts for the next two days, they described an unrunnable, unportageable falls just above the union of the two rivers. How big? Neither of them could say for sure.
There was a beach just above it on the right, they said. Below that, the walls closed in, and escape was impossible. From the beach the locals said that they had crossed over the mountain to the El Dorado, and that it had taken them three hours. They had frowned upon feeling the weight of our loaded boats. With those, they said, it would take at least a day.
Watching the moonlight spread over the beach, I ask Abe if he thinks we’re headed for disaster.
“Don’t know bro,” he says, “this is Ecuador.”
That it is.
Dawn. Day 2.
“Dude, are you awake?!”
Brandon whispers frantically into my ear. I open my eyes to the day.
In slow, measured words he asks, “Can-you-please-get-this-spider-off-my-shoulder?”
I turn to see an arachnid the size of a hamster perched by his ear.
“Are you sure that’s a spider man? It looks more like a – “
“I don’t fucking care, just get it off me!”
I reach over to swat the beast, but it’s way too fast.
“Oh my God, it’s in my sleeping bag! Oh shit, oh shit!”
Brandon ejects from the bivy and sprints for the water. A few seconds later I see the spider tiptoe out of his bag, give a wink, and dart beneath a boulder.
The morning is clear. The water has easily dropped six inches from the previous night. Between swallows of oatmeal and chocolate bars, we go over the map one more time, memorizing the names of the bigger tributaries and guessing at potential landmarks. The mood is positive. At the river’s present pace, we should cover a lot of miles today, maybe even reach the El Dorado.
We also know better than to get our hopes up.
After breakfast we pack up camp and take one last look at the whitewater downstream. Shaking the critters out of his gear, Brandon discovers that a small family of spiders has moved into his drytop. One falls into his boat and disappears.
“What is up with these things?!” he asks.
Noon, Day Two. The Wardrobe.
The three of us sit in silence. Even at this distance, the roar of the gorge downstream rises above the rushing water. It is deep, like the rumble of an approaching storm. And like a storm, it is inevitable.
At the end of the horizon before us, 2000 cfs pounds through a pair of soaring black walls and corkscrews 15 feet down into a frightening vortex. The right side slams into an underwater boulder forming a sieve against the bedrock. From the left wall, a massive pillow boils and feeds back into the hole. Two more huge drops wait just behind it. At the end of the second, the river veers right and disappears. For its entire length a fortress of shiny, obsidian walls rises straight from the water, blocking any chance of escape.
Despite two hours of hacking through snake-infested jungle, clinging to cliff faces, and falling on our asses we still have gleaned no more than a glimpse of the great gateway rapid. Abe keeps shooting glances at the mountain ridge on river right. He’s thinking about the portage, about whether it’s possible or not. Brandon hasn’t spoken in an hour.
We all knew that it might come to this. Perhaps we had just hoped that it wouldn’t. Perhaps we thought we could have our Class V ‘to go’, to savor it whenever we wanted, instead of having it crammed down our throats.
Having the balls to say what Abe and I do not, Brandon finally speaks up.
“Dude, I’m scared,” he says.
“Me too,” I answer.
He takes a drink of water, starts to speak, then falls quiet.
Abe nods, “what if you guys tether me out there?”
“Like a strong swimmer,” he continues, “I can work along the left wall, maybe get foot hold or – “
“That’s a fucking brilliant idea!” says Brandon.
Galvanized by this stroke of genius, we beat feet downstream. Minutes later, Abe is in the water making his way along the left wall. Brandon and I hold the rope and hang on every signal. As he drifts closer to the lip, the current begins to tug. Brandon and I wedge in tighter.
Catching a cleft in the wall, Abe swings to his feet just a few meters from the edge of the rapid. I search his face for any sign of expression. He is a stone. He shifts on the underwater ledge, trying to get a better look. No avail. He looks down into the maelstrom, then back at us, down again, then back. He refuses to smile, but his eyes can’t hide a sudden optimism. It goes.
Minutes later, the three of us circle above it with nervous energy. Like children at the gateway to Narnia, we stand at the bridge of two worlds. Behind us is a world of light, familiarity, and comfort – the chance to still walk away. Before us awaits a world of darkness, mystery, and doubt. The door is open. I can hear it thundering over my left shoulder. I say goodbye to the others and step through The Wardrobe.
Afternoon, Day Two. Canyon of Angels.
They say in Ecuador that when angels come down to Earth they bring with them the scent of Heaven. Many explorers have returned from the mountains describing the most beautiful aromas in places where there are neither flowers nor trees. In the midst of the smell they feel a presence, they say, a feeling that someone is watching over them. Often it comes in their darkest moments, sweeping in like a warm breeze.
In the bottom of this great gorge, there must be angels. There could be no other reason that we have made it this far. Of the hundred or so rapids that we have run in the last two hours, less than a dozen were portageable. At any time the river could have sieved out, closed up, or simply gone underground. Yet the rapids keep going.
Iron-colored walls reach thousands of feet toward the sky. In places they bend together, shutting out all light. Hundreds of scarlet macaws screech from the cliffs above. I can feel a presence on my shoulder, yet I can’t quite put it into words. There is no vegetation here, yet the air is thick with a smell that we can’t explain.
7:00 p.m. Day Three. Araña Camp.
A steady downpour rains out dinner. Wolfing down hunks of tuna-and-cheese sandwich, we head for shelter. It has been raining now for three hours. This is the first significant downburst. I lay with my raincoat over top of me, so that the water leaking through the tarp won’t soak my sleeping bag.
It is soon dark. On our backs in the dirt, Brandon and I trade stories about epic floods on the Quijos. It’s just incredible, he says, how fast the water rises here, how that in just one night the river can go up ten feet. As if saying this suddenly reminds him of the rain, he stops abruptly to listen to the night.
In the silence, I think long about our situation. While not terrace living, our camp is significantly high. More importantly, it offers an escape route into the jungle, should we need it. With enough provisions, we could weather a flood here. I turn to ask Brandon how much food he has left, but he is already snoring.
1:00 a.m., Day Three. Araña Camp.
Can’t sleep. Rain hits the tarp in waves. Light, then hard, then light. In Spanish the verb for rain like this is chispear. It is more like a constant drizzle punctuated by brief downpours. It is also a sign that something bad is happening up in the highlands.
“The rapid downstream is getting louder,” whispers Abe.
We get up to move the boats. In the darkness, the sound of water is everywhere – the echo of distant whitewater, the splashing of waves against the shoreline, and the whispering of tiny droplets cutting through the heavy night air.
3:00 a.m., Day Three. ArañaCamp.
A roar like a freight train rises in the gorge upstream. Seconds later the wall of water slams into our bivy. Darkness engulfs me as I struggle to breath. I can’t tell which way is up. My lungs catch fire.
I bolt awake in my sleeping bag, gasping for breath. The air is thick with humidity. I listen for the roar, for the sound of water lapping near my feet. But it never comes. It is only the echo of distant rapids, and the heavy weight of the sky chispeando.
Dawn, Day Three. The Netherworld.
We awake to more rain. Big, warm drops of it splash in my oatmeal, mixing with the Slim-Fast powder and turning the whole thing into a soggy gruel. I look over at Abe, who was awake all night too.
“You look like shit, bro,” I say.
“Thanks, gorgeous,” he says, “you don’t look too bad yourself.”
He grabs the camp stove and rolls his kayak onto its side. Two large cracks split the hull in the back and center. Using the stove as a torch, he carefully welds slivers of plastic over the fissures. Brandon, himself in need of a makeover, soon arrives with his own 6-inch crack under the seat.
I take a gulp of soggy porridge and look over the map. Should we stay or go? I have no clue where we are. We could be minutes from the El Dorado, or we could be days. It is impossible to see anything beyond the canyon walls.
I wish it would stop fucking raining!
The rain is maddening. Our whole survival right now depends on the water level. With one hard deluge in the mountains, the river could jump a meter and leave us stranded. It will just be a matter of where. If we stay in camp and it floods, we will run out of food and be forced to hike days through the jungle. If we go on and it floods…we’re going to need more angels.
After a brief congress, we decide to go. Dropping through the opening rapid, I notice that the log that was there ten minutes ago is gone. We round the corner and I feel my stomach make a fist.
The walls are barely a boatlength wide. Their presence is suffocating. It feels like the entire weight of the Earth’s crust is pressing down upon us. This is no longer even a gorge we are in, but a pit, an abyss of black light, black rock, and black water.
Thunder echoes off the walls so loud that we are forced to shout from only a few feet away. Huge river-wide holes stack on top of one another. I look around for any kind of break, scout, or portage. There is no escape.
For the next quarter mile we fight for our lives, digging through walled-in hydraulic after walled-in hydraulic. Out in front, the stress of laying the line is nothing compared to the anxiety of watching the others come through. They are the longest seconds of my life. A million rescue scenarios run through my head. None of them are very convincing.
At a short break in the action, the boys hold my boat as I step out onto the river left cliff. Climbing perhaps 30 feet up, I find a lookout point in what will be the only scout in this canyon. It is more of the same – walls, horizons, powerful holes. Only now, the sieves we were dreading have finally arrived. We can hear their sinister sucking noises from the eddies above the rapids. If we were anywhere else, we would all be scouting this next series. But there’s no other option. It is still raining, and we’ve got to keep moving.
It is a mile, maybe more, maybe less to the sanctuary of Red Canyon. Far from a peaceful oasis, this place feels almost light compared to the darkness of the Netherworld. Here, a landslide on river right has breached the omnipresent walls. There is light, real sunlight. It bounces off the suddenly turquoise water. The cliffs are red, not black. And for the first time since Araña Camp, we are all standing on the bank.
Our relief is short-lived however, as the walls once again press down upon us. Again, the darkness takes over. Like miners tunneling through the earth, we sink into a labyrinth of house-sized boulders and twisting passages. The sieves are back, lurking around every corner. The rapids are getting bigger, steeper. We’ve got to be getting close.
No one has said it, but we are all thinking about the waterfall.
‘You will see a beach on river right. Beyond that, escape is impossible.’
The rocks and walls squeeze tighter. I can’t see shit. Around every corner awaits the unrunnable end. Where is this thing!
After an hour of mind games, we come to a small break in the gorge. A slab of rock sticks out of the jungle on river right. It is sizable, and the only one of its kind. Below it, the river disappears around a corner.
“You think this is it?” asks Abe.
“It is a beach…I guess,” says Brandon.
Like the others, I’m not totally sold. “What exactly did those guys say about the falls?” I ask.
Abe answers, “they both said ‘beach on the right above it, hundred meters long, gotta go up over the mountain – “
“Right. But how did they describe the waterfall itself?”
“They didn’t really. They just said it was unrunnable. One said it was about twenty meters high, but broken up. The other said that he didn’t know for sure, but that it landed on rocks. I don’t know, seems kind of…”
Brandon chimes in, “I think if I saw a walled-in 100-footer, I’d probably remember it.”
“Exactly,” says Abe.
“You don’t forget a waterfall like that,” says Brandon.
“So what do you think it is then?” asks Abe.
“I think it’s something smaller. Perhaps…” I want to say ‘runnable’, but that would be a sure jinx.
“Whatever it is, I think we can get closer,” says Brandon.
“I do too,” I say.
Abe pauses for a moment and looks up into the jungle. Dark circles belie the fatigue in his eyes. In all those nights of staring at the map, he never dreamed that he would one day be here, right here, locked in this epic gorge on the first descent of his beloved river. Last night, as we huddled in the cave waiting out the rain, he told me that sometimes it still doesn’t feel real, that he has to pinch himself to make sure that he’s not dreaming. He blinks twice and turns to us.
“You guys are fucking crazy, you know that?” he says.
Brandon and I smile at each other.
“Let’s go,” says Abe.
We move carefully through every rapid. I watch the walls obsessively, looking for any kind of retreat point. The river descends again into the labyrinth of boulders and sieves. Every rapid is taller, harder than the last. I search the sky for any glimpse of the canyon above. Another drop goes by, and another. I hop out to scout and run smack into the waterfall.
It is not a falls at all, but a massive landslide. Entire chunks of mountain, like scattered pieces of coal, fill the riverbed. Water flows under and through them. Whirlpools churn and twist, then disappear beneath the boulders. A hundred yards below, the river resurfaces above a stark horizon – an unscoutable, unportageable, 20-25 foot falls that guards the entrance to yet another walled-in Class V gorge.
Had it come earlier in the trip, the falls and ensuing gorge might have forced some considerable deliberation. But after the last two days, Brandon barely gives it a blink.
“It goes,” he shouts from the lookout on river right.
“What’s it look like beyond that?” I shout back.
“And beyond that?”
“Looks like it’s opening up,” he says, “it almost seems like…”
“Like there’s a river coming in from the right?” I ask.
He leaves the affirmative hanging. At this stage of the game, neither of us is willing to get our hopes up. Surviving this gorge is hard enough without the added weight of emotions. It does not escape me that we are seeking the Rio El Dorado. I think back to the Edgar Allen Poe poem:
“Over the mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldy ride,”
The shade replied –
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
Is there really an opening in the distance? I wonder. Maybe it’s just the claustrophobia talking. The walls are getting to be a drag. We all take turns in the scouting perch, decide it’s a ‘go’, and head for the boats.
We bang and cuss our way through the portage – the only one of the trip. To our great relief, the spout on river left turns out to be the cleanest 20-footer in Ecuador. We take turns running and photographing it. Before we left Ibarra three days ago, Abe had asked if we could name one of the rapids after his dog Taz, who died just hours before our trip. We decide to call it Big Taz Falls.
Feeling the momentum swing, we charge into the final gorge. Walls and darkness close in again. But this time, there is literally light at the end of the tunnel. As we approach the end, the canyon squeezes down for the grand finale – squeezing, squeezing, and then – we rocket into the glorious world of daylight. I blink my eyes. Is it really? To our right, steams in a freight train of powder-green water – The Rio El Dorado. We made it.
Screaming, fist-pumping, confident that the worst is over, we float obliviously into the hardest whitewater of the trip.
One hour later…
“I thought the map said this shit should be over!” yells Brandon after running one of the biggest rapids of his life, blind.
“Map said this shit should have been over yesterday!” replies Abe.
“It can’t go on forever,” I try to sound believable.
“Yes it can!”
“We’ve dropped a lot of gradient man,” says Abe, “there can’t be much more to go.”
“Tell that to 150-feet-a-mile out there,” says Brandon, pointing to the next horizon.
I have paddled steep, big-water rivers before. Most of them are chaotic, unstructured affairs where making the line is simply a matter of staying in the flow. But this is different. Here, we have stumbled onto one of the rarest combinations of the kayaking world – big water and definition.
It is pure intimidation. Huge, breaking waves push and shove in every direction. I feel like a ball of yarn being batted around by an ornery housecat. Every rapid is a grit-fest, a fight to stay on line, and out of the massive holes. My arms feel like lead. Abe is visibly exhausted, missing strokes and falling behind. Brandon is getting hungry and cranky. It doesn’t help that he hates big water.
Working through a series of off-set holes, I look down to see black walls closing in on either side. Not again. This time though, they are a novelty, a memory of their former presence. This time, the river between them flows peaceful and calm. In a few minutes they melt back into the hillside, and the dreaded Big Water Fear subsides to Big Water Fun. It isn’t long before we are crashed out on the beach, soaking in the last rays of afternoon sun.
Kayak Session Magazine link : check out more about this classic Ecuadorian gem hidden in the Northern Andes
Rio Hollin Chico, First descent December 23th 2011
Another day in Tena after kayaking, 6 pm and there is a group of kayakers that are looking for an adventure, they have set them self to go hike up on the upper Jondachi and check out what it looks like, Nate Bell and Mike are paddling with me, and we had planned to go to Baeza to paddle the next day, then Mike suggested we should join the team that is wanting to go to the upper upper Jondachi, and he will take a day off if I can find something fun for him to do. Well he ended up going into the jungle for about 6 hours, hiking and sweating into shared rubber boots, taking a mud bath and eating a tradicional grilled fish in a leave. So he ended up taking one for the team allowing us to go do a First D.
9 pm at the bar, waiting for people to show up to set the details for the next day, no many people around.
10:30 excuses started to come up, work, wedding, to early, not sure......
11:30 Nate and I are the only people in for boating the next day...
12:00 am looking at some maps and checking our options, I had checked out this topo map finding a trail marked along a ridge getting us pretty close to the river, we decided to get up t 6am and hit the Hollin Chico .
5:45 am Nate knock on my door and off we go to find some truck driver size breakfast, we don't know when we will eat again and Nate has to push it hard, he is not use to eat so much that early.
7:45 am Driving slow up the hill towards guacamayos mountain range, found a couple people to ask how to get to the river, they did not know much but one lady said she heard the people getting down to the river somewhere farder up the hill and to the right.
Anyway we asked permission to go down towards some fields that we where told were on the hillsides, a lady also said just keep going down along the ridge until you hear the river, and the sound of it will lead you to it.
With machete on hand and loaded boats down the hill we slided down, beautiful day, we could see as far as the sky allowed us, the big glaciers of the Cotopaxi showed up on the south majestic views as we walk down into the deep jungle of Guacamayos, muddy trails Ecuadorian style, and we started to hear the river at bottom. First visual it looked clean and low, good sign for a first D and it was raining hard the day before.
couple of hours into the hike we figured that the hardest part will be the last 1000 feet, started to get steeper, steeper and less of a trial, well trial was long gone, and the machete came really helpful as we slide down on our butts holding the boats by a leash preventing them from diving into the green bushes.
Slow moving and all the sudden we hear the scariest roar ever, I stopped trying to ignore it almost cuz it was unreal, too close and did not hear clearly where it came from but it felt close very close.
I didn't for a second or 2 and Nate asked me if I had heard it. I confirmed with my head as I was gripping on the Machete, I was expecting what ever was there will turn around and bail out trying to scape, but in stead as we took couple more steps forward the roar was this time even louder and way to close, inside my self I was freaking out thinking there is no way to run in such a dense bush and steep terrain, but I figured I could move faster than Nate so if someone had to be used as bait and while the other use the machete on the beast it will be a good plan...haha just kidding Nate.
But Nate started to freak out and could not hide it, I could feel it on his voice and his buddy language, he came close to me thinking Ill defend him from what ever was there with the machete, I took a second to calm my self and hopefully we don't both freak out, but I started to wack all bushes around as with the machete, so we have a wider range of view, before anything charge at us, we started to throw stuff all directions we could not hear anything, what ever was there was not backing up, so we had no more option to keep moving, and once more the sound came out, this time weaker and weaker as we walked farder, and I figured out that the sound was coming from some bambu spikes catching on my kayak ..... I never felt so good about being stupid. Knowing that we will make it to the river was so rewarding that the next hour of bushwacking in the jungle was not a problem...specially after I had told Nate we might be spending the night in the jungle survival mode with no gear for it since no one wanted to add a couple pounds of weight to bring the tent...
12:30 after a good washing of all of our gear and boats we started running the Hollin Chico
Quality steep creeking, continous and low volume run, you want it a little lower rather than higher, it looks like the URCU-SIQUI (tributary of the Upper Jondachi) the levels for this one seem to either low or high, great on a clear day after a all night rain, there is about 4 major drops that a high water will be a concern but everything in between looks great, one more ecuadorian classic to add to the list. class IV mostly and gorgeous pristine jungles.
We need kayaks in Ecuador, there is no retailers here and the lack of gear and boats make it a very limited sport for many local kids, we commit to teach kayaking and facilitate access of gear to local kids with non-profit porpoises, help us to grow this sport in our country! come kayak with us and you can be