About John

John Mattson is an architectural engineer, adventure writer, and photographer who has spent most of his life enjoying the great outdoor adventures that our incredible planet provides. He is an expert kayaker, skier, climber, and a defender of Mother Earth. He has recently self-published a thrilling and colorfully photographed book of 26 diverse and extreme adventure stories. It is entitled "Dancing on the Edge of an Endangered Planet." danceonedge.com. This book took first place in the 2010 CIPA book awards for the legacy category.

EarthQuake in the Colca

This is a slightly exaggerated version of an awesome adventure!

    This is a somewhat exaggerated version of a true story.  See danceonedge.com  for lots of other stories and to find out what really happened.

I wake up at dawn, and my senses are instantly overwhelmed by the incredible colors and the stark emptiness of the huge canyon where we have spent the night. The experience feels almost like a dream as I slowly recapture my senses and remember where we are. “Wow!” I suddenly recall what my old friend Dave Black had told me before the trip: “It’s a real scary canyon! The rapids are always changing, and there is one Class V rapid that is very hard to scout and cannot be portaged. Every run is essentially a first descent.”

The infamous Colca canyon is the deepest gorge in the world, and also contains some of the most interesting Geology on earth. I had seen an article in National Geo about a Polish Team that had explored it in the early 80’s and had been dreaming about it for more than a decade.  This canyon sounded totally enchanting, and the right group of people and opportunity finally arrived. 

The shuttle through the great Atacama desert of southern Peru offered a thrilling start to the expedition, and revealed how remote we would really be. The trail into the canyon used local burros and was a thrilling exchange of culture as well as a big adventure, as we dropped into the grandest crevasse on earth. The trail ended at a gentle beach, and we quickly unloaded the burros and organized our gear. The views were beyond description and became even more vivid as the daylight gradually disappeared. The black desert sky allowed a spectra of brilliant stars and we had a few hours to relax before the drama that we could not even have possibly imagined was about to begin. 

The canyon was already quite deep and narrow, but the depth increased within a few moments and we felt as if were being drawn into the very depths of the planet. Some gigantic condors circled above us and their presence made the chasm feel even more supernatural. It was almost as if we had passed through time and entered a prehistoric world in the very bowels of the Earth. There were no roads, no people, and not even an airplane to distract us from the serenity of this remarkable world.

The first rapid was a constantly changing serious of class V drops but we managed to survive them and we were celebrating on a small beach when the first volcano erupted.

“Holeee Sheeet!” Exclaimed my Peruvian friend Gian Marco, as we watched the torrents of Lava  and a few giant boulders spew into the river. We managed to find a reasonably safe camp and spent the afternoon watching the nearby mountain explode. The fumes from the Lava were a bit overwhelming but our camp stayed safe, and we spent a sleepless night listening to the ever threatening sounds and contemplating our fate. The night seemed to last forever, but the dawn finally came, and we carefully analyzed our choices. 

The volcano seemed to be easing a bit, and the canyon walls seemed impossible to climb, so we proceeded cautiously down stream. Torrents of steaming lava were pouring down the side canyons, and the flows triggered a few rock slides that rattled our already shattered nerves. The combination of the class 5 rapids with the added challenge of dodging the flowing lava was a bit overwhelming, so we found another reasonably safe camp and hoped that the eruption would  soon cease.

“That looks like a safe spot there!” exclaimed Gian Marco, as we managed to find a beach with a small cave. “We might as well drink the whisky now, because we might be dead tomorrow!” He exclaimed, as we huddled helplessly in the small shelter and guzzled our small ration of Scotch whiskey. The torrents of lava continued to flow, but the whiskey helped to ease the mental pain and we managed some restless and very needed sleep. 

The rest was short, as we were rudely awakened with another sudden eruption. Boulders and lava were suddenly flying all around us, but our little cave somehow managed to survive, while the rivers of lava continued to pour into the canyon and a cloud of steam overwhelmed the view. 

The action of the volcanoes suddenly eased and the scenery was absolutely stunning, but the views did not solve out dilemma, so we climbed back into our kayaks and plundered onward into the great depths. 

The gradient of the river had now eased and we started to feel a bit of optimism until we arrived at the brink of a ninety foot water fall that had been formed by the recent eruption. The lava flow and rock avalanche had enclosed the box canyon, so running the falls looked like our only option. A careful scout revealed a line on the falls that did look possible, but it was a much bigger drop than either of us had ever run and it looked extremely dangerous. There was a reasonable and somewhat safe camp at the top of the falls, and we had about 3 more days worth of food, so we decided to procrastinate as long as we possibly could. 

It was another sleepless night, but the dawn finally came, and the waterfall was still there to taunt us. The torrents of lava had ceased, but just as we were preparing to run the falls, the earth started to shake again. We rushed back to the sheltered spot and hugged each other while we anticipated the end of our lives.  

But, just as suddenly as it had started, the trembling ceased, and we wondered back out to survey the falls. “Wow! Maybe there really is a God!” exclaimed Gian Marco, as he gave me an exuberant hug. The latest quake had broken the new dam, and the new line looked much easier. The rapid would still be challenging, but it looked doable and we eagerly climbed into our boats and paddled out of the enormous gorge.

The Ghost of Bailey Canyon

“Wow!  Look at that owl! That critter is huge!”

“Wow indeed!” Replied Gary, “It looks like the Great Horned variety, and

it seems to be checking us out.” 

The gallant old bird did seem to be very amused by our presence, and circled around the falls for a few moments before disappearing back into the lush forest.

My longtime friend Gary Jenrette, his teenage son Mike, and I were paddling a remote section of the North Fork of the South Platte below Bailey, Colorado and had just stopped to scout the infamous “Four Falls” rapid. The sudden appearance of this mystical creature added some incredible new energy to the otherwise intense adventure.

“Hey! Maybe that’s Paul’s spirit!”  I exclaimed with a tear, as the owl brought back sad memories of a great old friend, whose ashes had been spread in this river.

Pablo had been an awesome friend and a legend in our generation of extreme kayaking. He had drowned on a nearby river and a huge wake had been organized just upstream in his honor.

The wild sighting of this beautiful owl, brought us all to a few tears, and our hearts seemed to stop in unison as we embraced the moment in this spectacular gorge. 

But the moment of ecstasy slowly waned, and we were suddenly back to the reality of what was waiting down stream. The class V “Four Falls” section alone offers an expert challenge, but the next 2 miles of class IV are extremely continuous and propose a very exciting challenge which is usually run without scouting. But, we had run this canyon many times with our friend Paul and the level was friendly, so we calmed our nerves and prepared to launch. 

“Boom, Crack, Bang, Bam!”  A powerful summer storm was quickly approaching and a large cloud suddenly darkened the mid day sky. An abrupt bolt of lighting lit up the nearby hills and sent a thundering roar through the canyon. 

This is a common occurrence on Colorado afternoons, so it wasn’t too shocking. But the combination of the owl sighting and this unexpected storm left us in an even more acute state of mind. Another crack of thunder threatened to split the skies, and they abruptly opened with a down pour of rain and small hail stones. Our helmets and waterproof gear protected us from the hail, and rain, and the lightening seemed limited to the high hills above us, so we took another break and observed the natural entertainment in this awesome setting.

But the skies finally cleared, and we paddled on down stream. We all had good lines in the section that we had scouted, but the next rapid called “S-turn” was almost always a big surprise. It was really hard to scout and easy enough to survive for an expert boater, but it usually managed to challenge our skills. This trip was no exception and I had to make a mad scramble around a giant boulder that unexpectedly appeared in my path. Gary and Mike had similar runs, and we stopped to catch our breath at the portage or scout for a nasty rapid called “Super Max.” This drop had been considered too hard to run for most of the extreme boaters of our generation, including Paul. The new generation with better boats and bigger huevos have been gradually pushing the limits, but we decided to shoulder our boats and get ready for the remaining action that waited down stream.

The memories of Paul, and sighting of the giant owl remained deeply on our minds as we tried hard to focus on the challenges of the river.  But, I couldn’t help to look back a few times to see if his spirit was following us.  

The scenery of Bailey Canyon is truly stunning, as the path of the river threads its way through a remote wilderness of granite domes and lush forests. Deer Creek is a small tributary that joins the North Platte in a fabulous setting, and we needed to scout the rapid, so we stopped for a short lunch. The entire valley was void of humans and the threatening storm had passed, so we savored the solitude as we shared memories of our great friend.

“Deer Creek” was another challenging rapid, but it was the last class V drop, and marked the end of the most serious white water. 

The rest of the run was still challenging but we could now relax just a bit and ponder the excitement of an awesome day. The cold fresh water splashed our faces and we felt constantly challenged, but the thought of our friend’s spirit followed us onward and we survived another great adventure.

The cold beer was patiently waiting, and we toasted his memory in great spirits! 

Please check out danceonedge.com for more exciting stories.


Miss Lilly’s Last Big Adventure

Lone Eagle Peak
Miss Lily and John


Miss Lilly was an awesome German Shepherd gal whom I enjoyed the companionship for more than a dozen years.  She was a bit wild in her teenage years, but she matured into an incredible creature who shared many of my best adventures. 

She was almost ten when I talked her into our last great one.

She was starting to feel a bit old, but I promised her lots of treats, and a previously unexplored region, and her tail responded very quickly.

The adventure started at the Long Lake trail head, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and we enjoyed the spectra of the new dawn as we hiked briskly up a pristine valley with awesome views of the morning light on the high local peaks.

Miss Lillie’s tale was wagging at a record breaking frequency as she rushed out to sniff and mark every bush in the valley.

The crowds and smells eased as we passed Isabelle Lake and headed into the high tundra.  She had never seen a Marmot, and introduction to this new species was infatuating. It took a lot of persuasion to convince her that she shouldn’t play with them, but she was a smart gal and finally understood. But she watched them very attentively. as I continuously warned her to stay on the trail.

It was a new thrill to cross Pawnee Pass and drop into the gendarme filled slopes of the western drainage. A slight breeze cooled the summer air, and the dwindling crowds added a whole new aspect to this great adventure. She was showing a bit of fatigue at the pass, but her energy quickly revived as we approached Pawnee Lake. Miss Lily could obviously smell the cool water from a great distance and rushed ahead to cool her warm fur coat in the frigid waters of the pristine lake. 

We stopped to take a brief break and let her sniff all the local bushes, but our planned camp was still a ways away, so we plodded downward until we met the confluence of another canyon that lead us upstream again to a remote and stunning lake that was our planned camp.

One of Colorado’s many “Crater Lakes” sits near the top of another natural canyon that boasts the view of one of our most famous peaks. 

The “Lone Eagle Spire” isn’t really a mountain or a spire, but only a prominent high spot on the ridge of Iroquois Peak (12,799’). But its spectacular view from Crater Lake and somewhat challenging routes has given it enough fame to gain the cover of “Colorado’s Indian Peaks” by Gerry Roach.

The view from the lake is truly spectacular, but Lilly didn’t seem to be very impressed. But the smell of water and enticing scents that had been left by the local creatures soon caught her fancy, and she eagerly sniffed every bush in the near vicinity and took a short swim before finding the perfect grassy spot to lounge in.

The day was still a bit young, and dusk is usually the best time to fish, so after a brief nap, I grabbed my fishing rod and rambled toward the lake. I have never been much of a fisherman, but I do enjoy the serenity and meditation of the sport, and I love to eat fresh fish. Crater Lake is one of the Colorado gems that doesn’t see a lot of visitors, so the fish are not aware of the many elusive tactics that fisherman have perfected. A few casts with simple spinning gear yielded a 12 inch Brook Trout that put up a thrilling fight and supplied a splendid dinner.

Both Miss Lilly and I were quite exhausted, and we quickly found slumber just after dusk. I let her share my tent, and she seemed very content as she snored away in the mountain paradise.

We both awoke at dawn, but our aspirations were very different. I was anxious to try and bag a peak, and she seemed very content to lounge after the previous hard day. She didn’t wish to share my cup of coffee and wasn’t very hungry, but I left her a large bowl of food and plenty of water before scratching her ears and belly to say goodbye.  When I looked back, she had resumed her old lounging position and seemed very content.

The morning air was a bit brisk at the high altitude camp, but the trail was dry and the fragrance of the high mountain plants awakening was extremely invigorating. I was in a valley where I had never been, and the excitement of exploring a new peak brought my energy to an exuberant level. The path that I had chosen was well documented, but it still left a feeling of exploration, and I was completely alone in the vast canyon. The route involved climbing quite high in the canyon and then traversing across fairly steep and exposed terrain to the ridge. I probably didn’t find the easiest way to gain the ridge, but the exposed moves felt solid and the adrenaline rush was quite refreshing. 

A cup of good coffee and a bit of adrenaline is a great way to start the day, and all the other pieces suddenly fit together. The exposed ridge just above the peak offered some fun scrambling and incredible views of of the western slope, and a marked trail of cairns led to a brilliant, but quite challenging view of the awaiting scramble. Many lost hikers seem obligated to force others to share their fate, so I was faced with at least two sets of cairns. The first one that I followed led to a 20 foot vertical foot cliff that looked quite challenging and a bit harder than I wished to solo (especially on a down climb).  After examining this route very carefully for a few minutes and meeting another pair of climbers who were running away in fear, I stumbled across another set of cairns which gave way to a much easier route. The last few moves to the summit were a bit precarious, but the rock was solid, and the empty summit was beckoning. This high point was truly grandiose, and I was now the only soul in this grand valley. The weather was perfect, and I found a comfortable rock chair, so I sat and lounged in this heaven for at least 20 minutes. I could have stayed much longer, but concern for my dear dog was pulling my energy back to camp. The exposed forth class near the peak was easily repeated, and soon I was wandering back through the empty valley to our remote camp. 

Lilly was very anxious to see me and looked well rested. She seemed a bit anxious about my absence, but a good tummy rub and some ear scratching relieved her tensions. After a brief siesta, I managed to catch another trout for dinner, and enjoyed a very sound sleep in the empty paradise.

The next dawn brought another perfect day, but our goals were easy, so we lingered and absorbed the awesome energy of this remote abode. We had plans to spend one more night before crossing the divide, and the hike to Pawnee Lake was only a few miles, so we waited for the very pleasant sun to climb above the canyon walls. It was a very content feeling to gaze up at the famous spire and recall the blissful moments of the past day. 

The late morning sun seemed to arose both of our spirits, and Lilly seemed eager to move on, so we cleared the camp and slowly wandered back toward the continental divide. It was sad to leave this truly awesome valley, but the new memories that we had made remained, and I often looked back in wonder as we trekked away. 

The day was becoming quite warm and Miss Lily was very excited to find out that we were camping at another lake. When I started to set up the tent, she tilted her head and gave me a big smile. This seemed to be her method of expressing contentment, and she quickly dove into the lake. A quick swim and a sniffing concerto of the surrounding area completed her daily exercise and she decided to spend the rest of the afternoon joining me in a grand siesta. 

The next morning dawned with another perfect Colorado day, but we were not anxious to leave, so we lingered and enjoyed the serenity. The much more inhabited region of Brainard lake was awaiting on the other side of the pass, so we postponed our travels till almost noon.  

Quarantine day 21

I wake up at dawn again after a great night’s sleep. I feel like my body is almost back to normal and I’m imagining a big day in the mountains, but the new reality of the world suddenly brings me back to my senses as I search the internet desperately from some positive news. But there is none to be had, so I sit back with my coffee and thank my lucky stars that I have a safe place to eat and sleep and some very pleasant hikes in my backyard. 

The hike is very pleasant, and I linger near my favorite tree and ponder the grand James peak that I wish I was on top of. The short hike is invigorating, but a bit too familiar and short, and It is not intense enough to make me forget about the current reality, so I come back bored and longing for a real adventure. 

The book I am reading is quite good, but I’m getting bored with this activity as well, and opt for a lazy siesta in the spring sunshine. This activity is quite enjoyable, but the effect is not so good, cuz I wake even more groggy. 

I’ve told myself so many times, that I need to find a purpose if I wish to survive, but this purpose seems more and more elusive, so I quietly drink my ration of wine and read and surf facebook till dinner. I am still succeeding at cooking good and interesting meals, and this one consists of leftover game hen and potatoes with frozen veggies, a bit of wine and ice cream for desert. I sit alone at my kitchen table admiring the almost full moon and the great view and imagining that I am on one of my great former adventures in a friendly cafe in a strange land.

23. Yesterday was full of adventure. The anticipation of venturing out of my safe abode gave me a new reason to awaken, and I proceeded to take my first shower in quite some time. This got my energy going and I proceeded with a careful trimming of my somewhat rustic beard. I had carefully coordinated my activities to include a few tasks and decided to reward myself with a pizza from one of the direly suffering local merchants. A careful mathematical calculation arrived at the assumption that a 16 in diameter was the most cost effective. This would provide about 5 small meals and would be a pleasant change from my current diet. I called Back Country Pizza at 11 AM but there was no answer.  I was not surprised to find that the usual Nederland punctuality had not changed because of this dilemma, so I waited a few minutes and tried again. At 11:15 the phone was finally answered, and my order for a Large Mediterranean was finally taken. I was told that it would be ready in 20 minutes, so I dressed in my finest clothes and prepared to venture into the ghost village. 

The Boulder County road maintenance dept. had not taken advantage of the lull in traffic to fix the road, so I dodged and bounced through the many pot holes, as my mind wondered and prepared itself for the expected shock.  The library was closed as expected, and I wondered past the locked door to the return book deposit in back. The empty parking lot was my first reminder of the pandemic that had so suddenly stricken our quant little village. 

The B & F lot was also almost vacant and I wondered up to the locked door of Back Country Pizza. It was almost noon and on any normal day it would have been crowded, but I could only see one human and a dog as I peered through the window and knocked. The lone inhabitant suddenly moved and emerged from another guarded door with my prize. Her beautiful, but obviously stressed out features conveyed the problems that we were all facing as she thanked me from a safe distance and suddenly retreated to her empty restaurant.

The next task was shopping for a few necessary items, so I put on my gloves and donned my very old and dirty carpenters mask.  I felt like I was entering the scene of an old Stephen King Saga, as I carefully grabbed a cart and proceeded in the familiar, but suddenly strange surroundings of the local market. The store was nearly empty, and most of the shoppers were wearing masks, so I moved cautiously through the ghostly isles. The experience was obviously less than nirvana, so I threw in quite a few extra cans and stables that would allow me to hide in my mountain shelter for couple of weeks. I recognized another masked shopper, and would have normally stopped to chat, but we both just exchanged glances and rushed away. 

The large stack of groceries was carefully bagged into paper bags that could be burned, but I couldn’t help but notice a young very nonchalant gal without a mask who was paying with cash. She reminded me of a backcountry skier who had no knowledge of avalanches and was about to jump into a very dangerous slope, but without the risk of endangering everyone around her.

The next stop was the post office where I needed to send a registered letter, and I waited carefully in line while the stressed out teller strove to preform her duties in this crazy new environment. With a big sigh of relief I drove back up the mountain to my hopefully sterile paradise and unpacked the spoils from the hunt.

Climbing in the Aspen Fast Lane

Aspen has been a popular party town for the rich and famous for quite some time, and the early 80’s were not an exception. The intense hedonists that were becoming a strong influence in this valley were looking for anything that gave them pleasure and price was not much of an object. Cocaine was a rich man’s drug, and it became very popular. This is the same time period when Cocaine use was featured on the front cover of Time magazine.  It was very fashionable among the rich and successful business folks, and the city of Aspen reduced criminality to a misdemeanor that was rarely enforced for possessing less than 3 grams. It quickly became some what of a status symbol, and the flagrant users would carry fancy silver 3 gram automatic dispensers that could be used on chairlifts and in restaurant bathrooms. The old hippy days of passing joints was considered low life to these decadent connoisseurs! 

I have lots of found memories of living in this awe inspiring valley, and I must admit that this is one place where trickle down economics actually seems to work.

The cocaine also trickled down and I was introduced to this evil drug while working as a trim carpenter on a local restaurant remodel. The owners were extremely anxious to finish by the lucrative Christmas season and bribed us with lines of coke in the walk in cooler. It was my first experience with this so called magic powder, and the initial response was like an extreme caffeine high with happiness and lots of energy. The artificially induced energy allowed us to work 10-14 hour days and the project was finished on time. 

The drug didn’t seem to be extremely addictive, but I did enjoy the high, and started purchasing small amounts for special occasions. But, like most mind altering substances, the highs seemed always harder to achieve, and the use gradually  increased. Coke is also a perfect party drug because it keeps you alert into the late night hours and allows for ridiculous amounts of alcohol consumption. The combined ingredients offer a great high, but the morning penalties can be severe.

My construction company was just getting started and I was building a small addition for a friend in Snowmass Village with my old climbing partner, who had come to visit. Gringo Negro is the source of many legends, and he did like to party, so he quickly adapted. 

It was a good party for a couple of weeks, but the thrill gradually waned, and we started to question our new life style.  

“This is really stupid!” I exclaimed to Dave, in the middle of a late night party. It was about 2 AM and we were both enjoying a good buzz, but I was very discontent. “We really need to change this habit and get back on track. Let’s go climb something good tomorrow. It’s what we really need.”

The “Bell Cord” between North and South Maroon peaks is a classic, somewhat steep snow climb that Dave had never done and I was itching to repeat. I had done it the fall before with blue ice conditions, and it had been one of my all time favorite ascents.  The current conditions offered exceptional snow climbing on an awesome peak, and it seemed like the perfect route for a long summer day.  A quick survey of our available food supply revealed 4 ounces of dried beef and 1 avocado, but we still had a gram of the magic powder, so we quickly grabbed some gear and drove to the Maroon Bells parking lot where we passed out on the tar next to the car. The sun was warm and bright and the tourists were starting to arrive and were almost stepping on us, when we groggily awoke and started to rally. 

Dave was a desert boy who had learned to climb on the chossy desert rock of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix with a clothesline for a rope. He had never climbed ice or snow, but he was a solid 5.11 rock climber, so I trusted his ability, and the conditions were perfect. His Scott ski boots seemed like the best available option, and I had a spare set of crampons and some extra ice axes, so we quickly packed and scurried away.  Our stamina hadn’t suffered too badly during the recent break in activities, so we snorted a couple of lines and ran down the trail past Crater Lake. It’s been a few decades, but I vaguely recollect that Dave was running in his flip flop sandals, which were his shoe of choice at that time. 

We quickly arrived at the base of the snow and found a group of out of towners who were carefully setting a belay and climbing with a large array of technical gear including glacier stakes and ropes. They didn’t seem quite ready to start and they were obviously much slower than us, so they politely let us pass.

The Bell chord is steep, but not extreme, and is a fun solo for a competent climber. It does involve about 1800 feet of mostly 45 but up to 50 degree snow or ice, so it is still a serious adventure and falling would be extremely dangerous. But, the biggest hazard in this gulley is rock fall, so a swift confident solo climber takes much less risk than a slow party using ropes and exposed belays. 

We thanked the group for letting us pass, snorted some long lines, and jammed for the summit, as I coached my rookie friend.

“OK Dave!

This is it. It’s kinda like rock climbing, but you can get a hold whenever you want with your ice aces and crampons. So, just stay focused, stay balanced, and only move one appendage at a time. The conditions are perfect, but still be aware of ice, thin spots, and rock fall, and DON’T FALL!  Rock fall is a definite hazard, and just stay low and don’t panic. The worst case scenario is to fall because of panicking. I barely dodged a rock here on a late fall ascent lat year, but I had enough time to secure my axes and duck when it arrived. It was a baseball size rock that bounced off the walls of the coular and flew by about 10 feet from my head. So, the faster we go, the safer we will be.  

“Oh wow! This is pretty easy and kinda fun too. Maybe I’ll try ice climbing next year.”

The climb definitely kept our attention, and the high mountain air was thin, but we sustained a steady pace and jammed up to about the middle of the route.

“Wow! This is really fun, but I’m getting kind of tired. Is there any more of that magic powder left?” 

“Yup! but it’s too dangerous to stop right here. It looks like a small nook and ledge that will be somewhat safe from rock fall about 50 feet ahead, so let’s stop there.”

We didn’t have one of those fancy silver devices, but the flat surface of the largest ice axe provided an adequate surface and we spread out 2 very generous lines. 

“Yaaa! I feel much better now!” exclaimed Dave as we gained a new sense of energy, and jammed up to the comfortable saddle between the two bells. An exposed, but enjoyable scramble through the hazardous loose blocks of rock brought us to the friendly summit of North Maroon Peak. 

The day was still quite young, the weather was fine, and the mountain was empty, so we enjoyed a brief break and savored the spectacular view and the nirvana of finishing a great route. The summit was hard to leave, but we were starting to get a bit hungry and the descent route was easy, so we rushed back to the luxurious mountain town and enjoyed a gourmet dinner with fine wine at the Chart House. 

We awoke refreshed with a great new attitude, and I never did Coke again.