Team Bad Idea Visits the Land Before Time

DSC_2764The Land is Torotoro National park in Bolivia – an incredible place well worth a visit that is somehow still off the gringo-trail. There is lots of excellent sightseeing and hiking, all complete with dinosaur footprints, strange rock formations, waterfalls, caves, and vast semi-arid landscapes. There is the massive cave system of Umajalanta of which a mere 7 km has been explored. I ventured down only the first few hundred meters and it was spectacular!

But the real gem of Torotoro is the canyoning. It is beyond words or belief. Rivers cut deep through the limestone plateau. Deep. The further they go, the deeper they get. But the plateau stays level. By the end they are an incredible 450 meters deep with shear vertical walls! The rock climbing wouldn’t be too shabby either if anyone bothered to develop or even attempt it.

The usual scarcity of information caused me to stumble me upon the French web-site descente-canyons.com with 3 known descended canyons from the 1990’s: Condor-Mayu Sucusuma, Khala Uta, and Torotoro Sucusuma.  I chose the ladder due to ease of access – the creek runs through the town of Torotoro itself.

Appropriately, a thunderstorm rolled through as I rolled into the park. This turned the water totally murky and impermeable to the naked eye. This would cause me problems throughout the day as I was never able to tell how deep the water was. I read it wrong almost 100% of the time and would disappear over my head at times I thought it was boot-deep and would buckle my knees jumping into apparent pools that proved to be no deeper than a vershok. Stubbed toes were par for the game.

DSC_2796I started out at a bright and early-ish 8:00 and was in the creek within 30 seconds of leaving my hostel. At this point it simply is just a creek. About an hour of casual boulder hoping slowly heightened the walls around me.  My smile almost as deep as the canyon, I was awe-struck by the alternate reality I was entering. The narrow granite slots and caverns I am used to replaced by wide limestone gorges, the trees and bushes by cacti and weeds. Such distraction brought me to the first rappel.

It was sorta bolted – one eyelet. I thought that to be a good sign for what lay ahead. As far as I was concerned it had been descended once by some French in 1998; who knows what would be left by now. Given how shear and committing the walls were, I told myself I would not go past the point of no return, as in any rappel or downclimb that I couldn’t reverse. This one still seemed tame enough that I could scramble up the side. I geared up (with the heat of the day I continued carrying the wetsuit in my pack) and rigged the rap.

DSC_2775DSC_2785About 20 meters down ended with an obligatory swim. The rope coiled, I trudged along for about another half-hour until I came across the second rappel. No rap station to be found anywhere. Perhaps delusionally, I convinced myself I would manage to climb back up and slung a flake for the 10 m rap which again ended with an obligatory swim. Some downscrambles and another half-hour brought me to an impasse.

The canyon narrowed and steepened dramatically. The torrent of water concentrated on one side of a massive boulder. The other side appeared to be an overhanging 30 m rappel. Below was a long and narrow pool with vertical walls with nothing to stand on to pull and coil the rope. Then it all raged past a corner and down into the unknown. I found old holes for studs for a rappel, but the studs were ripped out by years of unrelenting currents. I managed to fiddle a 0.25 tricam in a grimy pocket, but that is nearly not enough for a rappel anchor, especially one that would potentially endure jugging. A slightly better tricam could be placed on the side of the current, but jugging through that would be equally hopeless.

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The main unknown was what lay around the bend. If the bolts were equally ripped out and no gear could be placed, I would be hosed. With no definitive beta or a bolting kit, that was not a chance I was not willing to take. I scrambled up the left wall of the canyon to try to scope out the continuation. Fruitless. Faced with the option to retrace my steps all the way back to town, I looked for a weakness on the opposite side of the canyon. Some confused tourists waved to me which indicated the presence of an escape trail.

A relative weakness existed not too far back. It was prickly. Oh so prickly. Every plant I’ve encountered in South America seems to have thorny stalks, thorny branches, and thorny leaves. Combine it with low 5-th terrain and shit gets serious. Loose rock, dirt, and a paddle to spank you harder. You grab a hold to feel your skin pierced by the prickliest of prickles, and all you can do is squeeze harder as your feet are blowing out. Pleasant to say the least. About 80 vertical meters of pleasant. Solo. Balls.

Evidently, I made the climb out and found the trail, which turned out to descend into the canyon on the other side of the narrowing. I swam upstream into a spectacular cave with a waterfall busting in through a hole in the top. Climbing and squirming through some slots, I wanted to see what else I had missed. Mantling up a chockstone out of the last slot it started moving. Holy fuck did I not want to end up like Aron Ralston (the guy from Between a Rock and a Hard Place and the following movie 127 Hours) – alone, in a canyon, out of sight, having left only vague trip details, and all my kit left aground before the swim, pinned, dead. Not here, not now, please. Balancing the rock up with one hand, I pulled a desperate splits move to get my leg onto some slippery foothold. Then a knee bar. Then I let go of the rock and it crashed back into the cave below. Whew.

DSC_2809DSC_2810I looked around and recognized the top of the pour-over that I could see from scouting. Lo and behold! There was an intact rap anchor. I would have made it out of there after all. Reversing the downclimb into the cave was a little more challenging, but manageable. Reunited with my knife and other affairs, I continued down the canyon. As a hiking trail had descended into the canyon here, the next section all the way to the famous El Virgen waterfalls was just causal boulder hoping and scrambling. By now it was getting late in the day, so I was looking for the trail back out, but managed to miss it.

As the terrain got more difficult, traces of human visitors disappeared, until an obligatory rappel presented itself. I was directly below the horseshoe observation deck at the lip of the canyon and this would be my turn-around point. It was already 16:00 with darkness falling at 18:00. I was on the move for 8 hours with no food. There would be no escape trail further down the canyon. Some scouting revealed a second rappel further down to the confluence with the Mayu-Condor Sucusuma canyon. The lower section past the confluence apparently takes almost another full day and is the deepest part of the canyon, which I was not prepared to commit to alone and at night. I backtracked to El Virgen and found the staircase out of the canyon.

DSC_2828DSC_2834I ran over to the horseshoe deck and further appreciated how deep the canyon is. Bushwhacking a bit further along the lip, I enjoyed a splendid sunset right above the confluence. Many condors perched on a nearby tree enjoyed the view of a tired adventurer, hoping he would relinquish life for a dinnertime feast. The twilight 3 km hike back to town took about 40 minutes to be greeted by the worried hostel owner and scrumptious dinner.

The canyoning potential in the area is incredible! The Mayu-Condor looks equally spectacular and the part to Sucusuma challenging and is half a kilometer deep. The Khala Uta takes two days and is certainly more committing and incredibly appealing. I would later run into a Bolivian mountain guide that says that he and his friends have descended all of them, but that such information is simply not recorded anywhere. He mentioned that one valley over contains many more canyons of similar stature and that there are several multi-day descents yet to be attempted. He knows of many more canyons all over the country and shows that people are still more knowledgeable and helpful than the internet. I am more than stoked to come back to Bolivia to develop and popularize the sport of canyoning! Beware.

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