Tough Questions in the Sacred Canyon: Emergency Rescue Leaves Expedition Paddlers Looking for Answers

Venta1
Andy Cochrane

After a sweaty nap and a lukewarm Dos Equis, I gazed across our sandy campsite hidden in the heart of Chiapas. At the end of our first day, we had sprawled out soaked gear like Legos in my childhood bedroom. Well into the lush canyon of Rio La Venta, we’d had our first tastes of the most technical, Class IV whitewater ahead. And yet still hours before a normal dinnertime, we had nothing but time. Wyatt and I agreed to rig a hammock between rock pillars some 40 feet apart with two of our throw-ropes.

While tensioning the ropes with a modified Z-drag system, I stopped and asked, “Why do we keep doing stuff like this?” Aware that I was half-joking, Wyatt quickly replied, “I don’t know, but I doubt we ever stop.”

His response seemed innocuous enough in the moment. I had no idea then, however, just how much that question ‘why’ would remain so unresolved — especially given how much we would come to reckon with our doubts about the need to stop.

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Andy Cochrane

The journey began a couple months prior, buying tickets for Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. There I planned to rendezvous with my two paddling partners Wyatt Roscoe and Luke Walker, grab groceries, and then take an hour-long taxi ride to our put-in at El Aguacero. We’d budgeted five days, taking PTO and scheduling Out Of Office emails accordingly, to paddle 50 miles of La Venta to its terminus in a reservoir called La Garaza. Compared to many trips this remote, the logistics were straightforward, lulling us into the belief that the rest of the trip would follow suit.

Arriving at dawn at the small provincial reserve centered around the Aguacero waterfall, we hiked our gear down 750 concrete steps to the river, eager to get on the water. Each of us had flown to Mexico with an Alpacka Wolverine, the newly launched packraft from the family-run Colorado business. A trip like La Venta is only possible with inflatables. And while they don’t handle like hardshell kayaks, it’s hard to argue with the adventure opportunities that packrafts have opened up. After years of dragging Alpacka crafts through jungles, over rock gardens, and across tundra, I’ll confidently vouch for their durability, too.

Running through our gear one last time as we squirreled it into drybags, and then stuffed these bags inside our packraft tubes, everything seemed like it was falling into place. We had selected late October for the water-flow, and despite the river running higher than expected, 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) was more than manageable. Forecasts called for a chance of rain every day, but no large storms. As we would later learn, the rainy season in Chiapas can turn into monsoon season faster than the local weatherman might suggest.

As the southernmost province of Mexico, Chiapas is unlike the rest of the country, at least as far as ecology goes. The land is dense, green, and lush, covered in rolling hills and small cattle and goat farms, with a web of dispersed communities across it. Rivers weave through the landscape, and a few carve deep canyons into the limestone bedrock. Many of these canyons are challenging if not impossible to access. Locals referred to our target river, La Venta, as the Sacred Canyon.

VentaFalls
Andy Cochrane

Our second river day was much like the one that preceded it. Light rain, some sun, and seemingly endless technical whitewater. Nearly every bend brought more eddies, waves, and holes to navigate. The river continued to grow with frequent tributaries, some entering the river as waterfalls flowing out of holes in the rock. With the added volume, the whitewater gradually became more powerful and pushy. At the same time, we settled into a steady diet of boat scouting, eddy hopping, and picking our way down the longer, more committing sets. This was still well within our pay grade.

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Andy Cochrane

The three of us, although not guides or professional paddlers, were quite experienced. We’d been fortunate to paddle rivers in the Canadian Arctic, Norway, New Zealand, iconic waterways in Wyoming, Idaho, eastern Oregon, and nearly a dozen trips down the Grand Canyon, combined. Last year we paddled 125 miles of open ocean nonstop, from Havana to Key West. We had shared enough waves, paddle strokes, and suffering to have a deep trust in each others’ judgment – when Luke or Wyatt had a gut instinct that something was off, I’d always listen.

VentaCanyon
Andy Cochrane

Because of this trust, the three of us laughed like kids on a playground when we paddled together. Most of the whitewater had allowed us to drop in simultaneously and poke fun at the unlikely fool who got stuck on a shallow pillow or wedged between rocks. By early afternoon, the lighthearted games continued. Our only worry was getting ahead of schedule, so we found a flat-ish ledge on the left side of the river and pulled our boats out. It felt nice to enjoy a lazy afternoon. If this story was ever adapted into a screenplay, this would be the intermission.

Venta3
Andy Cochrane

Around 6 p.m. the rain started, but unlike the light showers in the last couple days, it was a heavy downpour. We crawled into our tent and tried to relax to the sound of the rain on the fly. Less than a half-hour later, Wyatt started puking. Two hours later, Luke joined him. Each exited the tent and emptied their stomachs on an almost hourly interval. Just after 2 a.m. on what had become a routine puke break, Wyatt shouted at the two of us, “The water is almost up to the tent!” Of all the bad things to hear in the middle of the night, this was one of the worst.

Andy Cochrane

Quickly dashing out of the tent without wasting time to put on clothes, I looked around with my headlight. The water had indeed rose significantly, almost splashing the walls of our tent. It was also close to our boats, which we quickly dragged out of danger. The water completely covered the ledge we had eaten dinner on just hours earlier. The fun set of whitewater adjacent to our campsite was now raging, with large holes and long waves trains visible even in the dark.

In swift movements fueled by adrenaline, we moved the rocks holding the rain fly and shuffled the tent as high as it could go, bordering the jungle wall. After a few deep breaths to fully survey the scene, we agreed the river was nearly two feet higher than when we went to bed, and at least double the flow. Worried, but too tired to make decisions, we huddled in the tent, trying to sleep.

The next morning, after a slow oatmeal breakfast that Luke and Wyatt struggled to stomach, we decided to keep paddling. Sure, the water was higher, but it didn’t look dangerous and we didn’t have any great alternatives. Hoping the two of them would rally from the stomach bug, we pushed off. The first red flag came early, as I broke a paddle on my fifth stroke and swam the first full set of whitewater. Annoyed and marginally concerned, we agreed to move more methodically downstream. Luke helped me assemble our spare paddle and we continued, making decent headway for an hour or two.

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Andy Cochrane

By midday the canyon started to tighten, accelerating the river and making the whitewater much more powerful. Making things worse, we started making mistakes. Without fluids or energy, Luke and Wyatt struggled to paddle, often taking breaks between every set. Decision-making on the river suffered as we all read the murky current poorly and hit holes at wrong angles, each of us swimming in the same hour. A quietness crept in. Collective silence was different for our crew, marking an unpromising turning point. Aware that we needed to reset, we stopped for lunch, hiding from heavy rain under the branches of a large tree. Simple steps followed: Peanut butter and jelly, a map check, some filtering of water. With all the silt in the river, our gravity filter started to clog.

Back in the current, we could hear the low growl of the next set from around the corner – not a good sign. It took only a few seconds to decide to get out and carry our boats. The river was raging and dangerous. The portage was just a couple hundred yards, but took us more than an hour. The jungle was dense with vines and the route wound through a slick boulder field that required us to frequently fire-line the boats. Finally through the bush-whack, Wyatt made the call: “We need to camp ASAP.”

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Wyatt Roscoe

Around the next bend, we found an eddy big enough for all of us, an uncommon feature in this section of the canyon. Wyatt stubbornly encouraged us to stop here, making due with the small, immediate slab. Poised eight feet above the water and slightly slanted, the ledge was just bigger than the footprint of the tent. Without the energy to debate, Luke and I pulled our skirts, exited our boats and helped him clear a small spot to camp.

Rain continued as we boiled water and cooked a simple meal of rice and means. Almost unable to stand from exhaustion, we crawled into the tent and ate on our sleeping pads. We all knew the right answer and it took little discussion to build consensus around an evac. Downstream was some of the most challenging whitewater, including must-run, Class IV sets that we later learned is deadly with high flows. Without an easy way to hike out sans help, we took out an InReach and texted friends, hoping the small device would get a signal deep in the canyon. And thankfully, it did.

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Wyatt Roscoe

That night I got sick, puking in a similar manner to my compatriots. Maybe worse. At one point I stumbled out of the tent, lost my vision, and passed out onto the sliver of rock shelf outside the tent. Right before I lost consciousness, a dark thought flashed that this was the end. I was lucky that Wyatt noticed. He said I’d turned completely white, lips green, crumpled on the ground. Only after he vigorously shook me for over 10 seconds, waking me enough to drink some water and return to the tent, would he file this memory as the scariest of his life – processing a momentary shock of taking me for dead.

Back in the tent, we laid on our pads, pretending to sleep; really just praying we would be able to get out. After a long night, we woke with no clear answer on how we’d do that. The Garmin managed to get out a few more messages to a group of local river guides, and they told us to stay put. Two hours later we spotted a military helicopter swirling above. Assuming this was a scouting party, we waited for directions. To our total surprise, the helicopter descended into the canyon, no more than 50 feet wide from us to the far wall. The rotor was at least 30 feet in diameter, leaving no room for error. I can still clearly see Wyatt’s glance, mouthing, “What the fuck!?” and looking around for a place to dive into the nearby eddy if the heli went down.

LaVenta
Illustration by Martin Simpson

Hovering just above the water, with half-inch branches, light debris, and leaves flying everywhere, one of the crew threw down a rope. Standing onshore, Wyatt paused for a second, not knowing what would happen next. The crew in the helicopter gestured for him to climb. Delirious and unsure of other options, Wyatt grabbed the rope and jumped into the river, swinging into the main current before climbing up to the helicopter. If this sounds like a crazy Mission Impossible scene, you have the right idea. I’ve never seen anything like it and, frankly, hope I never do again. Soon after they threw the rope back down to Luke, and then to me, each of us followed Wyatt’s lead into the helicopter.

A half-hour later we were back in Tuxtla, completely bewildered. We had left our boats and all our gear in the flooding canyon, unprepared for such a rushed series of events. Each of us had little more than our PFDs, helmets, and wet paddling clothes. Huddled in blankets and bottles of water from the search and rescue crew, we sat in silence on a bench, each trying to process the last hours. Tired and unsure of what to do next, answers came very slowly, if at all.

The thought I kept circling back to was that we never had doubts about making the wrong decision. We made the right call: We were safe. Period. Nothing else mattered.

Even today, I have no second thoughts. The trust I have for Luke and Wyatt, and the respect I have for water and rivers has only been further cemented. Still, the melancholy lingers — along with the gastrointestinal malaise. Call it a deep nagging for some aha epiphany from the rushed evac out of the flooding canyon. Some lesson greater than simply getting lucky.

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See more stories from Andy Cochrane (who worked with local guides able to recover his camera equipment weeks later):

See more packrafting adventures:  Iceland // Malaysia // Utah Slot Canyons // Wyoming Wilderness

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