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  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 Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River

“Man must feel the earth to know himself and recognize his values…. God made life simple. It is man who complicates it.”

— Charles A. Lindbergh, Reader’s Digest, July 1972.

Calendar Falls on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. One of my favorite spots on the planet.

The sun sets rapidly over the high horizon of the deep canyon, and we do not know how many more miles of whitewater need to be traveled. In front of us is a Class IV rapid leading into a blind corner that cannot be scouted, and our food is nearly gone. But we have a comfortable camp, the scenery is awesome, and the weather is perfect.

Table of Contents:

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River

How Kayaking Ruined my Climbing Career

Glenn Rink rapping off of Snoopies Nose after the first ascent. He forced me to put my name on the waiting list after this trip.

Lava Falls at 75,000 CFS

Mr. Mattson: You are currently number 814 on the waiting list for a private permit to float the Grand Canyon. You may apply as early as next year, but if you wait one year your chances of getting a preferred date will be much better.

“Wow! Maybe I should start kayaking.”  My mind was buzzing with new ideas, as I walked away from the Aspen post office.  I spotted a garage sale a few weeks later, and traded an old pair of skis for an old kayak, and the needed accessories.  I had a small Sears Raft, and managed to talk some friends into a maiden voyage down a class II section of the Roaring Fork river.

Captain Gundy performs a wedding ceremony on his homemade raft at Vacey’s Paradise.




The new craft was an instant hit. The boat was quite stable and could be maneuvered very easily. I was cruising upright around the rocks instead of bouncing upside down over them, and the cold water splashing on my face was very refreshing.

We stopped for lunch on an empty beach with a fabulous view of Mount Sopris, and I felt like I had entered a hidden paradise in my own backyard.

The rest of the story:

Earthquake in the Colca Canyon

Hiking into the deepest canyon in the world.

The steam from the many hot springs and the occasional giant condor made us feel as if we were dropping ever deeper into a great abyss. But as we reveled in the incredible scenery, the rapids became a bit more serious.

First Descent of the Mekong River in Tibet

“Crash! Boom! Bam! Crash! Splash!”

A loud noise startled us, so we looked downstream and saw a large rock avalanche crashing into the rapid — in the very spot where we had thought about lining the rafts. The avalanche also inundated one of the eddies I had thought about catching, and watching the rocks crash into the river brought back harsh memories of the Colca. The avalanche sent a very strong message to everyone else, as well, and as we hid from the rain and enjoyed a warm lunch, we all pondered how dangerous this river really was.

Intense portage through an active rockslide!