Introduction - December 26 through Janaury 4, 1987
Over the Christmas Holiday week of 1986/87, my climbing partner and hiked to the bottom of Mexico's Copper Canyon. We did the trip sans map and with little knowledge other than the perusal of a magazine article and the perception that we could pull off such an adventure. Today, Copper Canyon is an eco-tourism destination but "back in the day" it was far from that. Recently, as I sat sorting decades old boxes of slides, I came across my Copper Canyon photos and thought that it might make a nice addition to Climbing with Bob. If you have a trip to Copper Canyon on the mind, here is what it was like more than 20 years ago when two guys with little Spanish and lots of luck literally wandered to the bottom of the Sierra Madre's grandest canyon.
The idea to hike to the bottom of Mexico's Copper Canyon came in the form of a feature story in Backpacker magazine about mid summer of 1986. My hiking, climbing, and caving partner, Dan, and I had both seen the article and since we had hiked across the Grand Canyon, thought Mexico's Barranca del Cobre would be a natural extenson to our western hiking experience. Forget that we had not a word of Spanish between the two of us, nor any more knowledge of the hike, the terrain, the route, the whatever . . . other than what we read of in the magazine.
But the trip was more than a hiking destination, it was a train trip. I was then, and I still am, a serious train fan when there is the opportunity to hang out the open vestibule of an aging Pullman coach and take in the countryside. I've done it in Mexico, across Canada and across Europe. When I can combine a hiking trip and a train riding trip, I've got it made. Dan was of similar mind.
A plan comes together:
Today, Copper Canyon is a tourist destination but in the mid 1980's it was a far away place that the train from Chihuahua City to Los Mochis stopped at for 15 minutes so that folks could walk to the edge of the canyon, buy some food from a burrito vendor and look at the baskets for sale by the local Tarahumara indians at track side. The magazine article told of a 6000 foot deep chasm, with another and another after that, all in a land still wild enough that the only way across was by way of a roller coaster of a railroad, finally completed by the British after years of effort. We knew there was no "established" trail to the bottom and that the "park" status of the area was in name only. We had no map of the canyon other than our knowledge that the train would stop in a place called Divisadero and we might be able to hike to the bottom from there.
This was pre-Internet, hence you found out what you were going to find out via phone calls, library research and whatever other means you could call upon. Our solution was to hunt up the author of the magazine article and call him at home to talk about our intended plan. I don't recall his name but he was very forthcoming but at the same time warned of the hazards of our planned trip. He noted that we could indeed hike to the Rio Urique from Divisadero and that it would take a day or two to make our way all the way to the bottom of the canyon. He told not only of Tarahumara indians living under outcrops in the cliffs but also of a developing drug trade and the lack of any formal law in the area. We learned the source of maps for the area was mission store in Creel and that it would be best to hire a local guide to ensure we found the proper route. As to rescue or help if we got into trouble, we were told there were no rangers, no police and no medical aid outside of the local shaman. Being in our mid 20's, his warnings clearly rung of of adventure.
A very little bit of Spanish:
One of our greatest hurdles was that neither of us spoke any Spanish. We had talked of a climbing trip to Pico de Orizaba but that trip had not come to fruition, nor the Spanish course that we talked about taking to facilitate such a trip. However, our employer, one and the same, covered 75% of any college course, so taking a three semester hour Spanish course at Johns Hopkins University seemed like an affordable way to get a semester of Spanish under our belts before we headed for Copper Canyon. Registration came and when class started, I was enrolled while Dan opted to hope that my attendance would meet our mutual communication needs. The fellow who taught the class was from Cuba and got across some basic concepts but little that seemed to prepare me for what I was about to attempt. I will admit that, in hindsight, he must have accomplished much more than I realized as I sit here writing the story 23 years later.
However, for all the prestige Hopkins has, I thought the grading was a bit unique. On the last day, the professor asked who of the class was planning to go to medical school or seeking admission to some other very competitive professional program. Most hands went up and he advised that all who needed high grades would receive an A in the class. He then asked if the rest of us had any objection to a smattering of B's and a healthy majority of C's to round out the curve, since we really did not have a future need for the class credit. I took my C and soon enough, Dan and I were off to Mexico on my single semester of Spanish.
Preparing for the trip:
Dan and I both bought new backpacks for the trip, I mean 5000 cubic inch internal frame monsters. We had to carry a lot of stuff, as my Spanish was poor to say the least, and we needed to get to the bottom of Copper Canyon with the hope of eating along the way. What better way to assure that we would do so than to just about carry all the food we would need from the USA. I'm serious . . . and we really did just about do that . . . as well as lugging a tent, sleeping bags, and camp stove (when you could swish one out and pack it in your checked luggage). We had everything we would need to pretty much do the trip without a re-supply south of the border. Our methodology translated into a pack weighing 80 pounds on the bathroom scale. In hindsight, we were insane.
Our route involved a day after Christmas flight from Baltimore to Dallas and then on to El Paso. Once in El Paso we would cross the border on foot and take the train from Ciudad Juarez to Ciudad Chihuahua and spend the first night there. The next day, we would take the Chihuahua Pacifico train to Creel, buy maps and and stove fuel and spend the night there. The next day we would take the train to Divisadero, get off and start our hike to the bottom of Copper Canyon. We would have two days to get to the bottom and two days to get back out. We would then get back on the train and ride it to the Gulf of California city of Los Mochis. Stay that night in Los Mochis and then, early the next morning, take the train all the way back across the Sierra Madre to Chihuahua City and on the last day, take the train back to Juarez, cross the border and catch our flight home. It promised to be a whirlwind trip with 80 pound packs that we hoped would get lighter as we ate our way through the trip.