1st Annual Caballo Blanco Hike

Divisadero to Urique 2013

Chokeberry
March is the best time of year to hike in Copper Canyon, and we took advantage of some free time in our schedules to get some miles in. We’ve been hiking to the ultramarathon in Urique for the last 6 years, but since this was the first year that the race director Micah True was absent, we’re dedicating this year’s hike as the first annual Caballo Blanco Memorial Hike. The last two years we’ve hiked in from the mesa across from the train station at Divisadero, and in that time blind route-finding has given way to a punch list of things to do on this exciting 50 miler. The first thing was to see if the Trogons and Quetzals were in residence. Down by the river, the green berries of the chanate, possibly a type of chokeberry but in tree form, are an irresistible draw. We thought we might be too early, but as we prepared coffee at our luxurious riverside camp, we heard the distinctive cry. Locally, they’re known as the Koa for their onomatopoeic calls. There were only a few pairs of Elegant Trogons, which we identified by the distinctive white band on the breast. True to form, they positioned themselves so that every photo I took has a blurry bird in the background of a sharply focused branch. The last time we were on the hunt for these elusive avians, we got more than we bargained for in that same spot. The raucous cries of a hundred hungry birds and the associated airborne excrement drove us into a nearby cave for sanctuary. This time was so much more refined. We stuck around most of the morning, but soon we were on our way up.

Tarahumara Semana Santa Drumming

Tarahumara Semana Santa Drumming

Up! Day 2 is the hardest of the 6 day trip- a 5000 foot climb in direct sun with no water sources. Having done it a number of times, we paced ourselves and made steady progress. When we topped out at the mojonera in the late afternoon, we had water left for the hike to a nearby camp. Just as we left the cairn, we heard drumming. There’s nothing unusual about drumming in the canyons. This ritual is performed during the forty days of Lent. It’s usually a boy, sometimes a man with a wide flat drum of cowhide or goathide stretched over a thin pine shingle formed into a circle. There’s a string with a bead on one drumhead, and as the drumhead vibrates the bead echoes the sound- unplugged reverb! In a canyon with thousands of miles of naked rock, it makes for a perfect amphitheater to demonstrate your devotion to Ouwerame the creator. The drumming gives power to God in order to defeat in battle his brother the devil, and it all comes to a burning culmination at dawn on Easter Sunday. This is the amalgamation of the resurrection myth that the Tarahumarans celebrate, and that’s just one reason why we go back to the canyons every year for Semana Santa. This time, there was no echo, so we figured the guy was close by, and we sat down inconspicuously to wait. Presently, he appeared with a drum about 2 feet in diameter. We watched, and as we scanned the horizon, we saw 2 or 3 groups of Tarahumarans watching, too. The fact they they has seen us was no big deal, but it’s just funny that no matter where you go in Copper Canyon, you’re not alone. It’s actually reassuring to be hiking in the land of the running people, not enough people get around strictly on foot these days. Later, as we made camp we noted that we were being watched by several groups of kids and adults from far away and high up. Like mountain goats, I guess they feel safer from that perspective.

Hiking to a Tarahumaran cave

Tarahumaran cave

The next day just as we started up we met an old wizened man with a stick. Candalario lives in one of the ranchos above us and he invited us by, but first he had an errand, so we said maybe we’d stop by some other time. I don’t know how many other people make that hike in a year, but I’d guess not many- if any. It was reviewed in Backpacker a few years ago, but they recommended going guided. Without a guide, you spend a lot of time asking directions. First you have to find someone who’s not too shy to be seen, or approached. Then you have to hope he knows where you’re going. Finally, you have to hope that you understand his directions. I say he, because most of the Tarahumaran women know that chabochiswill whisk them away, and they and children will run away at the first sight of a “bearded one”. So the lesson is to not count on asking anybody for directions. And as Carl Franz once said on a driving trip through unknown territory in the Sierra Madre, “We’re guides, we can’t ask directions.” So-Know your map and compass skills. I recently started to use a GPS to see where I’ve been, but not where I’m going. We did find a guy later in the day who gave us directions. He said to climb out of the arroyo where we found ourselves. We followed his directions for an hour or so. At the end of the climb there was a fork in the trail. Just sayin’.

copper canyon campsite

Camping in the Copper Canyon.

The second half of the trip was what we had been waiting for. We had new routes in mind, after having been thwarted on certain attempts in previous years. Incredible to say, but we were right on track, from the correct arroyo down to “El Gallo” to the Regna complex (or Renga, depending on who you ask) to the camino realoff Cieneguita. We followed a broad flowing arroyo with a strong band of south facing overhung rock, where several Tarahumaran families lived in tranquility with cornfields and goats. We had an ambitious climb out to an isolated mesa with weird scrapings and an inhabited cave, and an even more ambitious/scary descent. The Arroyo Regna is deep and semi-tropical. It was lush and green, and so convoluted and choked with big boulders and fallen trees that we made less than a km/hr. We also heard drumming, so we knew that no matter how isolated it felt, at some point there would be a rancho or another inhabited cave. A fabulous sunset on that high smooth-rock mesa faded into a brilliant star-studded Milky Way. Like the dung beetle, it was so bright we could have navigated by it, had we been so inclined. Instead, we relaxed with a cup of hot Miso and counted passing satellites.

Copper Canyon Abuela

Copper Canyon abuela.

The worst part of the hike is the logging road into Cieneguita which goes on forever. We minimized our time on it by following the Regna, but I’m still amazed by it. This road system gets you to a point looking almost straight down on the Rio Urique and the picturesque church at Guadalupe Coronado from 5000 feet above. A new road from Guapilaina whisks travelers from Urique to Cieneguita in less than 3 hours. In Cieneguita, there is a road sign pointing to Batopilas and Urique. Amazing. I bet its gone by now! This was just about the only road sign I’ve seen in the sierras on an unpaved road. Even the paved road signs are a bit obscure, like the one outside San Rafael for Bocoyna. What? I never knew Bocoyna was such a travel mecca, but I’m just an outsider looking in. Anyway, the point is that now to enjoy those fabulous descents from Cieneguita to Urique, you don’t have to hike for 5 days anymore. Now you can take the shuttle up, enjoy the stars on the canyon rim, and the next day set your sights on Guadalupe Coronado, or La Higuera, or Hormiguero, or Los Alisos, and start hiking. That’s something Caballo Blanco would endorse. Except the part about the shuttle.

3 Responses to “1st Annual Caballo Blanco Hike”

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  1. churpa says:

    Thanks for the excellent post! One of these days I’m going to make it to the Copper Canyon. We passed tantalizingly close this year…