Copper Canyon crossing: Hiking the Sierra Tarahumara
The Sierra Tarahumara is literally a land lost in time. Probably the most rugged and least explored areas of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Though known around the world as the Copper Canyon, the Copper Canyon is only one canyon, in a system of canyons. Approximately, 25,000 square miles of high sierras, with a series of deep, narrow, river canyons, most measure around 2500 meters deep.
Though the Sierra Tarahumara is only a sub system of the Sierra Madre Occidental, it is still the largest canyon system in North America. Larger than the Grand Canyon system in Arizona. The canyons and ravines are cut into the sierras by the Batopilas, Candaneña, Chínipas, Conchos, Fuerte, Septentrión, Tararécua, Urique and Verdes rivers, plus several other lesser rivers.
The Sierra Tarahumara is also home to Mexico’s 50,000+ Tarahumara ( Rarámuri ) Indians. They call themselves "Rarámuri" , roughly translated as, The Runners, and are known for their endurance. They will run a deer to death, rather than use an expensive bullet. They carry heavy loads over long distances. They deliver messages and news to remote villages, and between homesteads or camps. They hire out as local guides. To see them in action is unbelievable.
The Tarahumara Indian nation is the second largest Indian tribe in North America, only the Navajo nation is larger. Because of the vastness of their homeland, they are also one of the most isolated indigenous groups. A fact that has enabled them to maintain many of their tribal customs and traditions.
Six gringos, two gringas, six burros, twelve Tarahumara, two dogs and the most beautiful high sierra countryside you could imagine. A scene right out of a 19th century expedition. Nothing less.
Our plan was to hike from Cusárare, across Barranca Del Cobre and the northern end of Barranca Urique, to Divisadero. About 17 miles as the crow flies, or up and down and up and down, 2, 3, or 4000 feet a day, for six days. The sixth day, the elevation change would be 6000 feet, from the bottom of the canyon to Divisadero.
Everything to be packed in would either be eaten or packed out. After two days, the burros would return to Cusárare or be eaten. The terrain would become too difficult for the burros. Poor burros. After that, the Tarahumara guides and los gringos would carry what was left.
The weather is best January through March, the "dry" season. January temperatures would range from mid-teens Fahrenheit in the morning, to mid & upper 60’s in the afternoon. The Fall months, late September to late December are more "wet", but the sierras are high and somewhat dry year round. Rain is possible anytime, even snow in the winter months.
If it’s dry and cold, the daytime sky is a cloudless crystal turquoise blue. At night, the sky is a velvet blanket, our Milky Way all polished gems, displayed more brightly than you could ever imagine. The night air is a light bouquet of pine and cedar, with a touch of wood smoke. Pure Heaven.
More Tarahumara guides showed up than Skip had planned for. The burros were late. Extra provisions needed to be purchased. Things got started late, we were in a bit of a rush to beat the darkness. The best laid plans, etc., etc., etc. ...........!
Our first day was to be only a 2000 foot climb/hike up a ridge, across and down into a canyon to some hot springs for the night. We started at about 7000 ft of elevation. The light hill climbs and small up and down, flatland hiking was great. At the base of the 1500 foot climb/hike up to the ridge, this gringo flatlander’s heart sounded like a set of bongos, being played by a hyperactive Cuban six year old. I had been there for two days to acclimate, but it was obvious, I needed more time.
Two of us lagged behind. Me, the flatlander and ex-Marine Ray, who works out at a gym doing power squats and runs ten miles three times a week. Ray is a seasonal guide at the Sierra Lodge, so I think he stayed behind because of me, but nothing was ever said. In an effort to catch the main group, we took a more direct up and up trail, as opposed to the more gradual switchback trail the burros had to use. Poor burros.
We made it to the top in plenty of time to catch the main group, but there was no sign that they had even stopped to rest. In my agony-ravaged mind, I was thinking, "Damn!, These people must be hiking animals!" Then slowly sinking to my knees, onto the nice soft pine needles, I laid down and tried to suck oxygen out of the rocks.
I rested. Ray hiked back down the switchbacks, to see if the main group was resting down the trail, por nada. He returned and we rested and waited for the group to show up, por nada. It was getting late and we had to make a serious choice. Continue on an unfamiliar trail, possibly not connect with the group, hike until dark, with no food, sleeping in the woods in 12º F. temperatures in our light hiking clothes, no food, no warm clothing, no water. Did I mention, no food? Or, we could hike back to the lodge and arrive about sunset, have a hot shower, eat a hot meal, sleep in a soft bed, regroup and make our move in the morning. What to do, what to do? Duh!
From the comfort of the lodge, we sent a Tarahumara runner with a message for the group, to let them know we were OK. The runner returned, in the dark, four hours later ( four hours later? !! ) with a note from Skip, that all was OK with them and for us to do what we thought was best.
After a good night's sleep and a lot of good old honest soul searching, I felt I was not prepared to hike at these elevations and at the pace required, without more time to acclimate. It would not have been fun for me and I might have become a real hazard on the trail for my hiking companions.
Ray, the dye hard hiker and the Tarahumara runner from the night before, left the lodge at dawn. They would have to do two day's worth of hiking in one day, in order to catch the group at the second night's camp.
Meanwhile back at the lodge. I had hot cocoa at 6:30 a.m. followed by a nice hot breakfast. Warm room, hot showers, good food, quiet relaxation.......... :-)
A report from the field. The burros returned with my pack, all my gear, one of the dogs, with Ray, his wife, and news about my compadres.
A fully loaded burro on a narrow trail, bumped into a protruding boulder, shifting its load, which put into play several of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. The burro slipped from the trail and fell a couple of hundred feet. All of the provisions were recovered, but the burro was very seriously dead. One hiker slipped and was saved when she grabbed a rope tied to a burro's hackamore. Two hikers fell into a river while crossing. Other than the burro, all was well.
Meanwhile, back at the lodge, I had the time to do extensive day hikes and explore the area in greater detail than I ever had time to do before.
At Trail's end:
At the end of six days, my hiking compadres returned to the lodge. A bit ragged around the edges, but none the worse for wear.
The reason Ray and I couldn't catch the rest of our hiking group, was that they had taken a side trail to a small farm to buy forage for those poor, poor burros.
There is a God.
The hike had been an arduous affair. Long days, very fast pace, strenuous climbs, short meals, hard ground, hot days and generally a rugged ordeal. Some said it was an interesting hike and they enjoyed it to a point. Almost all said they wouldn’t do it again, given the same plan and same pace.
Endurance hiking at it’s best.
Golly and gosh-a-roony, gang, and I had to miss it. Those poor burros.
Facing the Facts:
I’m in reasonably good shape. I work out five days a week. Several weeks before the hike, I doubled my stairstep routine to help compensate for the altitude. I’m experienced in wilderness travel. I know when to say "stop". There is no substitute for actual altitude acclimation. On my next trip, I will get there at least four days in advance and do day hikes to prepare for two and three day, relaxed hikes.
After talking with my hiking companions about their hike, did I do the right thing by returning to the lodge? You bet I did.
As it turned out, I had the best hiking vacation ever. I was free to do great day hikes, at my own pace. I was able to hike to places I wasn’t able to visit on past trips. I learned a lot about the sierras and about myself. I trust that little voice inside of me, it never lets me down.
I was told by my hiking friends, there were times when they were walking right on the cutting edge between success and disaster. Without doubt, I would have been a liability to the group.
At times like these, you have be honest with yourself and your companions. If you don’t think you can make it, say so. They may be thinking the same thing, but don’t want to ruin it for you. Sometimes, it takes more guts to admit there could be a problem. Before things get out of hand, it's always easier to return to the beginning and try again later.
If you are out in the back country and your group gets into trouble, there are no phones or rescue squads, you're on your own. Your life is in your own hands. If you aren’t experienced in wilderness travel or if you aren’t physically prepared for what comes about, you die. Clear and simple. Dead.
The best choice is to be safe and live to hike again tomorrow. The Sierra Tarahumara is not a good place to learn to hike.
If you must hike in the Copper Canyon area, sign up for extended hikes with a good outfitter or hire a local guide. Train at home for wilderness survival. Take a course in basic first aid. Learn about hypothermia, the nights get cold at 7000 feet year round. It’s easy to survive, if you have the proper training, and take appropriate camping gear and sleeping bags. It's easy to be prepared.
Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to die if you aren't.
Now go. Have a great time. Travel safe. Steve
P.S., Texas Monthly Magazine has done a story about this same hike in their May 1999 Issue. Check it out.
I'm a 53 year old retired electronics tech. I've been traveling in Mexico for about 25 years, by car, by train and especially by bus.
My favorite thing to do is fly in to somewhere in Mexico, and catch the next bus out to the countryside.
I live in tropical St. Petersburg, Florida and love the dry high desert of central Mexico. Even after 25 years, there are places in Mexico I haven't visited, but I'm not dead yet either.
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