A Journey Through the Deepest Canyon in the World
by Bruce Low
Cotahuasi Canyon is thought to be the deepest canyon in the world, twice the depth of Grand Canyon. It lies on the edge of the Atacama Desert in the southwest corner of Peru, quite possibly the driest place on earth. It’s a desolate, dusty place. And it’s windy. Almost every day, temperatures reach nearly 1oo degrees F, and that heat sucks air up from the coast causing winds of up to 50 miles an hour.
When I arrived at the bottom of the canyon—my raft strapped to the back of a donkey—I was awed by its huge walls of rock towering straight to the bright blue sky. The walls of the Cotahuasi are a contradiction. Some are made of a loose red rock that look like they are about slip into the river. Others are red sandstone bedrock cliffs that drop straight down, creating what seem like impenetrable fortresses. Running down the middle is the Cotahuasi River, which drops an average of 100 feet per mile down its 160 miles. The 60-mile section I faced falls only 66 feet per mile—but that still seemed like enough to create a good challenge for a solo raft trip down a river I had purposely not studied very well.
I knew there were class 5’s down there. I knew what some of them looked like. But I didn’t know where they were or what order they came in. Before I left home, I had decided I didn’t want to know the exact location of every feature on the river. I wanted to push my limits of river reading and judgment. I wanted to put myself through a test of strength and character.
I had planned this expedition to try and make up for something I had said I would do a few years earlier, but didn’t. Friends and family had trusted me to follow through on a journey down the Amazon river to raise money for CLAN, a cancer support charity in my home town of Aberdeen, Scotland, which had helped my family at a time of great stress. Both of my parents had cancer. My mother survived. My father didn’t. Because of the birth of my son, I wasn’t able to go to the Amazon. So going to the Cotahuasi was me making up, in a small way, for the donors’ trust in me and a way to seek more support for CLAN. But it was also a test in trusting myself. My mantra: Epic things could happen, but bad things were not allowed.
I put my raft together and got on the water. Immediately, the river became a labyrinth of twists and turns I couldn’t see around. Perched on edge of my seat in anticipation of what was unseen round the next corner, the steepness of the river required me to constantly look down onto the rapids. They were mostly 3’s and 4’s, with more than a handful of 5’s thrown in for good measure. What’s really challenging is that the river gradient make the rapids almost continuous. There’s no break. They flow into each other with a barely any flat, non-turbulent water from start to finish.
Squeezed and hurled from the heart of the Andean Altiplano to the Pacific Ocean, this twisting river was once a green avenue of civilisation. On the Cotahuasi’s banks I saw remains of an ancient culture going back through the Incas to their ancestors the Huari. Today these banks are primarily forested by sparse stands of tall cactus. But the canyon floor is also dotted with small oases of green carved out by local farmers to grow vines and corn. In my eight days on the river, I only saw a handful of people.
Could be I missed seeing others, though, because I was busy, all the time. All day every day on that river I craned my neck to see as far around corners as I dared. Then I’d eddy hop until I could figure out my best route, run the rapid and start looking for the next one. If I was unsure, I would get out and scout. This could be as simple as rock hopping for a few hundred yards, or scrambling up a hundred foot rubble bank in order to gain height, or walking for half a mile or more to see as far ahead as possible. That way I wouldn’t have to stop at every single turn in the river.
This method worked, but still there were close calls. After falling out on one small class four, I felt the pinch of rocks on either side of my left ankle. Somehow I either pulled it out fast enough, or the rocks moved. About three quarters of the way down a beautiful rapid called Marpa, right at the crux of the rapid, I slammed into a rock and fell out. Fortunately, on my second attempt, I got back into the raft to find my oars still in the oar rights and ready to row. That was pretty much a first on this trip, normally one or both would be floating in the water.
Once I nearly lost the boat itself to the river. Early in the trip I tried lining the boat down a boulder-choked section, only to have ropes ripped from my hands by the currents. A mad scramble down the river bank ensued. I swam to the raft and dragged it to the side of the river. Lesson learned: When lining, use 2 ropes and tie them properly to a self-equalizing anchor on the boat, keeping the oars tied to the frame. Another option is to portage by dragging the boat through rapids. Or break the whole lot down like I did many times on the Cotahuasi: Disassemble the frame, deflate the pontoons, de-rig, pack up and hike the whole 200lbs of gear around the rapid in 4 or 5 trips, sometimes miles each way. Or try combinations of two or all of those techniques, or make something else up depending on rocks, the water, and the constant, constant wind that threatened to simply blow the gear away.
The trip was magnificent—and it was hard. But no matter how difficult my journey, I know that what I went through on the Cotahuasi is nothing compared to what cancer sufferers and their families go through. To be constantly facing uncertain outcomes, to have their physical and emotional strength sapped, and to have this done for long periods of time, day after day, week after week, months at a time… I tested myself on the river, but I didn’t go through that. If possible, I’m even more grateful now to the people who generously donated much-needed money to a charity that helps people during the truly roughest of journeys.
–Bruce Low is a rafting guide in British Columbia, Canada. He’d like to thank NRS for gear donations.